The Atlanta Falcons continued their methodical approach during the second week of 2015’s NFL free-agent signing period. The Falcons added a pair of tight ends in Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki, addressing a glaring need.
While neither signing is likely to prompt a major reaction, the hope for the Falcons is that it ultimately proves reminiscent of their decisions to add Josh Wilson and Dwight Lowery 28 days into last year’s free agency period.
As explained before, both of those moves were largely unheralded additions at the time. But both Wilson and Lowery proved to be valuable contributors to the Falcons’ 2014 defense.
However, it doesn’t appear likely that the Falcons will bring back either player thanks to the change in coaching staff that occurred this offseason.
Neither Wilson nor Lowery really fit what new head coach Dan Quinn is seeking to do defensively. Like many of the Falcons additions this offseason, both players have connections to the new coaching staff. Wilson played under defensive passing game coordinator/assistant head coach Raheem Morris for two seasons with the Washington Redskins, when Morris was defensive backs coach for that team in 2012 and 2013. Wilson showed steady decline over the course of those two seasons under Morris’ tutelage, evidenced by just how long Wilson had to wait to find a new home last offseason. It’s not often that a 29-year old cornerback with six years of starting experience has to wait an entire month to get a nibble in free agency.
As for why Lowery was on the market that long, his excuse was that he may have simply been forgotten. Lowery had most recently played for the Jacksonville Jaguars at the start of the 2013 season, but was cut early during the season after suffering a severe concussion. Lowery sat out the 2013 season recovering from his head injury and was out of sight, out of mind.
Lowery’s coaching connection comes with Quinn from their shared days in New York back in 2008. Then, Quinn was the Jets’ defensive line coach while Lowery served as a rookie nickel cornerback.
But all signs suggest that the Falcons have expressed almost zero interest in bringing back Lowery in 2015, despite having a significant need at free safety.
Dwight Lowery Doesn’t Fit Quinn’s Scheme
Lowery may not fit as far as what the Falcons are looking for at that position under Quinn. Lowery has always been somewhat underrated partly due to the fact that he mired on bad Jaguars teams for many years. However, Lowery’s strength stems from his being a “tweener.”
He’s not quick quick or fast enough to be a full-time corner, nor is he big enough to be an impact safety. But in today’s NFL, that sort of player still has value. Particularly in defensive schemes that ask their free safety to often drop down and cover a slot receiver or tight end. That’s exactly what the Falcons did last year, as Lowery was the second-most targeted safety in the NFL according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Lowery was targeted 71 times, second only behind Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward’s 77 target.
And relative to other safeties that played a lot of man coverage, Lowery was somewhat effective. Of the nine safeties that were targeted 50 or more times last season, Lowery was the only one to not give up a touchdown.
However despite those positive results, Lowery remains a tweener. The Seattle Seahawks under Quinn employed the league’s best free safety in Earl Thomas. Thomas functions much more as a centerfielder in the Seahawks’ defense. In fact, despite playing a similar amount of plays, Thomas was one of the league’s least targeted safeties, seeing only 23 passes thrown his way in 2014.
Roving the back end of the secondary is something that Lowery is capable of doing, but it’s not playing to his strengths. Essentially in Quinn’s eyes, Lowery is a slow cornerback. And it’s likely that the new coaching staff feels they can find someone younger, better and cheaper. Thus, it’s understandable why the Falcons have shown little interest in re-signing him up until now.
Instead, the Falcons appear poised to “settle” for Charles Godfrey atop the depth chart at free safety. While at first glance this may seem misguided, the decision could ultimately prove fruitful.
Godfrey Meshes Better as Centerfielder For Falcons
Like Lowery, Godfrey played cornerback in college and moved to safety in the pros. However unlike Lowery, Godfrey began his college career at safety. The reality is that Godfrey was miscast as a cornerback at Iowa. The Carolina Panthers, who selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft, never entertained the thought of playing Godfrey at cornerback. They selected him entirely because they felt he would translate well to safety.
While Godfrey possessed good speed (clocked with a sub-4.4-second 40 time at his pro day), he lacked the sort of fluidity and quickness to match up well at cornerback. Unfortunately for him, the Panthers were expecting they were getting a good coverage safety that could line up and cover slot receivers and tight ends. Instead, Godfrey struggled in that role through the early part of his career. According to Pro Football Focus, Godfrey graded in the bottom 12 safeties in terms of coverage three times in his first four years in the NFL.
Godfrey was far more effective being asked to play in the zone, where his speed and range were far more effective and his lack of man-to-man cover skills weren’t consistently exposed. But because of his past as a corner, the Panthers got it in their head this past year that Godfrey could make the transition from safety to nickel cornerback. And to what should have been no one’s surprise, it was an absolute disaster leading to Godfrey’s release midway through 2014.
Then the Falcons scooped him up yet one shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Godfrey played little with the Falcons in 2014 as an indicator of his skill (or lack thereof). In fact, it’s become exceedingly rare that any veteran the Falcons sign during midseason garners any significant playing time beyond special teams. Last year, Godfrey was signed along with linebacker James Anderson and offensive tackles Jonathan Scott and Cameron Bradfield. Between the four of them, they earned exactly three snaps on either offense or defense in 2014, all of them going to Scott in Week 16.
The same could be said of the 2013 season where linebackers Thomas Howard, Jamar Chaney and Omar Gaither saw very little time on defense, while wide receiver Brian Robiskie and offensive tackle Sean Locklear barely played on offense.
One really has to go back to the addition of fullback Mike Cox both in 2011 and 2012 as well as kicker Matt Bryant in 2009 where one could have seen the Falcons make a mid-season move for a veteran player that actually gets extended reps thereafter. And it’s not a coincidence that fullback and kicker are a pair of positions where the Falcons along with most NFL teams only carry one player on the roster, thus making it necessary to play anyone signed at those spots.
Godfrey is a better fit than Lowery for playing that Earl Thomas-like role at free safety in 2015, thus why he’ll be given the opportunity.
It doesn’t mean that the door has completely closed on the Falcons bringing back either Wilson or Lowery at a future date, but it appears doubtful right now. Instead, the Falcons appear to be looking ahead to the draft to fill many of their remaining needs. Several signs indicate that the Falcons are transitioning into draft mode.
That is evidenced by the additions the team made at tight end this past week by signing Tamme and Moeaki. Both moves smack of a team that is looking ahead to the draft, seeing the landscape barren and understanding that it’s a position worth being addressed.
As said before, Tamme and Moeaki individually won’t move the needle much but both can add value to the Falcons lineup.
Toilolo Was Set Up to Fail In 2014
The Falcons had a dire tight end position a year ago with the untested Levine Toilolo being unfairly thrust into the starting lineup. I’ve discussed before the complacency involved in the Falcons’ decision to stand pat with Toilolo as the starter at tight end in 2014. Ultimately, that decision may “ruin” his development.
There’s no doubt that the fan base has turned on Toilolo, adopting a mantra this offseason along the lines of “Anybody But Toilolo” in regards to the Falcons’ tight end position. And that attitude could have a drastic effect on Toilolo’s confidence moving forward.
But Toilolo should have never been put in that situation to begin with. As I wrote about in August, Toilolo wasn’t ready to be the starter yet. That was clear as day by his performance during the team’s preseason games, but the organization opted to still let him sink or swim during the regular season. And clearly, Toilolo sank.
One can certainly argue that by the end of August, the Falcons had limited options on what they could do at the tight end position. But that certainly was not the case in the months prior when the Falcons failed to make any major additions in free agency or the draft besides adding career backup Bear Pascoe. In actuality, the Falcons made that bed years earlier when they failed to find an heir apparent to Tony Gonzalez.
One positive in light of Falcons’ signings of Tamme and Moeaki is that the new regime doesn’t appear willing to go down that same path.
And there is a certain amount of irony that the Falcons would sign a player like Moeaki, who was a member of that vaunted 2010 tight end class, a year that marked a major missed opportunity of the Falcons’ previous regime.
Moeaki’s Addition is a Long Time Coming
That 2010 class produced a number of high-profile starters in Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, who most would consider the two best tight ends in the league today. That class also produced the likes of Moeaki, Jermaine Gresham, Dennis Pitta and Aaron Hernandez.
There were 19 tight ends drafted that year, 16 of which still remain in the league five years later. No draft class since then has produced more than 16 tight ends selected overall. That 2010 tally also doesn’t count undrafted free agents in Jeff Cumberland, Logan Paulsen and Michael Palmer that are also still on NFL rosters. Jake Ballard also was undrafted that year and would also still be in the league if a knee injury suffered in the Super Bowl XLVI didn’t cut his career short.
Ultimately, the Falcons settled for Palmer that offseason rather than trying to snag one of the many better options in the draft, including Moeaki.
Moeaki has had a round-about trip to Atlanta, dealing with injuries in Kansas City. His career began promisingly enough, playing the most snaps of any of the rookies in his class back in 2010. He quickly proved himself a burgeoning receiving option and a very effective blocker. But he suffered a series of setbacks over the next three years with season-ending injuries in 2011 and 2013. Thereafter, Moeaki has been a journeyman, playing with the Buffalo Bills and Seahawks the past two years. He settled in nicely this past year with the Seahawks down the stretch, being an effective blocker.
That’s likely the role he’ll be asked to fill in Atlanta and should be a significant upgrade over Toilolo in that realm. Moeaki still possesses ability as a pass-catcher, but just will not be considered a go-to option that will instill fear into opposing defenses.
Tamme Should Prove Reliable Pass-Catcher in Atlanta
Instead, the Falcons hope that Tamme can provide a bit of that. Having followed quarterback Peyton Manning both in Indianapolis and Denver, Tamme will have to adjust to catching passes from a different quarterback in Matt Ryan. But Tamme should have little issue with that transition. Tamme is much more of a receiver than a blocker, and has made a home over the years being used in the slot as more of an H-back.
While not a blazer, Tamme is a capable route-runner with sure hands. According to Pro Football Focus, Tamme has only dropped seven passes in his entire NFL career while being targeted 263 times. Toilolo was credited with six drops last year on just 49 targets. It’s likely that Ryan will seek out Tamme’s reliable hands on third downs throughout 2015.
The only real knock on Tamme besides his subpar blocking is his lack of size. Standing at 6’3” 230 pounds, Tamme can struggle at times when trying to win in a crowd.
But despite their limitations, together Tamme and Moeaki give Ryan a pair of decent options over the middle. Tamme will likely be penciled in as the starter ahead of Moeaki, but there’s likely to be a competition between the two as well as Toilolo.
Toilolo Still Could Be Salvaged as Red-Zone Threat
While it’s very unlikely that Toilolo can be salvaged as potential starter, it doesn’t mean that he still can’t be a contributor on offense. One only has to look at the rookie season of Detroit Lions tight end Joseph Fauria to see a potential role for Toilolo moving forward. In 2013, the rookie Fauria was an impact red-zone option for the Lions offense, scoring seven touchdowns on 18 receptions.
Fauria was targeted 30 times as a backup in 2013, 14 of which came in the red zone. He managed to convert nearly half (six) of those red-zone targets into touchdowns. His lone other touchdown was a 23-yard score on a seam throw.
There’s absolutely nothing that keeps Toilolo from being used in a similar capacity in Atlanta. Even as a starter, Toilolo saw just six red-zone targets in 2014. One of the fairer criticisms of former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was his lack of creativity in the red zone. Toilolo saw just as many red-zone targets in 2014 as he did in 2013, despite having 3.5 times as many passes thrown his way and running 5.5 times as many routes according to Pro Football Focus. Interpreted another way, Toilolo was between 3.5 and 5.5 times underused in the red zone.
Regardless of Toilolo’s future, the biggest takeaway is that the Falcons appear to have learned from last year’s mistake. The Falcons could have potentially waited until the draft to add a tight end. But that would have presented the very real possibility that they would have been stuck once more with an underachieving starter without obvious alternatives as they were a year ago.
This year’s draft is widely held to be a weak crop of tight end prospects, the antithesis of that 2010 class. If a player like Palmer could time travel to this year from 2010, he might be considered one of the top five options in this year’s class as opposed to someone that wasn’t among the top 20 in his own class.
With Tamme and Moeaki, the Falcons have two potential options besides turning to Toilolo or an untested rookie. It may result in the Falcons still having one of the weaker tight end positions in the league in 2015, but at least Tamme and Moeaki will be able to provide the minimum of what the Falcons are looking for at the position.
Between the two of them, they may wind up catching around 50 or 60 passes. Tamme, especially could be a valuable alternative on third down should Ryan find himself looking away from Julio Jones or Roddy White. Moeaki can help bolster the blocking up front and help provide a bit more balance to the offense. If new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can figure out what Koetter couldn’t and can make Toilolo into an effective red-zone option, then that’ll be great. But most importantly, the Falcons won’t have to rely on Toilolo to have to take that step because they have two viable options ahead of him.
But most of all, it shows that at least in some small ways, the Falcons are growing as an organization under Quinn.