Takeaways from Last Week – September 2The Falcons finalized their roster over the weekend and there were a few interesting moves. If you’ve ready any of my lengthy reaction reviews following the Falcons preseason games, you probably know my opinion on many of the players that made the roster. I want to devote this week’s column to discussing many of the players that were small surprises.
For the record, I would say that I was off on eight players making the roster when I did my initial prediction at the start of training camp. Forty-five out of fifty-three ain’t bad at all. Just to recap, the players I wrongly projected to make the team were: I had Sean Renfree as the third-string quarterback, instead the Falcons kept Josh Vaughan as their fifth tailback. Renfree went on injured reserve, as it’s obviously impossible to predict injuries. Marcus Jackson was on my 53-man roster instead of Kevin Cone as the fifth wide receiver. I picked Phillipkeith Manley as the backup guard, instead it was Harland Gunn. Manley was added to the practice squad. Micanor Regis was my pick for backup defensive lineman, but the Falcons instead opted to keep Peria Jerry. Pat Schiller and Brian Banks were my picks for the team’s backup linebackers, but Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow made it instead. Charles Mitchell and Terrence Johnson were the backup defensive backs, instead Shann Schillinger and Dominique Franks preempted them. Yes, I did pick Ryan Schraeder to make the roster, along with all the teams’ rookie draft picks.
This isn’t meant to toot my own horn (well, maybe just a little) but just as a vector to discuss some of the decisions the Falcons made with their roster. I should preface this by saying that I’m often critical of how the Falcons have managed their roster over the years. I think one of the larger deficiencies of this team is their struggles to develop players, especially undrafted players and guys at the back-end of their roster. When the Falcons kept Brett Romberg as a third center on their roster in 2011, it made little sense to me. What team needs three centers? Todd McClure and Joe Hawley were already on the team and had both proven they could ably play the spot. That same year the Falcons picked up Kirk Chambers at midseason to replace an injured Mike Johnson on the roster. But despite Joe Hawley’s struggles at guard that year, the Falcons never once considered plugging in Chambers there. In my eyes that’s a poor use of a roster spot. Instead the Falcons could have been smart to replace him with a player that they could develop for next year such as Shawn Andrews, Vince Manuwai, or Leonard Davis. Essentially if a player is not contributing in some capacity by being active every Sunday, or isn’t a player that the team wants to develop for its long-term future, then that player is basically taking up unnecessary space. That might be overly harsh, but I always feel like there is room for improvement as you could replace that players’ spot on the team with someone who does fulfill those requirements.
Take for instance a player like Stansly Maponga, who made the roster as the sixth defensive end, but in truth because the Falcons will use a variety of 3-4 and 4-3 looks this year, he’s essentially eighth on the depth chart. Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, and Jonathan Massaquoi will earn the majority of the reps at end in the Falcons 4-3 looks. But the Falcons also can play Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews there if need be. And in their 3-4 looks, alongside Goodman and Matthews, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux will get reps at end. And they will get those reps at times when the Falcons employ a four-man front if the preseason is any indicator as to what will happen in the regular season. So the odds are very low that Maponga will play any snaps this year unless the Falcons are hit with several injuries up front. Maponga thus will probably be inactive every Sunday because I don’t think the Falcons consider him to be a highly valuable special teams player either. So the Falcons likely won’t get any value out of him on game days this year. But in the case of Maponga there is a clear long-term value to developing him. I personally didn’t think Maponga was that impressive this year, enough that I thought the Falcons could risk exposing him to waivers with the intent of putting him on the practice squad. The Falcons obviously felt differently, and understandably so because Maponga does have developmental potential. He may not have had a great rookie summer, but he had injury concerns as somewhat an excuse, and he could still be primed to take a huge leap from Year 1 to Year 2, as many players do. Lawrence Sidbury did when he was here in Atlanta, and Maponga reminds me a lot of Sidbury, at least as an NFL prospect.
However a player like Josh Vaughan doesn’t really quite fulfill those requirements. Vaughan had a good preseason and I certainly think is a player that is good enough to make an NFL roster and contribute. But I have concerns about whether Vaughan is able to contribute as a pass protector and in the passing game. I know Vaughan can catch the ball, he had 46 receptions during his four years at Richmond and has caught 11 passes over the past four summers in the preseason. Can he block? I don’t really know, but let’s assume he can competently. Both he certainly cannot do those things better than the Falcons’ top three backs, and arguably cannot do so over Antone Smith as he was never elevated above Smith on the depth chart.
Where is Vaughan’s long-term value? Is it as a runner? Not really. While he was impressive this summer, I don’t think Vaughan is a very gifted runner. At least in the sense that I envision him ever having a significant role in that capacity in the Falcons or any NFL offense. He is a bit of a plodder like Michael Turner that can be slow to hit the hole and lacks lateral agility, but the difference is that he is not nearly as powerful as Turner is. Maybe the Falcons envision Vaughan to potentially replace Jason Snelling in the future. Snelling is signed through the 2014 season, and will be 31 when his contract expires. It’ll likely be time to move on at that point. But it should be noted that Jacquizz Rodgers’ contract also expires at the end of 2014. Rodgers will be on the verge of turning 25, while Vaughan will have just turned in 28. It’s likely that 2014 will also mark Steven Jackson’s final year in Atlanta, at least as the starter. If not next spring, certainly the following spring the Falcons will presumably be drafting his replacement. Rodgers’ age is important because he’ll be young enough where giving him a second contract is a no-brainer, and his value isn’t likely to diminish over the next two seasons due to his ability to contribute on third downs.
The picture I’m trying to paint is that come 2015 the Falcons running back group will likely consist of Rodgers, a high-profile rookie, and potentially Vaughan. So where does Vaughan’s potential lie? Part of the reason Snelling has managed to stick around is because of his versatility. Not only is Snelling a very good pass catcher and pass protector, he’s shown himself to be a capable runner, lead blocker, and special teams player. Will Vaughan have similar value? That remains to be seen. But if he does not, then I don’t see him being a long-term option for the Falcons.
That coupled with the notion that Vaughan probably isn’t going to play much this year, is he really worth a roster spot? Antone Smith showed himself to be a far superior special teams player this summer, and Snelling is also excellent in that capacity. Quizz not only returns kicks ably, but also is able to cover them as well, although he isn’t often used in that capacity. So Vaughan is unlikely to be active on game days. These are the details that I mean that cause me to critique some of the Falcons roster decisions.
Another issue I have is the fact that the Falcons are keeping Peria Jerry on their roster. Jerry isn’t a terrible player. I’m highly critical of him, but he’s not terrible. Jerry will count $2.01 million against the Falcons cap this year, in what is likely to be his final year in Atlanta. Unless Jerry really plays at a high level, it’s tough to see the Falcons re-signing when he hits free agency next year. The Falcons will likely prioritize keeping Corey Peters (assuming he has a good year), and will probably be more inclined to try and keep Jonathan Babineaux at the right price if push comes to shove, considering Babs is light years better. The team also has Goodman and Matthews, who could potentially be inserted into the vacancy left by Jerry as one of the ends in their three-man front. The Falcons will likely also be targetting a similar player at or near the top of the draft next April as well as the heir apparent to Babineaux. So Jerry has no long-term value for the team. He certainly will have some immediate value because again, he’ll be a de facto starter at times when the Falcons use their 3-4 (or 5-2) looks that will basically feature five defensive linemen: Babineaux, Peters, and Jerry inside, with Osi and Biermann standing up on the outside. But does Jerry deserve to be paid $2 million this year? Players base salaries are guaranteed if they are on a teams’ roster for Week 1. That means $905,000 of Jerry’s contract will be guaranteed as of September 8. That’s too much.
This is just too similar to the Michael Turner decision. Personally, I would have cut Turner at the start of last off-season. But if the Falcons had brought him back at a reduced price from his $7.5 million cap hit, I wouldn’t have had a major problem with that. The bottom line however was that Michael Turner wasn’t worth that sort of money. Despite his production in 2011, it was very clear on tape that he was a significantly diminished player and that decline was only going to continue in 2012. If not outright release him, the Falcons should have slashed his salary in half and pay him money more commiserate with his declining ability.
The main reason why you don’t cut Jerry is because of dead money. If the Falcons parted ways with Jerry today, they would still be on the hook for $1.105 million in dead money against this year’s cap. They would only clear the $905,000 base salary portion of his contract from their books. And any potential replacement would then eat into that savings. A player like Richard Seymour would cost significantly more than $1 million to sign, and thus any space created is negated. However that is not the case if the Falcons add a player of similar (or better) ability that is cheaper. For instance a player like Clinton McDonald, who was just cut by the Seahawks this weekend due to losing the numbers game, not because of lacking ability. McDonald isn’t a great player, but as a rotational player he can work. He played a similar role in Seattle’s front that he’d be asked to play here. As a player with the same experience of Jerry, he’d only require a $715,000 base salary. He’s also two and a half years younger than Jerry, so the potential that you re-sign him next off-season is significantly higher.
So by cutting Jerry and signing a player like McDonald, you’re only saving $190,000 against this year’s cap. That’s not much. In fact, it’s practically nothing. Even if the Falcons deem Jerry a better player than McDonald, given how easily the Falcons could save that $190,000 there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t approach Jerry and ask him to slash his base salary by the same amount.
Call it a nitpick if you wish, but if you can save $190,000 why wouldn’t you? Sure, it’s literally a drop in the bucket in terms of the total amount of money the Falcons will pay out this year to players, but these things do add up. If you think about it in this way, if you could save that amount of money for every player on your roster, that would represent about a twelfth of the salary cap.
But it really represents something bigger. An indicator that the Falcons are consistently striving to get better and trying to wring the most out of every aspect of their roster. It’s just fascinating (and frustrating) to me that players like John Abraham and Tyson Clabo can be cut because they are declining players with high salaries, while a player like Jerry who is a perennial underachiever goes unscathed. Abraham and Clabo were set to count around $6 million each against the Falcons cap this year. Were they worth that amount? Probably not. But they certainly were worth at least half that amount. But then you have a player like Jerry, who is retained despite the fact that a player like Abraham has contributed on one Sunday more than Jerry has contributed in four seasons. If we’re judging what Jerry is worth, then he’s probably only worth a quarter of what he’s being paid, roughly the same price tag that Travian Robertson will carry this year: $491,500, if not less.
These are the little things that bother me when it comes to the Falcons roster. And while most people will sleep soundly through the night oblivious to these issues, they constantly gnaw at the back of mind. I don’t want to make it seem like the Falcons’ decision to keep Peria Jerry is some terrible decision that will doom the team. But it represents a symptom of a larger issue, that I believe holds this team back. Which is complacency.
Complacency doesn’t stop the team from being a very good team. But it does stop the team from being a great team if you ask me. Arthur Blank said it best:
Good is the Enemy of Great.
I think complacency is also embodied in the decision to roll the dice on Dominique Davis being the No. 2 quarterback. I personally feel that Davis was far from the caliber of player last summer that suggested he was ready for that mantle and responsibility this year. And I feel that his play this summer has proven me right. That is also represented in the play of Levine Toilolo, a player I liked coming out of Stanford, but wasn’t convinced that Atlanta would be the ideal scenario for him to develop. He got off to a bad start this summer. I won’t write him off, since I previously noted players can make a big leap in their second years. But it certainly hasn’t been a promising start to what hopefully will be a long career in Atlanta. The complacency lies in the Falcons decisions not to address their tight end depth over the previous three off-seasons, where they were simply content with Tony Gonzalez and little else. Now if Toilolo doesn’t get better then it represents multiple missed opportunities from the Falcons.
The four biggest flaws of the Falcons last season was their running game, offensive line play, pass rush, and pass coverage abilities in their back seven. Now I do believe the addition of Steven Jackson has adequately addressed one of those areas. I however am not convinced any of the others have improved to any significant level. We shall see this upcoming year. And if they have been, then I’ll shut my mouth. If not, then I want to see the Falcons make greater strides to address those issues next off-season. Otherwise, they will be doing the thing I said they should be trying to avoid at all cost, and not putting their franchise player in the best position to fulfill his promise.