Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 30, 2014

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson could be a factor in Atlanta’s future

The Atlanta Falcons made a move this past week, signing wide receiver Courtney Roby. But Roby should instead be referred to as a special teams player, because that is what his role, if any, will be with the Falcons this season. Roby is basically a direct challenger for Drew Davis’ roster spot.

Davis has gotten by over the past few years on his ability as a special teams player. While Davis has made a handful of plays at the wide receiver position, he’s clearly shown to any that are paying attention that he is not a viable candidate to be a significant contributor on offense.

The most important skill that an NFL wide receiver can possess is the ability to separate from coverage. And the simple truth is that Davis has rarely done that in his few years with the Falcons. Most of his catches are the result of broken coverages rather than instances where he simply beat an opposing corner and made a play.

Frankly, that important skill-set has been missing from the majority of Falcons receivers over the years. In truth, only Roddy White and Julio Jones have possessed it in abundance. Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas are decent at it, but by no means special in that regard. Both can do separate, but not on a consistent enough basis that makes them more than quality reserves.

Brian Finneran, Marty Booker, Eric Weems, Darius Johnson and Kevin Cone have also all struggled with this issue during the past six seasons. This issue isn’t helped by the fact that besides Jones, the Falcons have invested very little in terms of the draft in the wide receiver position. Since drafting Douglas in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Falcons have drafted just two wide receivers since: Jones and Kerry Meier. That is a league low when the average NFL team has drafted roughly six (5.8 to be exact) wide receivers over the past six drafts.

And Meier suffered from the same lack of separating skills, preventing him from sticking in Atlanta.

This is why the Falcons depth at wide receiver was so bad last season when Jones and White were out of the lineup. The simple answer is that the team has done a poor job developing wide receiver talent behind Jones and White over the years and the signing of Roby is just another example of that.

Not only have the Falcons not done a good enough job adding talent via the draft, but many of the players that have earned practice squad spots over the years have not really panned out for the team.

Falcons Practice Squad Wide Receivers

PlayerYear(s)Weeks on Squad*ReceptionsOffensive Snaps*
Eric Weems20081724522
Drew Davis20111816484
Darius Johnson2013622412
Kevin Cone201116151
James Rodgers2012-133500
Andy Strickland2009-102000
Marcus Jackson20121900
Tim Buckley20101800
Troy Bergeron20081200
Dominique Croom2013500
James Swinton2009300
Brandyn Harvey2010200
* Weeks on squad include both regular season and postseason games. Offensive snap totals come from Pro Football

The same story can be said at the tight end position, with very few drafted players and a revolving door on the practice squad. Robbie Agnone, Keith Zinger, Marquez Branson, Tommy Gallarda, Ryan Winterswyk and Chase Coffman all have spent time on the Falcons practice squad over the years and none could be termed successes. Coffman is the best among them and he only caught a single pass and played 33 offensive snaps over two seasons with the Falcons.

It’s not to suggest that the Falcons’ record of developing practice squad players is in itself a huge cause for concern. I’m sure if I researched the other 31 NFL teams’ practice squads over the years, I’d find similar results of only a handful of players developing into regular contributors.

Instead, the issue is the problem that is created when this lack of development is compounded with the team’s decisions not to draft wideouts.

It was disappointing that the Falcons did not use any of their draft picks this past May on a wide receiver in what many considered to be one of the deepest drafts at the position in recent memory. It was the perfect opportunity for the Falcons to strike, but instead they opted to shore up depth at linebacker with several players that may be lucky to see significant reps on defense.

I know others are much higher on the futures of our “law firm” of Shembo, Spruill, Smallwood and Starr, but pragmatism and history clearly show that players drafted in the later rounds rarely turn into long-term starters in the NFL. In all likelihood, all four linebackers are looking at impressing on special teams rather than regular defense.

This is not me trying to say that is necessarily a bad thing. One of my mantras is special teams matter, and the main reason why I have come up with that is because that is how the Falcons operate.

The few wide receivers that did graduate from the practice squad to earn any reps on offense were primarily used on special teams. Weems was an ace cover man and productive return specialist for three seasons. Cone and Davis’ primary values have been their coverage skills, with Davis serving as a gunner on punt coverage. Johnson appears the lone guy that really doesn’t bring significantly more value on special teams than offense. Let’s not forget that Meier’s lone memorable moment as a Falcon came on special teams.

Additions like Roby and Devin Hester this offseason also continue this trend of preferring production on special teams over offense when it comes to reserves at wide receiver. It appears that in the way the Falcons build their roster, that they need three wide receivers and everyone else at the position that makes the roster is primarily valued for special teams ability. And when you only have three receivers that your quarterback has a modicum of trust in, if one or more of those guys gets injured it will create some problems.

One can certainly argue that the Falcons may have taken the abilities of Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez for granted over the years. Concern over a lack of depth at wide receiver or tight end seemed to be a “first world problem” because they had three receivers that were among the best in the league. The quality of Atlanta’s “Big Three” outshone and masked the deficiency of the players behind them. The Falcons aren’t the first team to fall into this trap, nor will they be the last ones. Just ask the Miami Heat.

Now that Gonzalez is retired and Jones is on the mend, it creates a healthy bit of skepticism on whether the team can continue to take these things for granted. Players like Douglas, Hester and Levine Toilolo are now expected to help fill the void created by Gonzalez’s departure. I personally have a very healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to that expectation becoming a reality, but it’s one more instance where I am hoping that I can be served a big, steamy plate of crow by year’s end.

It seems inevitable that at some point in the near future, the Falcons will need to make a significant investment at either wide receiver or tight end, as well as potentially both positions. And that could come as soon as next offseason.

But for the time being, the Falcons must work with what they have. And at this point, I think it would be very disappointing if a player like Darius Johnson wound up getting released by this team this summer.

Over the years, Johnson is the rarity among his position group since he is on the roster mainly for his offensive merits. Before people forget, by the end of 2013 Johnson was this team’s third wide receiver.

In the final six games of 2013 with a healthy White, Johnson earned 188 offensive snaps versus Davis’ 100 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus. And 56 of Davis’ snaps came in the team’s Week 16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers when Johnson was out with an ankle injury. Meaning, Davis averaged about nine snaps in each of the other five games while Johnson averaged four times as many.

And that disparity signals exactly why the Falcons value special teams so much when it comes to building up their roster at wide receiver. If everything is going as it should, the fourth wide receiver is hardly going to play.

Of course the problem becomes that things don’t always go as they should. It’s why it makes absolute sense to stash a wide receiver on the roster that can step in and produce when things aren’t going the right way.

Johnson has the potential to be that player. Someone like Roby and Davis do not. This is not meant to be hating on or dumping on either Roby or Davis. But if they were that caliber of player, we would have seen it by now. The Falcons offense wouldn’t have crashed and burned so spectacularly during the point of the year when Davis was starting opposite Douglas.

In New Orleans, Roby caught two passes in four-and-one-half seasons with the Saints. A pass-happy team like the Saints wouldn’t hold Roby back if he had the chops.

This is not to suggest that Johnson should be given a roster spot since he needs to earn one just like everybody else. If for whatever reason, Johnson struggles this summer and doesn’t deserve to be kept, then it will become even more disappointing.

Because it would just be a missed opportunity that Johnson failed to take advantage of. Johnson has the opportunity to be the exception rather than the rule, and be one of the few former practice squad players and wide receivers that manages to become something of a fixture at the namesake of his position: receive.

I’m not trying to suggest that Johnson is by any means the next Wes Welker or Victor Cruz. But Davone Bess and Lance Moore might be in reach if he continues to develop. And I certainly think he has the capacity to surpass Douglas in the near future.

Johnson played out of position for most of his rookie season. He saw only about 11 percent of his snaps playing inside in the slot, while Douglas in contrast played about 61 percent in the slot.

Johnson’s increasing value contrasts with the decreasing value of a receiver like Davis. Davis isn’t getting worse as a player, it’s just that the team’s recent draft picks mean that his specific role on the team is becoming less necessary. Davis is a capable gunner, but he’s by no means an essential piece to the Falcons special teams unit. During the time when Davis logged more minutes on offense, Robert Alford was a more than adequate replacement for him in the role. Former Falcons cornerback Chris Owens was better than Davis in the same role in 2011 and 2012.

Safeties Dezmen Southward and Kemal Ishmael potentially could fill that gunner role if need be. Davis would still be worth keeping for the team because he’s still one of their better special teams players. But there isn’t any huge incentive to do so. You’re losing a good special teams player, who is not on the level where he could carve out a decade-long career primarily on his abilities as a gunner like Kassim Osgood.

In the end, signing a player like Roby doesn’t really move the needle in terms of improving the Falcons depth at wide receiver in the manner that I would prefer. But it does signal that perhaps a player like Davis rather than Johnson needs to be more wary of his job security, which is the way it should be.

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Aaron Freeman
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