The Atlanta Falcons will be attempting to move on from the greatest tight end of all time this offseason in Tony Gonzalez, which is rife with challenges.
Obviously the team will struggle to replace the production that Gonzalez has given that position over the past five years, where he combined to catch 409 passes and 35 touchdowns, resulting in the Falcons losing roughly a quarter of their passing production.
While the return of a healthy Julio Jones, and retention of veterans Roddy White and Harry Douglas at wide receiver can help fill some of that void, it will likely lead to a net loss for the Falcons offense with Gonzalez’s departure. Backup Levine Toilolo got limited snaps during his rookie season and it will be a tall order for him to try and fill the void as the starter.
Toilolo during his days at Stanford shined in a two-tight end offense, where a combination of him and players like Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener would attack the seams in Stanford’s run-oriented, vertical offense. Toilolo’s height and length can make him an effective downfield threat because he can extend to catch high passes that most defenders cannot. That height also serves Toilolo well in the red zone, where he was underutilized as a target this past season. Toilolo was targeted six times this past season in the red zone, scoring a pair of touchdowns which was the highest percentage of touchdowns to targets on the Falcons. The underutilization becomes apparent when compared to White and Douglas, who scored just once on 26 combined targets in the red zone in 2013. But Toilolo is by no means a dynamic weapon, since he is more an outlet option than someone that can be the centerpiece of an offense much like Gonzalez was.
That is why the Falcons will need to bolster this position in some way this offseason, whether via the draft or free agency, or both. Chase Coffman is an impending unrestricted free agent and his return at this point is negligible. Coffman has had a few brief moments during his short stint with the Falcons, but essentially is a third tight end and should not be expected to carve out a significantly bigger role in 2014 than he currently has. Instead, the Falcons must turn to other options if they intend to try and fill some of the void left by Gonzalez.
A free agent pickup could be an immediate solution, particularly someone that is a more adept pass catcher than Toilolo. Essentially the Falcons should be looking for the Dennis Pitta to Toilolo’s Ed Dickson: a “move” or “F” tight end that can help add value on third downs as a chain mover much like Gonzalez did over the past five seasons. The Falcons could also seek to find such a player in the draft, where they may have a few more options.
But at this point, Toilolo is the only player currently on the roster guaranteed to be back in 2014. The aforementioned Coffman might find greener pastures elsewhere given the likelihood that the Falcons will not offer more than the veteran minimum to him. Also, players like Adam Nissley, Andrew Szczerba, and Mickey Shuler are on the roster and could be brought back to compete in camp. But all three are primarily blockers with limited upside to be higher than third on the depth chart. Between the three of them, the Falcons could have a decent competition to replace Coffman if need be.
If Coffman departs, it would increase the likelihood that the Falcons try to use both free agency and the draft to address this position by signing a veteran to be or compete for the starting position, and drafting a developmental player in the latter half of the draft.
But in the end, it’s unlikely that the Falcons open training camp in 2014 without having made a significant addition at this position with a player that can be either a compatriot of Toilolo or a competitor.