Takeaways from Last Week – March 24, 2014

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester is an Intriguing Addition in Atlanta

If I’m being honest, I like the idea of Devin Hester in an Atlanta Falcons uniform moreso than the reality.

The idea of Hester donning the black and red is giving the Falcons a legitimate playmaker on special teams, something it has lacked since the heyday of Allen Rossum nearly a decade ago. Yes, Eric Weems was my guy but his abilities as a returner was analogous to a chain-moving wide receiver as opposed to an explosive playmaker.

Hester is not quite as explosive on kickoffs as he is on punts. But anything he can contribute in the former area will be an upgrade over what the Falcons have featured the past few years. Between Weems and Jacquizz Rodgers, the Falcons have just two kickoff returns of 40 or more yards the past three seasons. Hester has nine such big-play returns in that span.

But it’s really the punts where Hester is going to impact. Partially because there’s the potential that a new rule change could further marginalize kickoffs, but also because the Falcons have had a dearth of playmaking ability on punt returns.

Weems had a single punt return of 40 or more yards in both 2010 and 2011. Those represent the only two such big punt returns since Rossum left the team after 2006. That year also coincides with the start of Hester’s NFL career with the Chicago Bears, and he’s had 19 such 40-plus yard punt returns over the past eight seasons. He’s had 11 over the past four years.

The only real issue is that the Falcons are catching Hester on the downward slope of his career. He was able to see his production rebound last year in 2013 by concentrating fully on his duties as a returner as opposed to also moonlighting as a wide receiver. But he’s a far cry from the player that he was just a few years back when he had a combined five punt return touchdowns over the 2010-11 seasons.

But as I’ve illustrated, he still represents a clear upgrade over what the Falcons have featured in recent years.

The other aspect of the idea of Hester that I like is his potential impact on offense. He’s probably not going to be a major element of the Falcons passing attack, but I do think he does represent a potential upgrade over Harry Douglas as the team’s third option.

Hester Could Prove An Upgrade Over Harry Douglas

One aspect of the offense that I’ve consistently said the Falcons are in sore need of an upgrade is their ability to generate big plays. Hester is more capable of that than Douglas.

They are largely similar players, in that both lack ideal size. Hester and Douglas measure in at around six feet in height, but play smaller than their size would indicate on paper. Like Douglas, Hester has limited proficiency when it comes to effectively running the entire route tree. And also similarly, Hester never meshed with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, as Douglas clearly has not with Ryan.

From a production standpoint, Hester and Douglas are similar in terms of their production on vertical passes. In fact since 2008, Douglas has been slightly better than Hester.

Deep Receiving: Hester vs. Douglas

Charting 20+ yard pass attempts from 2008-13. Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Devin Hester651624.665548.557.7
Harry Douglas481327.124288.912.1

But there is one key difference in the numbers: touchdowns. Hester has consistently been able to score on vertical plays. Simply by attempting a deep pass to Hester, the Bears have been nearly four times as likely to score a touchdown as one attempted by the Falcons to Douglas.

It was not until Douglas’ 73rd career NFL game before he scored a touchdown on a deep pass. And it came in garbage time when the Falcons were down 32 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past season.

Hester still has the speed and big play ability that commands a modicum of respect from opposing players and defensive coordinators. There’s a reason why William Moore was “all smiles” when Hester’s name was brought up. He knows how the mere presence of a player like Hester on the field makes his job as a defensive back harder.

I’m also optimistic about the so-called “creative usage” of Hester that the Falcons plan to employ this season. I’m hoping that it’s similar to what we saw Percy Harvin do for the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

The hope is that the entire impetus behind targeting Hester was to add that sort of “X-Factor” to the team both offensively and on special teams. Otherwise they just paid a lot of money for a declining punt returner.

And that’s when the cold, harsh reality of the Hester move comes in. Will Hester wind up bringing all these positives to Atlanta? That remains firmly up in the air.

Falcons Face Harsh Reality in Free Agency

Because in reality, if we look at the Falcons recent track record, a lot of the “promise” of incoming players was left largely unrealized.

The Falcons were attracted by Dunta Robinson’s physical skill set back in 2010, but put in a defensive scheme that rarely asked him to use it. Robinson’s trademark in Houston was being able to shadow the opposing team’s top receiver and try to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage. But the Falcons stuck Robinson on the right side of the field and rarely pressed in defensive coordinator’s Brian VanGorder’s system, and he flopped in Atlanta.

And things don’t veer off that track in regards to subsequent free-agent additions like Ray Edwards, Lofa Tatupu, Vince Manuwai, Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson. All players that on the day they signed their contracts, seemed to offer a lot of promise and potential for the Falcons but all were underachievers in their brief stints with the team.

There has been discussion of whether Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff still deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating his offseason decisions. Well recent history in regards to free-agent decisions says absolutely not. In fact, recent history suggests that you should assume that any free-agent signing the Falcons bring aboard is going to drastically underachieve.

And this is one of the reasons why I’m so negative about the Falcons moves thus far. And Hester may be my favorite move, but it would be anything but surprising if a year from now we’re lumping him in with the others as disappointing.

Poor Planning a Problem in Atlanta

Knowing the Falcons, they might have a “Hester package” in their playbook, but it will be rarely used and only when the variables weigh heavily in their favor. That is after all, the hallmark of conservative play-calling that has plagued this offense under head coach Mike Smith. Only take a risk when the risk is minimal. The idea of that sounds good, but in reality it makes it easier for opposing defenses to prepare and ultimately execute those game plans.

We saw the Falcons dial back their offense to such a huge degree in 2013, that it seems completely uncharacteristic that they would go the opposite way in 2014 to maximize Hester’s ability. It’s literally like going from night to day at the snap of a finger. It’s just something I’ll only be able to believe once I see it.

It’s the possibility of a plan that makes me relatively positive in regards to Hester. He may wind up not being an impact player, but it at least is an attempt to get better in a critical area. Hester may not be the best attempt, but it’s still an attempt nonetheless. Something that was sorely lacking in 2013 as the team botched their opportunity by signing of Brian Robiskie.

Whatever plans this team does seem to draw up in recent years, they rarely seem to work out. And the ultimate failures in executing those plans seem to just sneak up on the team as if they apparated out of thin air.

But it’s not due to magic that some of these plans fail. How did the Falcons not see that Michael Turner was a shell of himself after the 2011 season? And why did they think that adding another over the hill, past his prime running back was going to be a significant change to the status quo? Why did they think that just putting Julio Jones on the roster would make them more explosive without any real change in their play-calling and offensive approach? Why did they pay a king’s ransom for Robinson and plug him into a scheme that he was ill-suited for? What made them look at the film of 2012 and think that Osi Umenyiora was an upgrade over John Abraham?

These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of questions I would have for Dimitroff if I could lock him in a room and inject him with truth serum.

I really want to know these answers and many others because sitting from the comfort of my computer desk, I have a hard time believing that a GM reputedly as smart and crafty as Dimitroff would make some of these very simple mistakes.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Colon Could Have Been a Falcon

Willie Colon Interest Sends Mixed Signals For Falcons Line

And hearing that the Falcons were interested in Willie Colon worries me further. Colon is not a bad player, but he’s a far cry from the style of player that actual free-agent signee Jon Asamoah is. Colon is a guy that wins in a phone booth. The athleticism of his youth has been firmly sapped through several years of injuries. Simply put, the guy can’t move.

But blocking on the move is exactly what Asamoah does best. In what universe do these two players fit the same offense? It’s like comparing Joey Harrington and Cam Newton. It would be confusing if you saw a team sniffing around both of those players as their potential starting quarterback. One would perceive that team to be fairly clueless with the sort of style of offense they wanted to run, because either player fit vastly different systems. An offense designed around Harrington’s strength would be one that features a lot of short, timing-based passes that get the ball out quickly. An offense designed around Newton wouldn’t mind holding onto the ball for longer periods of time because Newton’s ability to extend plays and throw the deep ball are his two greatest assets. The only similarity is that both offenses would likely be run-based attacks to take pressure off the quarterback because in different ways both aren’t capable of being more than game managers.

That’s what is scary about the Falcons offseason, sniffing around both Asamoah and Colon is a red flag that the Falcons haven’t solved their identity crisis.

Javier Arenas is an undersized corner. One would imagine a team that was looking to toughen up would be more interested in targeting a backup cornerback with more size. Especially given the current starting corners aren’t great in run support. Or was the impetus behind signing Arenas to give Atlanta an insurance policy on special teams in case they couldn’t reel in Hester? I guess that counts as a plan.

We’ll have to see what the draft brings to the fold. The offseason is by no means over, but it’s not off to a great start in my humble opinion.

Guessing at Falcons Round One Plans Difficult

Where the Falcons go in May is anybody’s guess. I believe the Falcons will target a pass-rusher at the top of the draft, but it’s by no means a guarantee. By my estimation, there’s probably a 60 percent chance that the Falcons first-round selection is an edge-rusher. Most likely that will be either Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr. There’s probably a 35 percent that top selection is an offensive tackle, which likely will be either Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews. Taylor Lewan is probably not in the mix because he won’t likely pass the team’s strict character filter due to his alleged entanglement in a sexual assault from 2009 at the University of Michigan.

And then the remaining five percent is for something out of left field. That would include a possible trade down where the Falcons might target one of the premier safeties such as Calvin Pryor or Hasean Clinton-Dix, or a tight end like Eric Ebron. Maybe they’d also look at offensive lineman Zack Martin, one of a few players the Falcons coached at the Senior Bowl that is considered a first-round option.

Whether the Falcons will have the opportunity to trade down is certainly possible, but not probable in both my opinion and that of Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. Another team is going to really have to fall in love with one of the quarterbacks in all likelihood for such a trade to be facilitated in the Falcons’ favor. Otherwise, there just isn’t any major reason for a team to move up to pick No. 6. If one of the premier talents in this draft such as Clowney, Mack, or Robinson are there, then it’s pretty simple that the Falcons would take them. If not, it probably only leaves the quarterbacks worthy of jumping up in the draft for. A wide receiver like Sammy Watkins would be intriguing, but by all accounts this is one of the deepest wide receiver drafts in recent memory, which means nobody should be overly eager to move up for Watkins in particular.

But the assertion from Colbert that “everyone wants to trade down” does make me more optimistic that the Falcons won’t mortgage their future to get a player like Clowney. But then again, Dimitroff isn’t known for always conforming to the consensus.

Falcons’ Need For Pass-Rusher Demands Philosophical Shift

In the end, I hope the Falcons plan to upgrade the pass rush works out in their favor. I just have this feeling that the team will wind up with a player like Barr, who I think is not going to represent an immediate upgrade to the pass rush. But even if they get Clowney or Mack, I still think it doesn’t change the status quo significantly from what has been the case throughout the Smith-Dimitroff Era. Even if Clowney and Mack are all-world as rookies, it’s still just one guy. The Falcons have had a top-level pass-rusher on their roster before, and it still led to them being one of the least-effective pass rushes over the past six seasons.

They simply need more than one good pass-rusher. And it seems all things point to just one being acquired this offseason given they missed the boat on the top free agents in order to concentrate on upgrading the run defense.

But then again, perhaps having multiple good pass-rushers just doesn’t mesh with the Mike Nolan defensive philosophy:

I would rather have 10 guys get four sacks then only four guys get 10 sacks each because it’s a lot more difficult for an offense to look at your entire defense and say ‘We’ve got to block them all guys. That guy might come, that guy might come.’ That’s a real stress for a quarterback.

Perhaps that’s why his 49er defenses were also underwhelming in terms of rushing the quarterback during his time as head coach in San Francisco. After all, the 49ers did give up more passing yards than any other team over that four-year span. Coincidence? Probably not.

Maybe Nolan’s philosophy needs some tweaking. And certainly, whatever philosophy led to past free-agent errors committed by Dimitroff could use some modification. That was the hope when the team added some fresh, new voices and eyes to their front office this offseason. But despite my positive impression of signing Hester, I’m less than convinced that has occurred.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com