The Atlanta Falcons pulled off a trade late last night, acquiring former Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in exchange for linebacker Akeem Dent. It was a smart move by the Falcons front office for several reasons:
- The trade addressed a key area of need: backup quarterback.
- It cost very little.
- Showed that the team was willing to move on from a move that clearly wasn’t working.
Let’s address each of those things in kind:
Addressing a Key Need
The Falcons backup quarterback situation was one of the weakest in the National Football League. Dominique Davis currently sat atop the Falcons depth chart behind starter Matt Ryan, but Davis has done little over the past year to indicate he deserves such status.
After a promising rookie summer where he unseated long-time backups Chris Redman and John Parker Wilson, Davis seemingly regressed last summer. The areas where he needed to show the most improvement upon: mechanics, touch and accuracy, hardly showed any growth. It’s not to say that Davis can’t eventually get there with more time, but he certainly did not show he was there quite yet.
Davis’ inability to complete intermediate and vertical passes last summer was a major glaring issue. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, Davis completed just 42.9 percent of his 28 attempts of 10 yards or more last preseason, with one touchdown, three interceptions and a passer rating of 46.8.
Frankly, if you cannot reliably complete throws beyond 10 yards, then you don’t really belong in the NFL as a quarterback. Perhaps Davis would have shown the necessary improvement this summer to earn his starting spot, but that was a risk the Falcons should not have been willing to take. Anybody that knows the team’s recent history knows that lacking a backup quarterback is not some trivial issue. This team has had two recent seasons tank (2003 and 2007) because of the lack of an adequate Plan B in the absence of its starter.
Thus enters Yates. Yates is by no means the best option the Falcons could have added to address their need at backup quarterback. Josh Freeman, David Carr and Rex Grossman, all currently free agents, are simply better and more experienced quarterbacks. But Yates is a step in the right direction. With seven career starts (all from his rookie season in 2011), he has legit NFL experience.
In Houston when Yates replaced an injured Matt Schaub down the stretch in 2011, he was asked to manage the game. He didn’t need to do much because at the time the Texans sported among the league’s premier rushing attacks and defenses that season. As long as Yates could protect the ball and keep the offense on schedule with short and intermediate throws, things worked out well for the Texans. He’ll be asked to fill a similar role here in Atlanta, although he won’t have nearly the supporting cast in those two areas he had in Houston.
That could create problems for Yates. He does not possess a great arm and will miss on some throws because of that. His touch and accuracy on deeper throws isn’t quite up to par, which can lead to turnovers and incompletions. He does move well in the pocket, able to buy time and avoid pressure, but doesn’t always do a great job resetting his feet to throw with accuracy. That too can also get him into trouble and lead to some turnovers.
But the biggest knock on Yates is that he’s still at this point in his career a one-read quarterback. That can lead him to throw interceptions as smart defenders can read his eyes and jump throws as they did in his more recent performances as a Texan. Yates threw three interceptions in a playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, and a pair in his only major action in 2013 during the second half of a loss against the St. Louis Rams. Most of those turnovers being poorly placed deeper throws or jumped throws by defenders.
The point is, the Falcons did not get a savior in Yates. But they got a guy that if he has weapons around him (namely Julio Jones and Roddy White), he can competently run the offense. And at this point, Yates in limited action has shown a lot more than Davis has.
Despite the Falcons’ efforts to improve their pass protection, it is by no means a guarantee that Ryan will stay healthy in 2014. A year ago, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo suffered bruised ribs the first time he took a hit last year. Meanwhile, Ryan managed to take roughly 90 hits over the course of the 2013 season without missing any time. Lowering the number of hits a quarterback takes certainly improves his chances of remaining healthy, but it is by no means a guarantee. It is essentially random if/when any of the hits a quarterback will take over the course of a year will wind up being one that will keep him off the field. The Falcons can’t simply trust that improved offensive line play alone can keep Ryan healthy and upright in 2014. They need to have a contingency plan in the event that he does go down, and Yates is a much better one than their current options.
The Low Cost
While again, Yates is not as capable a quarterback as players like Freeman, Carr or Grossman, he hardly cost them anything either. Typical salaries for a veteran No. 2 quarterback in the NFL range between $1 and $5 million. In Yates, the Falcons essentially upgraded their backup quarterback situation and saved $80,000 in the process.
Dent was set to count roughly $860,000 against the Falcons 2014 salary cap, but by shipping him off the Houston, his $725,000 base salary gets cleared off Atlanta’s books. The Falcons do however take on the remainder of his unallocated signing bonus in terms of a dead money hit of $135,725. In Yates, the team will have to absorb his $645,000 2014 base salary on their cap hit, which is obviously $80,000 lower than Dent’s, freeing up that space on their 2014 cap.
Again, while the Falcons could have secured a much better quarterback if they were willing to spend money, the value on the Yates-Dent trade was just too good to pass up. Had the Falcons tried to sign someone like Carr or Grossman, it likely would have cost them at least $1 million more in 2014 cap space. And a player like Freeman, probably an even higher amount.
It was very clear that Dent wasn’t working out here in Atlanta. When first selected in the third round of the 2011 draft, I was highly skeptical of the pick. Dent, was a player that I had graded as a seventh-round talent that the team seemingly reached on in the third round. While never being the biggest fan of former Falcon middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, I still recognized that Lofton was a better player than Dent. But I had hoped that Dent would ultimately prove me wrong and the Falcons right with their faith in him.
That did not prove to be the case in 2012 in Dent’s first year as a starter. He struggled in the team’s base package and was often a liability against the run. He was arguably the team’s weakest link among their dozen “starters” (including the nickel cornerback) on defense. And because of that, it made perfect sense why the Falcons played so much nickel that year, to limit the amount of exposure Dent could get against opposing offenses.
The hope was that with a year under his belt, Dent would show significant improvement in 2013. That was not the case. While Dent did improve, he was far from playing at a level that merited him being a starter. With the decline of Stephen Nicholas in coverage in 2012, it was expected that Dent would graduate from base defender into an every-down player. However, by the end of the preseason, it was undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu that was earning serious reps on passing downs for the Falcons defense. And it was not long before the Falcons turned to another undrafted rookie in Paul Worrilow at the middle linebacker position. By year’s end, Worrilow and Bartu were playing well, and when further injuries depleted the Falcons linebacker corps, the team turned once again to Nicholas. Dent was out of favor in Atlanta.
That decline was further evidenced when the team drafted a trio of inside linebackers this past May in the 2014 NFL Draft: Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood, all of whom would be pushing for time.
It seemed clear that Dent was only going to be a special teams contributor if he managed to stick in 2013. Worrilow and Bartu were well ahead of him, and he had three rookies, each capable of performing on special teams as well, breathing down his neck. Dent was a very good special teams player for the Falcons as a rookie in 2011, leading the team with 17 stops. But his performance wasn’t quite up to snuff in the second half of 2013 when he returned to playing primarily on special teams after being benched. He had just four tackles on special teams.
Trading Dent shows that the Falcons were willing to move on from something that clearly was not working. Dent had not come close to returning the team’s investment. A third-round pick is expected to win a starting job by his second or third season in the league and solidify that role. Dent had not, creating more questions than answers at the position. With the emergences of players like Worrilow and Bartu, and the potential for further ones by Shembo, Spruill and Smallwood down the line, Dent needed a huge turn-around just to stick with the Falcons beyond this year.
Like Yates, 2014 marked the final year of Dent’s rookie contract. Even if he made the team’s roster, he would essentially have to revert to his 2011 form on special teams in order to earn a second contract with the Falcons. That didn’t seem likely to happen and thus the Falcons smartly moved on and got something in exchange for him.
In the end, acquiring Yates may not be some franchise-defining move for the Falcons. Hopefully, Yates’ presence on the roster will hardly be noticed simply from the continued good health of Matt Ryan. But the move shows that the Falcons are at least making an effort to plug problem areas.
That’s an effort that the team hasn’t always shown as the Falcons have seemed far too complacent in terms of their backup quarterback situation in recent years, trusting that Ryan would remain healthy without having a viable backup. Again, Yates is by no means Frank Reich as far as backups go, but he is a significant step in the right direction.
At least from this point on, you can’t blame the Falcons’ mistakes on a lack of effort. And when it comes to personnel, that’s really all you can ask for. As Dent’s career shows, not every move is going to work out. But there is nothing worse as an organization than to stand pat on something that is clearly not working in the hope it turns around in the end.