Takeaways from Last Week – March 31, 2014

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert McClain

The Atlanta Falcons had a pretty quiet week with no signings or real moves to speak of in free agency. The only move that came down the pipe was that cornerback Robert McClain re-signed with the team.

Losing McClain to restricted free agency was unlikely to happen, but the fact that he got his name on the dotted line is a positive for the Falcons.

McClain is the incumbent nickel cornerback, but could face stiff competition from incoming free agent Javier Arenas. Both McClain and Arenas lack the size to play outside and thus have specialized at playing in the slot. Both are essentially under one-year deals with the likelihood that the player that emerges by year’s end as the preferred option inside will get a long-term deal in 2015. And the player that does not, may be asked to seek opportunities elsewhere.

It’s potentially a make or break year for McClain. However, I personally believe that McClain staying at nickel cornerback may not be in his or the team’s best interests moving forward. McClain is a player that I think could make a successful conversion to free safety if the Falcons were so inclined to give him that opportunity.

McClain lacks ideal size for a safety, but has a thicker frame than your typical cornerback as he weighs 195 pounds on a 5’9″ frame. He would be among the smallest starting safeties in the league, but not too much smaller in size than others including Seattle’s Earl Thomas (5’10” 202), New Orleans’ Jairus Byrd (5’10” 203) and New England’s Devin McCourty (5’10” 195). In fact, both Byrd and McCourty predominantly played cornerback in college. McCourty started his career at cornerback with great promise as a rookie in 2010, but struggled in his sophomore season. He then began playing more safety in 2012 before fully converting to the position in 2013.

McClain’s career in Atlanta has followed a similar path in which he was on the rise after a breakout 2012 campaign as the nickel corner, but followed it up with a lackluster effort in 2013. If McClain were allowed to bulk up this offseason, potentially adding 8-10 pounds, there would be little difference in size between him and some of the better safeties in the league like Thomas, Byrd and McCourty.

McClain has a good understanding of angles and instincts to defend the run. While he’s not exactly the world’s greatest tackler, he is a solid tackler and was significantly better in that regard than the Falcons other corners in 2013. He significantly outpaced any of the Falcons other corners in terms of stops on defense this year with 11 based off Moneyball reviews. Stops are basically instances where the defense halves an offense’s ideal success rate on any given down. For instance, to be considered a successful run, an offense must gain five or more yards on first down. If a defender made a tackle before the offensive player gained three yards, then he would be credited with a stop in my reviews this past year. Trufant (6.5), Samuel (5.5) and Alford (2) just weren’t as impactful in that arena. A lot of those stops came when McClain took good angles to defend an underneath receiver after a catch, showcasing an above average awareness in that arena compared to most cornerbacks.

And as free safety, McClain would still get numerous opportunities to line up and cover slot receivers, the same role he’s filled in Atlanta the past two seasons. The main difference is that he would be asked to work more as a centerfielder in zone coverage. But it doesn’t seem far-fetched that McClain could thrive in that role, since he showcased the sort of skill set with his first career interception against Peyton Manning back in 2012. In that instanc McClain was working deep coverage in Cover-3, but the way he read the throw and played the ball in the air is exactly the sort of instinctual play you look for in a free safety.

If the Falcons did decide to convert McClain to safety, I would not want them to put all of their eggs in that basket. Signing a veteran safety would make sense to help tutor McClain. Ideally, a player like Oakland’s Charles Woodson would have been the ideal tutor. He’s already made the successful conversion from cornerback to safety the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Woodson re-signed with the Raiders earlier this month, taking him off the market. But that does leave a number of veteran players that could also help mentor McClain and possibly bridge the gap if his conversion hits some setbacks.

Ryan Clark (Pittsburgh Steelers), Michael Huff (Denver Broncos), Quintin Mikell (Carolina Panthers), Ed Reed (New York Jets) and Kerry Rhodes are remaining free agents that could be nice veteran stopgaps.

All are essentially one-year stopgap solutions, but could provide a solid insurance policy in case McClain doesn’t take to the conversion so easily.

The other benefit of adding a veteran is that even if they are a reserve, it gives the team a better option than Zeke Motta or Kemal Ishmael would provide off the bench. Motta’s stock is relatively high among Falcons brass, but he remains limited on defense due to lack of speed and range. Adding one of these veterans would give the Falcons a better option off the bench in terms of coverage ability.

William Moore is coming off his first season in which he played all 16 games. But the reality is that he plays an injury-prone position and has mostly been an injury-prone player. Bolstering their depth at the position is simply smarter planning for a team that was marred by injuries in 2013.

The Falcons certainly could be in a position to add another safety in the draft. But by moving McClain to the position and adding a veteran, it wouldn’t force the Falcons to use one of their early picks on the position which seems a likely scenario.

If a good safety were to fall into the Falcons lap in the second round of May’s draft, then they could ask McClain to return to cornerback or keep him at safety with the hope that he could give the team a valuable option in their subpackages in the future. McClain is a versatile backup and can be likened to a defensive version of recently retired running back Jason Snelling. Snelling was a player that could do multiple things well and fill a variety of roles for the Falcons on offense and special teams. McClain is similar, in that he could serve a variety of roles for the Falcons in the future if given that opportunity.

How League Rule Changes Affect Falcons

The National Football League passed a series of rule changes during this past week’s owners meetings. I want to examine how some of these new rules could affect the Falcons moving forward.

The biggest of the rule changes is the fact that referees now will be able to consult with someone in the NFL’s Officiating Command Center located in New York. Essentially this rule should mean there are fewer or no more instances where the NFL is forced to issue an apology or create some elaborate ruse when officials get things wrong. Because now the ref can at least talk to someone at the league office before blowing a call.

The “NaVorro Bowman Rule” that allows review of the recovery of a ball in the field of play is a great rule. While it didn’t really affect the Falcons last year, there were too many games I saw throughout 2013 where that rule had a huge impact on the outcome of a game. Simply put, now any suspected turnovers are eligible to be reviewed on replay. Turnovers and scores were already subjected to automatic review, but before if a change in possession wasn’t called on the field, there were circumstances that meant officials couldn’t go under the hood to look at the play.

The league has extended goalposts by five feet, which could now be considered the “Adam Carolla Rule” since the radio host has long been a proponent of extending the height of the posts.

Probably the silliest rule that passed was banning players from dunking on goal posts as celebrations. This might be related to the “Carolla Rule” in the sense that taller posts will be more top-heavy and thus make instances like what occurred with Jimmy Graham last year a little bit trickier. But it’s interesting that the league waited for its most famous dunker in Tony Gonzalez to retire before passing this rule. While I think the rule is silly, I’m not going to complain too much. Watching Graham ape Gonzo with numerous dunks over the years against the Falcons is not something I will miss too much. Perhaps Graham will come up with a new celebration, including one where he acts like a ghost.

The new experiment with extra point tries after touchdowns also raises my curiosity. The league will move extra point kicks to the 20-yard line instead of the usual two-yard line during the first two weeks of the preseason. That will lead to a much greater degree of difficulty for what is the league’s most automatic play. Over the past ten seasons, 98.93 percent of extra points have been made. And how many of those 1.07 percent of missed kicks were due to bad snaps, poor holds, or blocks by the defense as opposed to kicker error? Probably a significant portion, indicating that purely in terms of kicking the ball, an NFL kicker is going to miss an extra point less than one percent of the time.

However, over the past ten seasons, kickers have made just 84.13 percent of field goals when they were lined up at the 20-yard line, which typically is a 38-yard kick. That is still a high enough percentage that most kicks will be made, but it’s no longer the sure thing.

There were other proposals that didn’t pass, but were tabled for future voting, potentially as early as May.

Expansion of the practice squad from eight to ten players and expanding the game-day rosters for Thursday night games from 46 to 49 players were both tabled. I think both moves would be good for the league and hopefully get passed. If the league is truly intent on heightening player safety, there is really no reason for them not to allow all 53 players on an NFL roster to be active on game day. Think about what happened to Joe Staley last year, where he nearly suffered a major injury due to being forced to play in “garbage time” because the current 46-man limit only allows teams to activate seven blockers on game day rather than the full nine or ten most teams carry on the roster.

The concussion protocol also makes it easy for several players to be eliminated from games rather quickly on Sundays. Hopefully the league will pass the expansion later this year, and within a few years we shall see it expanded even more. Given the known dangers of the game of football, allowing teams to have larger rosters and better depth is important in the NFL’s efforts to promote player safety.

Opening the retractable roof at halftime due to weather was also tabled. This obviously won’t have an impact on the Falcons until their new stadium is built in 2017.

I’m certainly a proponent of the league also expanding what plays are reviewable. I’m not sure I’m quite in favor of making everything reviewable, but I do think at least a few more things should be reviewable. The new Bowman rule is near the top of the list. I also believe that personal foul penalties that come on suspected helmet-to-helmet hits should also be reviewable. These are “bang-bang” players that are nearly impossible for officials to accurately see in the split seconds in which they occur in. Allowing coaches to challenge these calls and force officials to go under the hood would simply make the game better. And the idea that it would extend the length of game time simply isn’t true. The league doesn’t need to change the number of challenges coaches have (two), just make it so that there are more things that they can challenge.

It’s also fascinating how the league is quick to shoot down a change because of fear it may lengthen the run-time of a game when the biggest game-lengthener is the sheer number of commercials and television-based advertising that add a lot onto the broadcast time. But I’m not naive enough that the league would look into any way of lowering the number of commercial breaks since that would actually cut into their bottom line.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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