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Takeaways from Last Week – May 13

May 13th, 2013
NFL: NFC Championship-San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith may deserve an extension along with Matt Ryan

I’m not sure if this is my final takeaway from the Falcons 2013 draft, but I the more I look at it, the more I like it. At least if judging on this lone criteria, that being that the Falcons targeted athletes.

My main takeaway from the Falcons loss against the 49ers this past January was that the 49ers were clearly a better team. I had been hopeful that the Falcons could get off to a fast start which could negate that somewhat. Because I knew that over the course of four quarters, the 49ers were just a better team, with more athletes that could dominate the game physically in the trenches as well as at the offensive skill positions.

So when I look at the 2013 draft, I see the Falcons appearing to be targeting more athletes than normal. Players like Robert Alford, Malliciah Goodman, and Levine Toilolo really epitomize that in that all three I would consider players with a lot more athletic upside than polish as of today. One could label all three projects, which is something the Falcons haven’t seemed to target in their previous five drafts under Thomas Dimitroff.

I don’t think those three players or any of the Falcons rookies this year really would slant things in the Falcons favor if they were to meet the 49ers again, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Which leads me to my next point, which is what are the expectations for the Falcons 2013 season. I know there are many within the fanbase that expect the Falcons to get over the hump and into the Super Bowl in 2014. You won’t count me among them.

It’s not to say I don’t believe the Falcons are capable of going to the Super Bowl. One of the things I have learned over the past few years is that by and large any playoff team is capable of winning the Super Bowl, if they get enough breaks. The better you are as a team, the less breaks you require.

I think in the case of the Falcons, they are a team that probably needs a lot more breaks than many. They certainly got many of them last year with a few regular season wins in games where they were largely outplayed by their opponents (wins against Carolina, Oakland, and Arizona immediately jump to mind). They got one against Seattle when Chris Clemons tore his ACL, as his presence in their lineup could have easily changed the result of that game in January. They got some early in that 49er game, but as that game wore on, the Falcons one-dimensionality got exposed.

For the most part, I think the 2013 Falcons will remain a one-dimensional team. I’m hopeful that the changes they’ve made to their offensive line and at running back with Steven Jackson, will give them more balance on offense. But I don’t having any expectations that this team won’t again be a pass-first team that will struggle to lean on their running game most weeks. Defensively, there have been a number of changes but I’m not convinced the overall talent level of the defense is significantly improved. I think the Falcons will be better at cornerback this year but I’m not sure the front seven has taken significant leaps forward.

I think last year’s success was largely a testament to their coaching as well as the play of Matt Ryan and the receivers. All of them put together the best seasons we’ve seen any of them have over the past five years. And as I mentioned roughly six months ago, I don’t think that is a pattern that is likely to repeat itself in 2013.

It’s not to say that Ryan, Roddy, Julio, Tony, among others won’t have great seasons. But frankly, if there is any drop-off from any one of them, that could easily be the difference between a team that is a few plays away from the Super Bowl, and being a team that is a one and done in the playoffs.

Ultimately when I envision the Falcons fielding a Super Bowl-winning team, I see one that is better up front than this current group, and is helmed by a running back at the beginning of his career, not at the end. I also see a defense that has its top playmakers in the primes of their careers, rather than in the twilight which is the case with Osi Umenyiora, Asante Samuel, and Jonathan Babineaux.

That’s why I think this team is a couple of off-seasons away from really being a team that could go toe to toe with a team like the 49ers for four quarters and win, and not have to rely on so many breaks. The Falcons are going to have to add multiple dimensions to their team, and that won’t be accomplished in a single off-season.

And it makes me wonder about who else shares that perspective. Not necessarily among the fan base, but more importantly in Flowery Branch.

There were rumors that if the Falcons had wound up losing to Seattle, that Mike Smith would have been given his walking papers. I don’t know whether they are true or not, but I certainly believe them. With Arthur Blank needing to get his stadium proposal passed, it would have been a much harder sell with Smith as his head coach being winless in January, especially coming off what could have been the most gut-wrenching loss of all with a hypothetical Seahawks comeback.

Now that all that stadium stuff has been approved, I wonder whether it has changed Blank’s mindset. It makes me wonder if the Falcons have another one and done playoff year in 2013, does Mike Smith go right back on the hot seat?

For myself, I hope that is not the case. Having been raised in a household with a father and sibling that were die-hard Pittsburgh Steeler fans, and going to school at the University of Pittsburgh and having the majority of my college buddies also count themselves among Steeler Nation, I think it has changed my perspective on this.

I’d like to see Arthur Blank steal a page from the Rooney Family and show a little patience moving forward. I don’t think Mike Smith is a perfect coach, but I do think he has the capabilities of getting this team to where it wants to go. The same can be said of Matt Ryan, who showed that with good tools around him, he can take this team very far.

That’s what it boils down to: you have the right coach and quarterback, and it’s now about getting the right tools around them. So that’s where I bring it back around to this 2013 draft class, where it’s a nice step in the right direction of doing that. I believe it will involve the Falcons taking a few more risks in the middle rounds with athletes like Goodman and Toilolo.

Will either be more than a role player? I believe the odds say no. But that’s not a bad thing. You look at the 49ers, and you see them having some plus athletes at key roles such as Delanie Walker and Ricky Jean-Francois. They may not have been on the same plane as Vernon Davis or Justin Smith, but they certainly made their fair share of contributions. And if you are not in a position to find a player like Davis or Smith, then I certainly don’t mind settling for players like Walker or Jean-Francois.

And if I could, I would relay the same message to Arthur Blank that I would to any fans that are expecting the Falcons to win a Super Bowl this year. If that doesn’t prove to be the case, one shouldn’t get too discouraged. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s so true that it’s all part of a process. And that process could take another year or another five. But if you faith that you’ve gotten the right people in the right positions, then I think organizationally you have to be willing to commit to the long-term, as opposed to focusing solely on short-term gains. I hope Blank has learned from his early days, that stability is important to the success of a football team. In his first six years as owner, the Falcons had five different head coaches (if you include interim coaches), sporting a 44-51-1 record translating to roughly 7.4 wins per year. Since hiring Smith and Dimitroff, the record has improved to 56-24, roughly equivalent to 11.2 wins per year. That’s nearly a 4-win difference, and big reason for that improvement has been stability. The fact that Smith’s record in January hasn’t been quite up to par shouldn’t be the sole determining factor. Because if you were to get rid of Smith now or in the near future, the odds are likely you’ll return right back to where you were prior: fielding teams that are consistently inconsistent.

It’s why I think that once the Falcons extend Matt Ryan’s deal, they should give Mike Smith an extension. Smitty’s current contract runs out after the 2014 season. So if Matt Ryan gets a deal that is expected to extend him through say 2018, then I think Blank would be smart to tack on another four years to Smith’s contract. It would be a commitment to the long-term stability of his franchise.

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For people like me, the draft is a year-round process and it’s always fun to look ahead to next year even knowing that we’re just guessing at this point. This past week we saw the focus start to turn towards the 2014 draft, as people like Mel Kiper released his initial Top 25 Big Board for 2014, while his cohort at ESPN Todd McShay dropped his Top 32 (both links require subscription to ESPN Insider).

And to no one’s surprise, South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney topped both lists, and likely will top all and any lists released between now and September. Clowney has sick measurables and is coming off a dominant year, where he had 13 sacks. It’ll be interesting to see if he does wind up being the No. 1 pick next year, because ultimately it probably won’t be determined by how good he is this year, it’ll come down to whether the team holding that pick needs a quarterback and whether there is one worthy of that top selection.

Right now, I’m pegging the Oakland Raiders as the least-talented team in 2013 and the ones most likely to hold said pick come 2014. Looking over the Raiders schedule, there really only seems to be three winnable games outside their division: Week 2 vs. Jacksonville, Week 12 vs. Tennessee, and Week 14 at N.Y. Jets. I figure they might be able to beat either San Diego or Kansas City at home. They are a 5-11 team at best, and I’d probably project them to actually only win 1 or 2 games in 2013. And I think the Raiders will certainly be in the market for a quarterback if that is the case. Matt Flynn is a one-year stopgap, and not a particularly good one if you ask me.

I think next year’s quarterback class could be very intriguing. I think a lot of eyes will be on the crop of passers in the SEC, headlined by sophomore Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel who will be eligible for the 2014 class, junior Jeff Driskel of Florida, and seniors Aaron Murray (Georgia), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), and Zach Mettenberger (LSU). But I really think the ACC is going to be the most intriguing conference as far as determining who the top quarterbacks will be. That conference has Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech), and while Louisville won’t technically join the ACC until 2014, they have Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.

What might become interesting to see play out next year is whether or not the top quarterbacks in the eyes of NFL evaluators might be three black quarterbacks. Recent draft results prove in my eyes that the stigma against black quarterbacks is long gone. The top two passers drafted last month were black: E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, the first time that’s happened in NFL history. As far as I know, there have been only been three drafts where at least two of the first five quarterbacks drafted were black (2001, 2006, 2009), and one where three went in the first five (1999). I think that could be the case again in 2014.

As for the SEC guys, it’ll be interesting to see how their years go to see where there stock is 12 months from now. I’m not a big fan of A.J. McCarron. He is to me a pure system quarterback that has not translated well for his predecessors in John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, thus far at the NFL level. Like them, he seems to be a guy destined to be a career backup. Murray is a player I like, but his lack of height and less than ideal arm strength will hinder him at the next level. I like that Murray shows he’s comfortable working within a pocket, but you wish a player with size/arm limitations was a little bit more mobile to make up for it. At this point, I could consider him a developmental starter that is probably destined to go in the middle rounds. Driskel and Mettenberger definitely have NFL tools with their size and arm strength, and also show solid to good athleticism for their size. They need to be more consistent in their second years as starters. But when thinking of them, I can’t help but think of other large, physically-gifted SEC passers such as Tyler Bray, Ryan Mallett, Jevan Snead, and Andre’ Woodson that have struggled to translate to the next level and high draft stock.

As for Manziel, I think he has similar limitations as Murray, but his mobility makes up for them. But he’ll have to show better growth as a pocket passer before he’s ready to be a starter at the next level. At this point, I’m not expecting him to show enough growth to really like his prospects in the 2014 Draft. Now, 2015 might be a different matter.

As for Bridgewater, Boyd, and Thomas, I really think they should be the front runners for next year’s draft class. None are polished products, but there upside is clear. Bridgewater has Cam Newton-esque qualities and it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Kiper and McShay both rank him second on their respective lists behind Clowney. I don’t think Bridgewater is quite the physical specimen that Newton was at Auburn, but he might be a much more polished passer at this point in his career.

Thomas also draws Newton comparisons, but is coming off a very inconsistent junior year at Tech. People have to remember that including last season, Thomas has only played three years at quarterback in either college or high school. He’s still raw, but you see flashes of potential that I could understand an NFL team taking a flyer on him hoping they can develop that out of him, even if he doesn’t show significant growth in 2013.

Boyd is comparable to Geno Smith at this point in his career. But one thing I do like about Boyd over Smith is that Boyd is a much more explosive and dynamic runner and is not afraid to tuck and run. The key for Boyd will be consistency, something that Smith lacked last season. That inconsistency raised a ton of questions about Smith, ultimately leading him to fall from a potential Top 10 pick to barely a Top 40 one. Boyd may not need to be great, but he just needs to be consistently good and that could solidify him as a target for teams picking in the first half of Round One in 2014.

Another black quarterback that intrigues me is Braxton Miller, the junior from Ohio State. I’m not sure if he’s quite a quarterback or an athlete playing the position. But he could vie with Manziel for being the most dangerous QB in the nation with the ball in his hand this fall.

And I think we’ve shown enough progress that the very fact that I’m mentioning these prospects’ skin color seems odd and unnecessary. But I think it’s worthwhile considering the trials and tribulations that pioneers such as Willie Thrower, Joe Gilliam, Shack Harris, Marlin Briscoe, and Warren Moon had to overcome in past decades, to look where we are now today. Fifteen of the thirty-two NFL teams currently have quarterbacks of African-American descent on their roster and that number could grow if Byron Leftwich, Vince Young, Troy Smith, or heaven forbid JaMarcus Russell manage to get signed before camps open in a few months. There are still some issues that need to be sorted out, but at the very least 2014 should be interesting.

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