Atlanta Falcons

Falcons

NFL Team Column
By Eric Bendig

2009 NFL Draft
2010 NFL Draft

8 February 2013

Post Super Bowl Needs

The Atlanta Falcons have some key areas that need to be addressed in free agency and through the draft. Below is a list of positions or position groups that will be taken in to consideration during the coming months, starting with the most prevalent needs:

Running Back- The Falcons leading rusher last year was Michael Turner with 800 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. His lack of stats is twofold, as the Falcons possessed two 1,100 plus yard Wide Receivers and the 6th best passing offense in the NFL. But Turner also has had injury issues and left the Championship game with an injury. It is widely publicized that he could be a cap casualty and the Falcons could look to go after someone in the Free Agency period or in the Draft. If they decide not to pursue any free agents in this year’s weak running back group, I would assume they address this position in Rounds 1 or 2 of the draft. Keep your eyes on Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard, and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin as potential picks in the 2013 NFL draft’s first two rounds.

Tight End- Tony Gonzalez still has some gas left in the tank as we all saw last year during the regular and post season games. Gonzalez is someone who keeps himself in tremendous physical shape and has played at a high level for a long time. He could make this a secondary concern for the Falcon’s roster if he stayed another year. Reports are that General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has made the offer to have Gonzalez stay for one more run at the Super Bowl, but who knows what he will decide. Either way, the tight end position needs to be addressed. There are actually solid choices for the Falcons in Free Agency, with the Giant’s Martellus Bennett and the Titan’s Jared Cook set to hit the market. If they decide to take the draft as their route to fill this spot, they will more than likely have their pick of top talent at the top of the tight end class. Stanford’s Zach Ertz and Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert are possibilities at pick 30.

Defensive End- Ultimately I think this is where the Falcons want and need to go with their first round pick this year. The draft is loaded with talent at defensive end/pass rushing outside linebacker this year. SO many teams will be looking to upgrade at the position in the first round, but by the time the Falcons, pick they could be able to get great value. Starting defensive end John Abraham still led the team in sacks with 10, but he is just getting too old and too expensive for them to keep around for 10 sacks a year. The other starter is Kroy Biermann and he is a solid contributor, but not an above average starter. Either way, they have to get better at this spot and the free agency option is actually pretty loaded with talents such as the Bengal’s Michael Johnson and the Cowboy’s Anthony Spencer hitting the open market. The Falcon’s have a great chance of landing value at pick 30 in the first round , or in the second round as well, if they plan on loading up this position in the draft. More on the possible draft picks will come in a few days.

Right Guard- More than likely the Falcons will part ways with Todd Mcclure and use cap space in order to re sign Sam Baker at Left Tackle. That will allow the Falcons to move Peter Konz to center, the position he played for Wisconsin in college, and make an offseason move to get better on the interior. They could re sign Garrett Reynolds, but this is a major need and they have to make sure they don’t just try to plug the hole with a cheap veteran. There won’t be a top tier free agent at Guard, and this year’s Draft Class is filled with mid round guys who could step into NFL systems and play. I will scout specific players in a later article for the Falcons draft needs, but two players to watch in the upcoming combines are Larry Warford of Kentucky and Brian Winters of Kent State. Both players are big bodied and will help out on the interior immediately.

Also, as far as depth purposes are concerned, the Falcon’s need to make some roster moves in order to get quality backups in the following areas: wide receiver, linebacker, defensive tackle, and quarterback. I will have much more to come on the needs and possible free agents that will be targeted in the coming months. Stay tuned for more on all Falcons off season needs.

Follow me on Twitter @ScoutingBlitz

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2 May 2011

Atlanta Falcons: Sold their Soul for Julio Jones.

A Qualitative and Moderately Quantitative Study In The Cost of Short-Term Thinking; How The Oil Embargo of the Carter Administration, The 49ers of 1995 and The Falcons Draft of 2011 Al Relate.

Football has become a game of the forward pass; this much is certain.  Last year was the first year ever we saw a league-wide completion percentage over 61 percent.  One of these teams, the Detroit Lions, ran over 60% of their plays from the shotgun.

Here is where the Falcons have been so adversely contrarian to the passing trends.  Despite having Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez (albeit an aging Gonzalez) being thrown to by promising young quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons have continued to stick with an archaic offense built around pounding the ball with Michael Turner.  I have advocated for some time that the Falcons open up the playbook and invest in more speed, not only on offense but team-wide. 

Their loss to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs showed a dearth of weapons in the passing game outside of White.  Their over-reliance and unwillingness to schematically vary their “Turner run, Turner run, Gonzalez pass in the flat” typical sequence (evidenced in the steady decline Matt Ryan has had in his net per yards per pass attempt statistic since his phenomenal rookie year) came to undo them against the talented Green Bay defense. 

On defense, John Abraham ably attempted to bring Rodgers down (and often came very close) but he was the lone wolf honing in for the kill in that game. Lastly, their small third and fourth-cornerbacks were taken advantage by the size and aggressive nature of the Green Bay third and fourth wideouts in Jordy Nelson and James Jones.

Playing half of your games indoors in the Georgia Dome, to me, caters to a team building philosophy that should maximize speed.  Yet, for years the Falcons have had nothing outside of White as a competent big-play threat on offense and only Abraham to rush the passer on defense. 

For a time, Jerious Norwood looked as though he could bring the electricity when he touched the ball out of the backfield but injuries have diminished his effectiveness and he is all but gone from the roster now.  Gonzalez of five years ago would threaten the deep center of the defense but Gonzalez circa 2009-2010 has proven to be little more than a very reliable short and mid-range target.  Lastly, Michael Jenkins, while an able-bodied physical receiver, particularly in the red zone, does not give the Falcons the dual-threat that would greatly open up their offense.

So, the answer then is to get a speedy, big-play receiver opposite White, right?!

Yes…and, as our 49ers of 1995 taught us, no.

History has a funny way of repeating itself.  The human condition is such that, while our toys and baubles we use to satisfy our lusts and fleeting glances of our eyes that lead to dopamine release in the brain has changed, the essential condition is still the same; we want what we do not need.  We covet.  We lust.  We steal, maybe even kill, to get what we want as our addictions grow stronger and stronger.  The power of getting our proverbial “fix” is a strong force. 

Despite all of the data we see that such a life will not lead to anything but momentary, fleeting happiness in such pursuits, humans are a notoriously fickle lot who make decisions that are often about perceived optimization of short-term events while clearly causing a detriment to the long-term.  If you don’t believe me, gas here in my state of Wisconsin is now over $4 a gallon and I recall my father talking about the first big “gas scare” of his life in the late 1970’s. 

If there was any shred of economic wisdom governing our energy usage, the powers that be in the political realm then would have clearly and decisively implemented a long-term, sequential plan to wean our use of fossil fuels, particularly oil from the OPEC nations.  Instead, tenuous political alliances were the primary means of keeping gas prices in control, as well as favorable supply-and-demand conditions. 

Clearly, I do not need to go into a description of how that short-term thinking has panned out as you probably filled up your tank at some point this week and then considered giving plasma to offset your growing energy consumption costs.

You though reader see my point and this is not just about politics or spirituality or fashion; lacking a long-term focus in developing a football organization, from a managerial standpoint, to a schematic implementation and teaching system, to a player/personnel acquisition system, will eventually undermine that organization. 

The same undermining can occur through taking needless risks built on the tricks of the eye rather than cold, hard metrics and sound economics.

And, if the history of the NFL has taught us nothing, draft weekend is the prime time for needless risks such as the one the Falcons made on Thursday in mortgaging their future to move up to get Julio Jones.  But don’t take my word for it.

Look at the San Francisco 49ers, circa 1994-1995.

I had the privilege of beginning my education with the X’s and O’s side of football in the heyday of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980’s that went into the first half of the 1990’s.  The West Coast Offense was truly innovative at the time and, by my teen years, the 49ers had perfected Bill Walsh’s brain child to perfection. 

What began in 1979 when Walsh took over the laughingstock of the NFL came to full fruition at the end of the 1994 season, when Steve Young, a talented but raw and underachieving prospect he traded second and fourth-round selections for in the 1987 draft to back-up the fragile Joe Montana (and eventually replace him), threw six touchdown passes in the Super Bowl against the San Diego Chargers.

I vividly remember that off-season and see similarities to what the 49ers chose to do in their 1995 draft and what Thomas Dimitroff and the Atlanta Falcons player personnel management decided to do this weekend at the 2011 NFL Draft.

While the 49ers put forth one of the most dominant offensive performances ever in the Super Bowl in 1995 and had played that year at stratospheric heights in terms of their efficiency, their juggernaut was not without chinks in its armor.  That Super Bowl team was primarily the leftovers of Walsh’s brilliant personnel moves he began in 1986, when he began retooling the 49ers roster after their first two Super Bowl wins by replacing the aging veterans in a gradual process over three years.  In 1986, Walsh traded down repeatedly in the draft, ending the day with what would eventually become six long-term starters for the 49ers.

By the sound of the final gun though in 1995, many of that “second remake” edition of the 49ers were aging.  The incomparable Jerry Rice was north of 30 but, with his workout regimen, that was a footnote at best. 

However, his long-time running mate, the underrated John Taylor (one of the hauls from the 1986 Walsh draft masterpiece), was one-year away from retirement.  Brent Jones, he of the frequent landings on his head in full inversion after being tackled, was an aging but productive tight end as well.

What happened to the 49ers that off-season though was a tale of primarily three key “undoings” of the dynasty, two of which I will relate to the Falcons.  Those three items were:  losing the versatile and highly underrated Ricky Watters at halfback to the Philadelphia Eagles, letting their offensive line age with no replacements being groomed and allowing Deion Sanders to take his lockdown cover corner abilities to the rival Dallas Cowboys.

At the time, everyone wanted to write the death knell on the 49ers repeat chances because of losing Prime Time (Deion).  However, I saw more subtle chinks in the armor that, now confirmed through statistical analysis, were clearly visible to me then, if only at an intuitive, non-quantitative measures level.

The previous year, the 49ers were at one point a ravaged 2-3 team.  They had numerous injuries along the offensive line that served as the primary undoing of their performance.  Steve Young was routinely being pummeled and was even pulled from one drubbing, a 40-8 loss to the Eagles, due to the beating he was suffering. 

Eventually though, the line jelled and the oldies but goodies got healthy and stayed healthy together.  Young went on a blistering pace, showing a mastery of the West Coast system that few have ever exhibited.

In their Super Bowl win, the Chargers lacked the front-line pass-rush threats to expose the 49ers offensive line.  They were hamstrung as they lacked the back-seven talents to match-up with the weapons outside in Rice and Taylor, the linebackers to stick with Jones over the middle as well as cover the underrated and extremely deadly Rick Watters out of the backfield.  I wonder though, had they been able to pressure Young, how that game would have turned out.

The next year, the weakness’ were exposed.  Losing Watters coupled with the injury to fullback William Floyd led to the 49ers lacking a ground game.  I would actually attribute the loss of Watters as the number one undoing of that dynasty and it became evident in many games where Young was the best runner the 49ers had.  Lastly, the offensive line began a gradual decline in performance over the next few years as the 49ers were using aging, spackle-job free-agent signings to fill holes in the unit rather than draft quality, young lineman to develop together.

At the time, I believed that the 1995 draft was to prove a critical turning point in maintaining the dynasty of the 49ers.  What I saw though was a front-office growing fat and, frankly, unrealistic about its recent performance in player acquisition.  My fears were confirmed on draft day.

In a bold move the 49ers moved from the 30th overall selection to the 10th, trading with (stop me if you find this ironic) the Cleveland Browns (GASP!), giving up their first, third and fourth-round picks that year as well as their first-round pick the next season to select UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes. 

At the time, Stokes looked like a real find.  He was being praised in the organization as the “heir apparent to Jerry Rice”.  Steve Young raved about his shiny new toy’s magnificently large catching radius, telling Sports Illustrated he “expands the catching radius by at least seven feet (with his height, reach and leaping abilities)”.  On a schematic level, the loss of Watters, who frequently went in motion out of the backfield and lined up as a wide receiver in various spots was to be offset by Stokes. 

At the time, the trend was to have smaller cornerbacks and the league was just beginning to devise schemes and players (i.e. the Tampa-2 and larger cover corners), to primarily stop the West Coast offense and its main strengths; short, ball-control passes completed in the under coverage zones (i.e. near linebackers, at the time not as fast or versed in coverage as today’s edge players on defense). 

Stokes would go on to have a mediocre career, being replaced in the role he was supposed to fulfill, the next great 49ers wide receiver, by the loudmouth that would become known as “T.O.” or Terrell Owens.  What was evident early on with Stokes was that, while very large, he simply lacked short-area burst and explosion. 

While on some level a game of speed, football is mostly about short-area quickness and agility in most cases within the passing game.  Subtle maneuvers, added to by great balance and/or precision route running, are what most help a receiver come open.  Stokes lacked the short-gears so-to-speak to excel in this arena.  If anything, Stokes’ “over-sizedness” came to mark a turning point for West Coast offenses as one can see a general trend to implement more mid-sized receivers (i.e. 5’11” to 6’2”) in the system over the coming years as more rule changes would favor quicker receivers over bigger ones. 

The increased use of the shotgun formation, single-back sets and the cover-two/Tampa-2 scheme on defense caused a paradigm shift in the West Coast offense that became reflected in wanting receivers who, while still being large enough to be able to duke it out with linebackers on slant, hitches and scat routes, could also wheel more at the mid-level of the defense as well. 

While weapons on the edges help to extend the whole field, football is still ultimately a game that is won or lost upfront in the battle between the dualing offensive and defensive lines.  The latter is, after quarterback, I believe the most important unit to develop on a team.  Bill Walsh himself once said that the key to winning was to have a consistent pass rush late in the game.

Herein is the oddity within the passing game.  Much how the offensive line is a reactionary position, the receiver position is what I refer to as an “outgrowth” or “correlational position”, i.e. the performance of this unit is primarily determined by the play of the quarterback and his subsequently pass-blocking offensive line.

If a quarterback lacks accuracy, no amount of clever route running or field-stretching burst and speed on the boundaries will matter.  If said quarterback is not given just enough time to find that receiver (and great quarterbacks do in fact make their lines look better than they really are so that line does not even need to be exceptional upfront), all his work outside is for naught.

Yes, exceptionally physically gifted receivers can elevate an entire passing offense but such athletes, the Jerry Rice’s, the Randy Moss’ (when he decided to run his routes and play that is), the Calvin Johnson’s, the Larry Fitzgerald’s, the Andre Johnson’s, etc. are extremely rare players.

You read it here first folks; Julio Jones, he the Falcons mortgaged their 2011 and 2012 drafts on, is NOT one of those kinds of players.

A.J. Green was the only player in this draft I thought capable of producing what the Falcons are expecting, based on what they gave up in draft choices, at the wideout position opposite Roddy White.

Some may argue that Jones does not need to be exceptional.  He simply needs to be a “good enough” deep threat to pull attention away from White to take the Falcons passing game, and therein their offense, to the next level.

Perhaps this is true.  However, giving up a first-round selection (27th overall), a second-round selection (59th overall), a fourth-round selection (124th) and first-and fourth-round selections in 2012 means this wideout had better be a bit more than “good enough.”  To quote Chris Rock, if the Falcons had traded for a dentist, he better not just be any ol’ dentist; “that motherf----r better have invented teeth!”

Julio Jones, if wideouts were dentists, is not the kind who “invents teeth”.  ESPN, with the help of the great people writing at Football Outsiders, developed a player projection system for receivers known as the Playmaker Score, which ranked Jones as the 13th best wideout in this draft.  Now, that does not mean he IS the 13th best but simply means that a player like Green, the solid first in Playmaker Score, is a WAY safer bet when giving up the haul that Atlanta gave to Cleveland than is a player like Jones.

Jones may end up being a very good player.  The problem is, the opportunity cost given up by the Falcons means he needs to be a great player—and fast too.  Historically, receivers struggle their first two years as they learn more complex route trees than they ran in college, learn new offensive terminology and develop timing with their quarterback.  Jones is not the type of player, like a Calvin Johnson, a Percy Harvin or a Michael Crabtree, who possesses combination of all-around skills (Crabtree) or freakish athleticism (Johnson and to a lesser extent Harvin) to come in and immediately dominate the competition.

In looking at getting Jones, one must only fairly look at what the Falcons, in theory, could have had as well. 

With the 27th selection, some of the names on the board: 

Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod at offensive tackle.  Keep in mind Tyson Clabo is set to be an unrestricted free-agent once the CBA is cleared up, ditto Harvey Dahl and Justin Blaylock—three starting offensive lineman 49ers, err, Falcons fans.

Jabaal Sheard, Daquan Bowers or Cameron Heyward at defensive end.  In case it wasn’t clear, John Abraham is not getting younger and the Falcons lack a pass-rush apart from him.

Even had they decided to go wide receiver in round one, a move I would not have been opposed to at 27, they could have taken Jon Baldwin or Torrey Smith, either of whom would not have been reaches at that point and provided the deep threat presence opposite White minus the mortgaging of the future that Jones brings. 

With their second-round selection, the Falcons could have had another set of solid receivers to pick from in Randall Cobb, Greg Little or done a projection pick (and admitted character risk) with selecting linebacker Justin Houston and moving him to defensive end.

In summation, the Falcons made a decision on Thursday night much like the 49ers made in 1995.  With glaring other needs and by no means “one puzzle piece away”, Atlanta gave up long-term player acquisition health for a shiny, new toy…one that could have been acquired for a lot less at the 27th overall selection than at the 6th overall selection.

On the one hand, I admire the move if only that it signifies the Falcons are more committed to throwing the football.  On the other, and significantly more weighted hand, they have given up their ability to fortify their pass rush opposite of Abraham.  They have also given up their immediate ability to at least groom replacements/acquire solid depth for their offensive line.

So what have they gained?

Potentially, a great wide receiver.  Jones has great size, deceptive vertical speed and underrated short-area burst.  Some of his low Playmaker Score could be attributed to his quarterbacks and the rate he was targeted at Alabama.  He is an incredibly physical player who also is the rare wide receiver who is talented and not a diva.  These are all positive things, to be sure.

However, none of these qualities are so exceptional as to justify what the Falcons have given up to acquire him.  The only way that this does pan out for Atlanta that I see is if Jones becomes the anti-Stokes, a player who puts up similar numbers to White and goes to multiple Pro Bowls. Further, even if he does accomplish all of that, I question if Atlanta needed to give up THAT much to get that level of production.

In a game that is governed by maximizing the production per dollar from your players, giving up all the Falcons gave up to get a player like Jones simply makes this move a headscratcher and one that could set back what I thought was looking inevitable, namely, the Falcons dominating the NFC South for the next 5 years.  As of this writing, I give that new edge slightly in favor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they captained by an equally competent (and more physically gifted) passer in Josh Freeman and also of a sound team-building strategy, emphasizing depth and continued quality additions to both lines.

Mark my words…much like the 49ers of 1995, the Falcons’ shiny new toy and the incredible cost to acquire him is very likely to come back to haunt them.  Gonzalez will be gone after this year as very possibly Abraham may be as well.  Who knows what will happen with the state of the offensive line.  Their defense, while across-the-board improving, will still lack a quality pass-rusher.  Michael Turner has at best three more productive years in him and the last of those years would be the second year of whatever players could have been acquired in 2012.

In my ideal world, the Falcons would have done just what the Patriots did; trade down with New Orleans and assist a division-rival in an equally questionable short-term gamble by acquiring Mark Ingram and capitalize by selecting Bowers at defensive end in the second-round along with Torrey Smith or Randall Cobb with the other second-round pick they would have acquired from the Saints. 

I think the math on Smith or Cobb, Bowers, this year’s fourth-round selection and still having next year’s first and fourth-round selection IN ADDITION to the Saints first-round pick in 2012 is, lump sum, a higher net gain than Julio Jones.

Hopefully I am proven wrong.  If history is any guide though, I will look back and see a bit of the 1995 49ers in the 2011 Falcons.

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26 March 2011

A Quick Preview/Teaser for The Falcons 2011 Draft

Well Falcons fans…I will be honest and say that, no, I do NOT in fact hate to say I told you so.  I love being right.  I enjoy being that guy who defies your bandwagon conventions that refuse to look at the hard science behind the wins and the losses.  I enjoy being the guy throws water on the Super Bowl fire/serves as the realist/”downer” figure as a division title and home-field advantage are locked up.

While I did predict that Atlanta would lose to Green Bay in the playoffs, I do find that the loss needs to be taken with a certain grain of salt.  Aaron Rodgers went on a postseason tear at quarterback that approached that of Larry Fitzgerald’s at wide receiver back in the 2009 postseason.  As such, while I do not think that Atlanta’s secondary was as bad as it appeared in that game (although Chris Owens’ two consecutive defensive penalties that put Green Bay on the goal-line is utterly inexcusable and, at best, should be in the football dictionary next to the entry “Rookie Mistake(s)” with his befuddled face, arms extending in a futile attempt to dispute a pass interference call that was so obvious his mother would have called him for it), I do think that this game illustrates, again, points I have emphasized for many months now: 1.) The Falcons need a more consistent pass-rush to come from a source not named “John Abraham” and 2.) Continued improvement in the speed at linebacker and safety is needed.

With the current NFL labor dispute now boiling over into a lockout, ironically, the Falcons have seen another underlooked area potentially be put on hold.  Tyson Clabo at offensive tackle and Harvey Dahl at offensive guard were both set to become unrestricted free-agents but, with a lockout now in full-bloom, it is uncertain on how to define Clabo and Dahl (ditto linebacker Stephen Nicholas who, under the old system, would be a restricted free-agent). 

The important thing though is that no one can sign any of these players…or is that the important thing?

In previous years, applying the franchise player tag to a player like Dahl, the most marketable of the three players mentioned, would have allowed Dahl to receive the average of the top-5 highest paid players at his position for a one-year deal, allowing Atlanta to potentially deal him.  Now though, this cannot occur.

Ditto compensatory draft selections, awarded to teams for losing important free-agents.  Dan Pompei over at the Chicago Tribune wrote a great article years ago about how rarely is a team better served in resigning their expensive free-agents as the economic utility of draft selections makes them a much better “buy” than to spend the resources on resigning the player.  This is something I view as particularly relevant to positions I would define as more fungible, namely running back, outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, tight ends (with some exceptions based on abnormal physical tool sets, a la a Vernon Davis-type from San Francisco), fullbacks (when they are actually used as this position as a whole has declined in use by most teams) and inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.

In short, the labor dispute does affect draft strategy as, without a free-agent market to pluck from, Atlanta needs to address needs in this draft and will also not receive additional choices as it has the last two years via compensatory selections.

From that, what do we know?

In order, I would define their top three needs as the following:

  1. Outside linebacker
  2. Defensive End
  3. Offensive Tackle/Offensive Guard

In the following weeks, I will evaluate each of these positions and potential schematic fits for the Falcons.

Stay tuned…

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7 December 2010

Alcohol, Lampstands, and Why the Atlanta Falcons Are That Pretty Girl At The End of The Bar

It has often been said that statistics can be used like how a drunkard uses a lamppost; for support or for illumination. 

Now, let’s get one thing straight here; I am not about to assert that the Atlanta Falcons are a team getting by on smoke and mirrors.  They are, in fact, a talented team that is pulling out games late and playing consistent football overall (albeit they have yet to play a game where all three phases of the team—offense, defense, and special teams—plays cohesively well).  What I am going to say though is that they are not as good as their record indicates, even though they are likely to get home-field advantage in the playoffs.

For the mouth-breathers out there, write me if you want to know where to send the rhetoric driven hate mail.  For the more intelligent readers out there though, read on and you will see that I offer only truth.

As Morpheus told us, red pill or blue pill; now is your last chance to decide reader…only the brave should proceed further…

To begin, there have been numerous close call games this year for Atlanta that could easily have gone “either way.”  Early on in the year, there was the New Orleans game wherein a chip shot field goal was missed by the Saints which gave Atlanta the win.  Likewise, the San Francisco game could have also turned on a dime and had Nate Clements not gotten stripped of an end-game interception by Roddy White, San Francisco would have won that game.  The offense, increasingly featuring a one-two punch of Michael Turner runs and passes to Roddy White, and not a whole lot else, managed to save what would have been an epic meltdown against Cincinnati.  It took an improbable goal-line stand against the Buccaneers in their first match-up to win the game late.  Then, the Baltimore game was won off of a clear push-off (i.e. offensive pass interference) from Roddy White, which was not called a penalty even though after the game White admitted he pushed off, wherein he gained separation from Josh Wilson and was able to haul in a pass from Matt Ryan and take it into the end zone untouched.

In short, Atlanta could just as easily have four to five more losses this year than they have now.

Some would argue that this shows Atlanta is “resilient” or “gritty” or “tough” or “a clutch team.”  None of these abstract, intangibles based terms are for a guy like me though.  I’ll leave such terms to morons with sub 100 IQ’s who work for ESPN, Fox and NBC (*COUGH! Phil Simms!  *COUGH! Troy Aikman! Etc. all who have a Master’s in Stating The Obvious That Is Actually The Wrong Version of What Actually IS Obvious).  I am an intelligent guy who believes that analysis gives a clearer picture of reality and statistics can be used to support a drunken rant or help you sober up.

Consider this my attempt to “shine a light” on Atlanta’s success and temper the enthusiasm for this stretch run.

First off, Atlanta is consistently NOT defending the pass well.  

If Green Bay did not thoroughly prove that Atlanta has a lack of depth in their secondary then one could look at the Cincinnati game…or the Baltimore game…or the recent Tampa Bay game, and see all one needs to see.  The Atlanta secondary is comprised of a slightly above average cornerback getting overpaid in Dunta Robinson, a good in-the-box safety with upside in William Moore and precious little else.

Using the DVOA stats openly available at www.footballoutsiders.com, the Falcons as of last week were ranked 18th in the leagues for DVOA.  They are great at defending the run, ranking 4th, but an abysmal 24th against the pass.  If the NFL is nothing else right now, it is a passing league.  Yet, somehow, the Falcons have managed to stay in games.  Why?

The offense is doing a great job of not turning the ball over and being phenomenally consistent—albeit one, possibly two-sided.  If you take away Michael Turner and Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons have very little else going for them offensively.  As such though, they have been able to keep games close and rattle off consistent gains through the ground and the air, albeit most of them are low-yield, lower avg. yard gains (more on that later).  Eventually, a good defense (New York anyone?  Green Bay possibly or, gulp, Chicago) will figure this out and be able to greatly limit Atlanta.  The ideal formula would be to have 8 in the box to help limit Turner, double-cover Roddy White and force Atlanta to beat you with a declining (but still capable) Tony Gonzalez and/or Malcolm Jenkins in the passing game.

Furthering the look at defensive coverage, they are terrible against number one receivers (ranking 24th), slightly better against number two’s (20th) and decent against running backs (17th).  Tight ends have had a tough time though, credited to the wise decision to start Sean Weatherspoon at linebacker, the continuing emergence of Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker and the previously stated improvements in speed/youth offered by William Moore’s insertion at strong safety.  However, the lack of depth is exposed further when one looks at Atlanta against number three receivers and their 23rd ranking.

Pass defense though is two parts; one part the actual coverage players in the secondary and the other component being the pass rush.  Which leads me back to the second great ailment of the Atlanta defense that I have harped on for quite some time on this site; a lack of pass-rush from anyone else not named John Abraham.

Right now, Kroy Biermann is, by far, a much better pass-rush alternative than Jamaal Anderson ever was.  However, that is like saying one has upgraded their automobile luxury and reliability by going from a Ford Festiva to a Chevy Cavalier; perhaps better but certainly not optimal.  The adjusted sack rate of the defensive line is at 5.2%, ranking them at 28th in the league.  Such a lack of consistent pressure is daunting but it could perhaps be overlooked if said pressure occurred when it counts, i.e. Atlanta having a lead.  However, that is clearly not the case either, as evidenced by the second-half comebacks that halve almost become routine this year by opposing teams.

The late-game heroics that Atlanta has often shown would be completely avoided if early leads were protected by a ferocious pass rush bearing down on opposing quarterbacks.  The problem though, again, is that if a team renders John Abraham null and void, said quarterback will have time to find his wide receiver targets downfield.  Further, if that can also occur while out of a three or more wide receiver set, said pass plays are much more likely to be deeper completions against a thin Atlanta secondary.

Looking at the offense, as said, the Falcons have been not overly inventive (oh look, another off-tackle power run by Michael Turner!...ooouuuh!, a sexy flat pass off of play-action to Turner to Gonzalez in the flat…oh man!, yet another Roddy White pass wherein he made an improbable in-air adjustment off of a pressured throw from Matt Ryan!) but steady.  Their offensive DVOA ranking is 2nd, meaning they are a very consistent team, week in and week out, this year.  Further, their offensive pass rankings (as passing is more important to winning than running) is a more than healthy 7th overall. 

However, I question if any other offense this year is being more propelled in their passing game by one player than Atlanta’s through Roddy White.  White has thoroughly established himself as a blue-chip threat, able to attack all levels of the field and is showing a consistent reliability with a 68% catch rate.  Be it short passes, mid-range, or longer throws, White is pulling off catch after catch against contested coverage.  Matt Ryan is not a slouch on accuracy by any means but White has also made some incredible adjustments to help him out this year, particularly on long passes.  To think that such a pace is sustainable is not unrealistic.  However, the problem with receivers is that their excellence is very context dependent and VERY dependent on the play of the other units.  For example, if the quarterback throws an errant pass, the precision of the route ran and skill used to get open does not matter.  If the left tackle misses a key block and the quarterback sees said receiver getting open but has to throw the ball away, again, the receiver’s work is for naught.

Statistics have shown that quarterbacks affect their offensive line’s sack rates more than the “talent” of the line itself and that running backs affect their offensive line’s short-yardage numbers in particular.  However, almost EVERY scenario for a receiver is built on the performance of the other units.  This is why a smart team invests heavily in the wide receiver/non-QB skill positions LAST when developing a team.

A few years ago, White was wisely resigned at a value price by the Atlanta Falcons management.  Kudos to them for their financial prudence to realize that, while the offense does not have a ton of elite pieces just yet, they should secure one that they do have while he is still young and has yet to have reached his prime.

Looking at what Atlanta has outside of White, it is clear that Michael Jenkins is sub-par at best, producing a -6.6% DVOA for his catches, ranking him 61st in the league.  Gonzalez, while a sure-fire Hall of Fame player and still more than above-average tight end, has seen his yards per catch go down every year for the last four.  I am not convinced either of Harry Douglas as a legitimate receiving threat at the three slot position based on his numbers.  While a competent return specialist, he leaves a lot lacking for big-play spark. 

All of these weapons deficiencies in the passing game can be avoided though through good, solid line play.  Said line play can open up holes for Turner consistently and therein force defenses to play up just enough to give the Falcons the room to work the play-action game further downfield to get passes to White or to lull over-eager linebackers and safeties up to clear room down the seam or in the flats for Gonzalez.  Thankfully, this area of the team has been solid, albeit if they lack a lot of true talent upfront and are made to look better by the pile-driving power of Turner and the keen pocket awareness of Ryan.

In short, Atlanta needs to ride this wave of luck for what it is.  Atlanta is at +4 for wins expected—low and behold!, hark!, etc. all terms of jubilation…this is EXACTLY as I hinted at in the opening.  Atlanta EASILY should have lost four more games this year than they have.  They have had a lot of things go their way with turnovers.  Some would argue that turnovers, particularly creating them, is a skill and further points to Atlanta being an “elite” team.  However, their net passing efficiency is sitting at 6.2 net YPA on offense while they are simultaneously allowing 7.0 net YPA on defense.  In short, teams just need to quit trying to run on Atlanta and throw the dickens out of the ball (or was it just me who thought Green Bay’s version of the old school, Texas Tech Air Raid offense—i.e. 5 receivers and only a quarterback in the backfield—made Atlanta look silly most of that game two weeks ago?).  There are MORE than enough capable NFC teams able to do this (see Packers, Green Bay; see also Saints, New Orleans and Giants, N.Y.—the latter especially when all receivers injured get healthy).  Then there is the highly explosive team that is the Philadelphia Eagles with the ironic weapon at quarterback known as Michael Vick.  Beyond that, they have played an incredible cream puff of a schedule this year.

To sum up this whole article, it is fair to assert that Atlanta is having an incredible year.  My counter-assertion though is built on a few points:

  1. Is said style of winning (i.e. very vanilla-average on offense with far below-average turnover rates and a defense that is stout but vulnerable to high-octane offense passing) sustainable over the long haul, particularly when the mince-meat of the NFC gets reduced to the few “good” (as at least one of the not so good teams from the joke division that is the NFC West is going to be someone’s first-round playoff dinner) teams left?
  2. Can the turnover feast that is propelling Atlanta also be sustained or will they return to average before the end of the year?
  3. Can a team that cannot rush the quarterback and also not cover spread formation type packages win against teams that exactly play like that (e.g. Green Bay and New Orleans) who are likely playoff opponents?

Will they be in the playoffs?  Clearly yes.

Will they have home-field advantage in what is becoming one of the most formidable home-fields in the Georgia Dome?  Very likely.

Are they as good as their current record?  The numbers don’t lie and they say that the Atlanta Falcons are clearly not as good as the first glance looks.

Moral of the story; Don’t fall in love with the pretty girl at the bar (10-2 record) until you make sure the light you are looking at her under is being taken in by sober eyes (statistical analysis).

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25 August 2010

Where Is The Pass Rush?

Heading into the 2010 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons had a glaring hole at the defensive end spot opposite of John Abraham.  In addition, the reality is that Abraham is on the wrong side of 30 and, historically, has had issues with injuries.  The biggest defensive fortification for the Falcons this off-season in the free-agent market came not at defensive end but at cornerback, where they arguably overpaid for Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson.  The stage was set for selecting a full-time replacement for 2007 first-round bust Jamaal Anderson at left defensive end.

Instead, an emotional linebacker who is gifted in coverage was selected in the first-round.

This is not inherently a bad thing.  I believe Sean Weatherspoon will prove to be a great value and I could see him maturing into a Keith Bullock-type player at the weak outside linebacker slot.  However, he does not bring much to the table in terms of pass-rush.

The Falcons seem to be fortifying the interior of their defensive line well though as their second-round selection, Corey Peters, can team with last year’s injury redshirt first-round selection Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux to make for a solid threesome.  However, the edges of the line remain unfortified.  This could pose problems for the entire Atlanta defense.

With regards to pass-rushers, one generally can say that, by their third season, you will pretty much have a “what you have seen is what you will continue to get” scenario. In light of that, Jamaal Anderson is, at best, a run-stopping defensive end who offers nothing for pass-rush pressure.  This would not be a problem per say if not for his salary cap number.

Last year, Anderson counted for $3,002,436 towards the Atlanta Falcons salary cap.  His projected cap numbers for 2010 escalate slightly, projected (due to the structure of the deal, a precise number is difficult to ascertain) to be around 3.5 million.  To put that into perspective, Elvis Dumervil, he of the 17 sacks for the Denver Broncos last year, counted $640,730 towards the Broncos cap a year ago.  For those keeping track, that is a savings of $2,361,706 for 16 more sacks of performance.  To further compare, the 13th overall selection from the 2009 draft, Brian Orakpo (defensive end for the Washington Redskins), counted $1,588,000 towards the Redskins salary cap a year ago.

In short, Anderson is significantly overpaid for what he contributes to the Falcons.  As 2010 is a year without a salary cap and therein any remaining amounts on a players signing bonus (the only guaranteed portion of a player’s contract, normally pro-rated over the course of a contract for salary cap calculation purposes) would not count as a penalty amount (i.e. salary-cap “dead space”, or money paid to a player who is no longer on the team). 

The Falcons had the chance to unload the bust that is Jamaal Anderson in this year’s draft and they missed their opportunity.  Last year, John Abraham counted $7,507,280 towards the Falcons salary cap.  The reality is that a decline, either due to age or his tendency to never play a full-season, is almost inevitable from Abraham.

Last year, the Falcons had an adjusted sack rate (ASR) of 5.6 percent which placed them 26th in the NFL.  Now, a pass rush does not cure all defensive evils, to be sure.  Nor does a team with a top ranking in this metric have guaranteed defensive success.  For example, the Houston Texans ranked 19th overall in defensive DVOA but were 5th in adjusted sack rate (7.5%).  The Oakland Raiders are another example of a team with a top-notch pass rush (6th in the league with 7.5% ASR) but a poor overall ranking (24th in DVOA).  Some of these defensive shortcomings can be explained in part due to schematic differences. Another component is how an abnormality in one area can affect other areas that are, talent-wise, strong units on a team. 

For example, with the Raiders, they have an absolutely stellar shutdown cornerback with Nnamdi Asomugha.  Now, they have never paired him with much of anything opposite him his whole career (which makes his performance somewhat weighted in that teams by default avoid him because the other side of the field is veritably open grass where a defensive back should be) but, for whatever reason, last year, both sides of the Raiders defense was getting picked apart.  Against number one receivers, they ranked DEAD LAST in DVOA and were ranked 28th against number two receivers. 

In theory, one of these two rankings (due to Asomugha) should be significantly higher in ranking.  However, one looks further and sees the real bane to the Oakland defense; the play of the safeties.  Last year, if a receiver vacated the presence of Asomugha, the center of the Raiders defense was a sieve.  While those rankings show who was catching those passes, they unfortunately do not show where they were catching them.

So, with Atlanta, one can look at the Falcons defense and see similar matters going on.  The run defense was above-average, finishing 11th in the league last year for DVOA.  The only main weakness here was how the Falcons did in power situations (runs on third or fourth-down with two or less yards to go for a first-down), ranking 24th in the league.  Atlanta’s scheme sets up the defense for good line penetration on early downs due to being a.) a one-gap scheme and b.) emphasizing lighter, more explosive interior lineman versus sturdy, two-gapping, run-stuffer types so this discrepancy is explainable. 

In addition, they were very consistent in their run defense last year, ranking 19th on runs over the left end, 18th over the left tackle, 13th for runs in the middle/guard area of the line, 15th over right tackle and 10th over the right end spot (this somewhat dispels the notion that John Abraham is an atrocious run defender who is sold out on getting sacks at the expense of defending the run).

In looking at what led to the Falcons 20th overall ranking in DVOA last year, one can quickly see that it was not the run defense but the pass defense that was the main culprit.  So then, the question becomes a classic case of “what comes first, the chicken (a lack of pass rush) or the egg (horribly pass defense)?”

I have an answer of both/and and neither/nor.  Let me explain.
Atlanta had a horrible ranking against number one receivers (31st in DVOA) but were near the average against number two receivers (16th) yet were pretty lousy against number three receivers as well (30th).  Some of this can be explained by playing New Orleans twice per year, a team that regularly employs multiple wide-receiver formations but not all of it.  In addition, tight ends were defended fairly well (15th) but running backs had a field day against the Falcons last year (28th).

What is evident is this; there was a large drop-off last year from Atlanta’s top cornerback (arguably Chris Houston, now with the Detroit Lions) and the second and third (depending, Brian Williams, Chevis Jackson or Brett Grimes).  The good defense of the tight ends is not easily attributed to one unit but the horribly play against running backs can be placed on the linebackers.

Last year, I was not overly thrilled with the signing of Mike Peterson.  He was clearly a better option than re-signing a costly Michael Boley but my main concern was that he would take time away from the development of Stephen Nicholas (initially true but not so later in the season).  Peterson provides a lot in the way of leadership and run defense.  In coverage though, if he cannot hammer a tight end, he cannot do much.  He lacks short-area explosion and quick change of direction in his hips.  In short, isolating a running back in coverage on him was almost a sure completion.

In that, the selection of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon should help the Falcons more than one initially sees evident.  He is excellent in pass coverage.  In addition, he possesses a tremendous size-speed ratio wherein I could see him being effective on blitzes at the professional level.  He was not used extensively in this realm while at Missouri and his short arms could be an issue with getting separation from blockers but, if placed behind John Abraham, I could forsee some wicked jailbreaks on the weak side of the line with him following into a gap after a Abraham and Babineaux stunt.

So…perhaps the pass rush improves slightly from the abysmal ranking last year.  However, the true weak link, Anderson, still remains and handicaps the whole defense.  In addition, as we saw, the issue in the secondary had little to do with Chris Houston so the signing of Dunta Robinson to be the new number one is not necessarily that much of an upgrade.

Football is a team game wherein the impact of one unit can affect another greatly and the impact of one player can cause a ripple effect, positive or negative, throughout a defense.  The best hope for Atlanta in 2010 is to have the interior of the line improve on its ability to pressure the passer.  What this could do is potentially free Anderson up to make more plays.  However, rarely do pass-rushers suddenly develop in year four of their career.   What will most occur is the defense will have a slight improvement in their ASR and will have a veritable wash in terms of how they play against number one and two wide receivers.  The key area Weatherspoon can improve is in defending passes against tight ends and running backs as well as possible proving to be a better run defender (due to greater range and overall athleticism while being a match in terms of point of attack strength) than Mike Peterson.

Personally, I would have liked to see Chris Houston kept at cornerback and Brian Williams jettisoned with Robinson brought in.  Cornerbacks, unlike pass-rushers, often develop in their fourth year after having significant starting reps in years one through three and Houston was entering his fourth year.  It would not surprise me to see him develop into a red-chip caliber cornerback in Detroit and trading him did not gain the Falcons much relief under the salary cap (getting rid of Williams would have saved more money).  Regardless, the Falcons actual secondary does not look much better than last year’s at this point.

Beyond this, the rest of the Falcons draft looks like a solid collection of role players who will fill key positions on the depth chart.  Thus far, Weatherspoon has looked like a good find for them and will likely be an opening day starter.  Due to the legal issues of Jonathan Babineaux, expect to see Corey Peters get a boatload of playing time as well, a good fit in the Falcons scheme.  His skill set bodes well for a one-gap, slanting, on-the-move type of tackle.  Offensive guard Mike Johnson and Joseph Hawley provide back-up insurance inside as well as potential replacements in the event of losing Harvey Dahl after this year.  With Michael Jenkins having health issues as well, expect to see wide receiver Kerry Meier get some playing time opportunities as well.  In addition, cornerback Dominique Franks and safety Shann Schillinger could make the team as backups.

Overall, a solid if unspectacular haul with the bulk of the immediate payoff to be expected from Weatherspoon and Peters.  Hopefully, giving Biermann more playing time at defensive end will help to alleviate some of the Falcons pass rush issues but, again, I would have strongly considered a trade down and gone after Texas Christian defensive end Jerry Hughes (picked by the Colts).  In spite of their not grabbing a quality defensive end early, the Falcons put forth a solid effort in 2010 and will likely net two starters from this class.

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22 March 2010

If Thomas Dimitroff Were Possessed By Michael Schuttke On April 22, 2010, He Would…

A First-Round/Primary Need Based-View for the Atlanta Falcons

My apologies to readers for the overt pretentiousness of the title but I do try to inject my analysis with humor, a healthy dose of self-deprecation and statistically based analysis.  So it will be with this writing as well.

In what is a very watered down free-agent market due to the nebulous state of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA henceforth), the Falcons did make one good move and one that I would view as very questionable thus far, both revolving around the position of cornerback.  On the good move but with an asterisk front, Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson was signed to man one of the starting cornerback positions.   The reason I say good with an asterisk is because, while Robinson was the best cornerback in a weak free-agent crop, he is a tough player to discern his impact on through advanced metrics.  With the statistics I use to evaluate cornerbacks, he was barely better than the man the Falcons jettisoned shortly after his signing (see below). 

In addition, context is something that always needs to be looked at in player evaluations.  The pass-rush for the Houston Texans was better across-the-board than what the Falcons put up last year.  In that, is Robinson a slightly above-average cornerback with a team that has a solid pass-rush who will become a replacement level cornerback on a team that, right now, has a sub-par pass-rush?  Or…will he be even worse than average on this Falcons team?  Time will tell the tale here. As a whole, I think this was a good signing because it is an upgrade.  HOWEVER…on the other corner spot, I believe the Falcons got rid of the wrong cornerback (the up-and-coming young player) and kept an aging, schematically limited player to replace him.

To explain this bad move more, the Falcons traded soon-to-be third-year cornerback Chris Houston to the Detroit Lions for relative peanuts.  While Houston was not stellar by any means, he was an improving young cornerback.  I will be completely honest and say I thought that he had Ahmad Carroll-esque bust written all over him due to the tightness in his hips and his overly physical (i.e. pass interference penalty provoking) style of play when he was drafted a few years ago. 

However, he was actually a serviceable cornerback last year and did so on a team with a sub-standard pass rush.  Beyond that, cornerback is a position that often has players breaking out in their third or fourth seasons if they have had significant starting experience beforehand.  So, one has to wonder if a.) the Falcons will regret their move as the fruit of their labor could easily be enjoyed by Detroit and b.) due to the differences in the quality of their teams respective pass rush metrics a year ago, Robinson or Houston is the better player.

Either way, as it stands now, I would grade Atlanta as slightly improved at cornerback to the point now that it now longer needs attention in the first-round of the NFL Draft in April.  Robinson will man the one spot, newly re-signed (and aging) Brian Williams, injured most of last year, will man the opposite starting spot.  Coming off of the bench for their nickel and dime formations will be Chris Owens, last year’s promising third-round cornerback, and Chevis Jackson, entering his third-year out of LSU from the 2008 draft (also a third-round cornerback).  I still hold to the Falcons should have given the boot to Williams and kept Houston but that is all a mute point now.

While the marginal upgrade at cornerback will help Atlanta, the best possible upgrade that can occur is at the starting left end position.  The Falcons generated very little pressure last year off of the edge.  John Abraham was held to 5.5 sacks all year.  Jamaal Anderson, he of the first-round selection in 2007, has bust now written all over him, producing yet another dismal year for the Falcons.  Kroy Biermann (a fifth-round selection in 2008) has shown flashes of potential, as has Lawrence Sidbury (fourth-round in 2009) but both are best used in a rotation coming off of the bench.

In my ideal world, the money spent on Robinson would have been used for either Julius Peppers (formerly of the Carolina Panthers and now with the Chicago Bears) or Aaron Kampman (who moved from the tundra of Green Bay to the warm, sandy beaches of Jacksonville).  Peppers though would have cost Atlanta the GDP of some Third-World nations and Kampman is coming off of a recent ACL tear.  While spending money is not a bad thing, like Dimitroff, I believe the best teams are built through the draft so I can understand Atlanta passing on both of these players. 

The one unique caveat to my normal “build through the draft” mentality is the unique situation with the CBA this year.  As the NFL’s franchises will be playing without a salary cap this year, the ability to both front-load contracts and dump bad ones puts teams in a very unique position.  In essence, this year can be viewed as either a “go for broke” (assuming it can be afforded from a financial standpoint) acquisition strategy or a “push the reset button” option—or a combination of both. 

For example, the Falcons could have signed Peppers and, due to their healthy attendance numbers and overall revenue, front-loaded his deal so as to make it friendly for the team’s prospective salary-cap future.  Assuming (and hoping) that a new CBA is agreed upon before 2011, and thus preventing a players lockout, the Falcons could be in very good shape whether Peppers would have signs of being a good signing after this upcoming season ends or be afforded the flexibility to keep him around a bit longer and cut him at less of a cost due to the front-loading of the contract in year one. 

In addition, something I still would do regardless, I think they need to admit the error of their ways and cut bait with Anderson.  It is doubtful any team would want to trade for him but, obviously, gaining something for him (even a low-round draft choice) would be ideal.  However, if ever there was a time to cut an unproductive first-round selection, this is the year to do it.

What if’s though are pointless and we need to deal in the reality of the now…or so the Dalai Lama once told me as we smoked a hookah together while discussing the pro’s and con’s of the 4-3 under front and the double-A-gap blitz…I digress though.

As it stands now, the Falcons still desperately need to upgrade their pass-rush at end opposite John Abraham.  In addition, Abraham himself is getting near the end of the line and a young, up-and-coming pass rusher is needed if purely for that reason alone.

So, with that said, here are my listings of the pro’s and con’s to defensive ends that could be available at the number 19 spot when Atlanta is on the board come April 22:

1.)  Brandon Graham, DE, Michigan

You heard it here first…this guy will be a star.  In watching him play, I cannot help but see evocations of a Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis hybrid.  In fact, if he were to develop a moderately wicked spin move (a rare missing component in his wide array of moves; see later in this critique for more), I would swear I was looking at Freeney’s clone on film.

First, I want to dismiss the immediately cited negative for Graham; his size (6’1”, 268lbs.).  Counter to conventional wisdom, I tend to be a fan of shorter than average defensive ends for a reason; they have an inherent advantage in gaining leverage.  While the reach of a Jamaal Anderson (6’ 6”) seems like an advantage as a pass-rusher, the problem with most long-levered (i.e. long-legged/high-hipped) ends is that they tend to be slow off of the snap and have a terrible time getting low to both gain leverage but also make themselves “small” and harder to block. 

Anderson has consistently shown an inability to get low and bend the edge as a pass rusher and this, more than anything, is why he has been horrible outside.  He has actually done his best work inside for Atlanta over his time with them, a not good sign for an end drafted in the top ten of his class.

Graham and his 6’ 1” frame will be detracted by scouts (as Freeney’s nearly identical measurements were as well)…and to their detriment.  His size helps him to get underneath the pads of offensive lineman very easily and he shows tremendous strength for his size, using his power to push, tug and torque bigger blockers.  Of all the ends in this draft, I believe he has the best overall skill-set for a 4-3 end.

What stands out is just the breadth of his abilities at this juncture as a pass-rusher.  Graham flashes excellent use of his hands, something not common with younger ends.  Be it with rip moves, tearing under one arm, or using a swift grab-and-pull move, Graham is able to gain separation from his blockers more often than not.  In addition, he has the power to bull-rush straight through most offensive lineman.  His tenacity and relentlessness to the ball stand out; he simply does not quit on a play and that is a key quality for a lineman to have in order to excel at the professional level.  He is also very powerful upon tackling contact, showing again his strength and power when running backs are in his grasp.

The one major knock on him is his shorter than average arms.  However, with his elite burst and excellent hand-use, I believe this will not be a tremendous disadvantage in the right system (i.e. one that allows him to set the edge rather than play man-up on his blocker; in short, he should be set into the six or seven-gap versus playing a five-technique).  On the artificial turf in the Georgia Dome, this soon-to-be-former Michigan Wolverine could be hell on wheels opposite Abraham next year and is likely to be available at the number 19 spot.  For this reason, he is on the top of my board for Atlanta due to the likelihood of being available and the value he would provide as a potentially elite pass-rusher at a very economical spot in the first-round.

2.)  Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida

Let’s just deal with the obvious downside here first; the guy has a French name.  I am leery to draft a guy in the first-round who comes from a heritage, however removed, that involves a country that has yet to win a war on its own merits.  This kind of bloodline does not translate well into the rigors of the defensive line at the NFL level I believe.  The French are lovers, not fighters, and d-line is all about having borderline sociopaths foaming at the mouth at the thought of leveling another team’s quarterback or blowing up a running play in the backfield; or am I the only one who finds Jared Allen’s post-sack grin and, when not in uniform, cowboy hat wearing apparel to just be utterly chilling?  French guys just don’t have that kind of killer instinct.

However, Paul has some freakish gifts that distinguish him from the average Frenchman.  In fact, his skill-set is most similar to another pass-rushing phenom who came out of Florida years ago who was known as “The Freak”, that being none other than Jevon Kearse.

Like Kearse, Paul has enormous hands, extremely long arms, and a great build for defensive end.  He is not too long-legged and shows the ability to dip and bend, having great hip flexibility.  He comes off the ball low and powers up through blockers, using his quickness and agility to then pressure around the edge. 

The major issue with Paul is his lack of experience, having started only a half-year both in 2008 and 2009.  Personally, I do not find this to be that important of an issue when one looks at both his production in limited time but also his immense physical talent.  Defensive end is a position that translates well to players who are inexperienced but are very athletically gifted and Paul is one of those players.  If the Falcons were to land him, he would need to have his assignments simple his first year to two years in the league.  After that though, the sky is the limit for his production.

While I would love to see him suit up for the Falcons, I simply do not see him lasting to the number 19 spot.  Jacksonville could still use fortification at defensive end despite the signing of Kampman.  Before their selection at number eleven, Denver could potentially view him as a rush-linebacker for their 3-4 alignment at number ten and ditto that for Miami at number twelve.  At minimum, he is not going to get past Seattle, be it at either the first of their two selections in the first-round (number six) or their second selection (number 14).  Lastly, Tennessee could use “The Freak; Version 2.0” as losing Kyle Vanden Bosch has caused their pass-rush to lose some spark (name pun shamelessly intended) and Paul could reignite this for them.

All in all, I project Paul to be a Pro-Bowl caliber end after two years but such players with his ability almost never last until the 19th selection.

3.)  Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech

Do not get me wrong; Morgan is a solid defensive end.  In fact, that may be his problem—his skill-set is simply too vanilla for me.  When I see him on film, I see a very solid base end on the left-side.  He can stop the run but he is not an anchoring presence at the end (a la a 3-4 front, five-technique bull).  He can create pressure but he does not have any elite qualities from the standpoint of burst, speed or agility.  Simply put, I see a player who is...well, too average in his physical abilities and skill-set to warrant selecting in the first-round and be seen as a dramatic improvement over Anderson.  For this reason, if still on the board at the 19th spot, I would either trade down or select another position if I were Atlanta.

After Morgan, there is no one I would consider in the first-round that would be a good scheme fit for the Atlanta Falcons at defensive end.  I do like Jerry Hughes out of TCU but he is more of a second-round prospect and may fit better in a 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker. 

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OTHER CONSIDERATIONS AT NUMBER 19 IN THE FIRST-ROUND

1.)  Joe Haden, CB, Florida

While forty-yard dash times are somewhat more relevant at cornerback, again, I will mount my soapbox and say football is a game of short-area burst, not track-speed in a straight-line.  Haden has been sliding due to running a “poor” forty at the Scouting Combine, clocking in at an average time of 4.57 seconds.  This is not a horrible time period as Brandon Flowers clocked in at a similar time a few years ago and is doing excellent for the Kansas City Chiefs now.  Haden has shown top-ten ability and, if he slides and both Paul and Graham are not available, I would strongly consider him based on value.

Shut-down cornerbacks are truly rare.  Darrell Revis is the best in the NFL today and having the ability to consistently render a team’s number one receiver (at least relatively) useless is a huge blessing for a defense.  The great corners that consistently shut-down a receiver across from them are not easily found but they can make a pass-rush that is somewhat anemic look better by being able to bring more than just the front-four on a consistent basis and not worry as much about being burned in the secondary.  Haden has that kind of ability.

While a great pass-rush(er/ers) makes an average secondary look even better than it is, so can a great cover corner make a front-four look better than it truly is.  The effect is not as pronounced in the latter direction as it is the former but, again, this is about the best overall value to be found in the first-round at the 19th selection.  If Paul and Graham were off the board but Haden was still on, I would select him in a heartbeat.

2.)  TIE between Maurkrice Pouncey (Center from Florida) or Mike Iupati (Guard from Idaho)

The often cited “safe pick” high in the draft argument goes something like this; quarterbacks have a higher bust rate than anyone, therefore a team needs to spend a first-round pick in the top-ten on a “sure thing”, with the proverbial says-nothing-overly-insightful “analyst” then saying that such-and-such team needs to “Go offensive line”.  What that 99 times out of 100 translates into is to select an offensive tackle. 

HOWEVER!...studies show that it’s really not the tackles that are the safe bets in round one on the line but rather guards and centers—and for good reason.   While it requires greater athleticism to be an elite tackle, it requires less to stand-out on the interior.  As such, when a player actually does, they almost always are utterly elite.  Last year, both Alex Mack and Eric Wood were excellent selections for Cleveland and Buffalo respectively, both playing center. 

The year before saw Branden Albert, a guard at Virginia, be moved to left tackle by the Chiefs where he has done a serviceable, if not amazing, job outside.  In 2007, Ben Grubbs was selected by the Ravens and they have been smiling ever since; ditto Tampa Bay in 2006 with Davin Joseph and 2005 with Logan Mankins to New England (*cough, skipping over Seattle’s selection—and a pre-mature one at that—of Chris Spencer…who has not been horrible either I might add).

The reason this could be wise for Atlanta is for a few reasons.

  1. Todd McClure will soon need to be replace at center.  While he has done great the last few years, it would be wise to invest in an under-study sooner than later.
  2. Harvey Dahl (at guard) will be an unrestricted free-agent next year.  In addition…call me crazy but I could see him potentially fetching a decent draft pick in a trade, one that could be used this year to shore up the defense further.
  3. Offensive line depth is always a wise investment.  Continuity on the line is more important than at any other area but, as such, injuries at the spot can hurt a team here more than at any other unit (sans perhaps the defensive backfield and, of course, quarterback); for evidence, see the contrast between the Atlanta offense in 2007 to the Atlanta offense in 2008.

Pouncey is the rare center with first-round abilities.  Iupatti is actually my favorite lineman PERIOD in this draft and could even potentially swing outside to right tackle.  If my top three most likely available and best overall scheme/need fits aren’t available (i.e. Paul, Graham and Haden), I would go offensive line here.

3.) Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Missouri

As a whole, I am not a proponent of taking outside linebackers who will play in a 4-3 scheme in the first-round.

Take for example the Seattle Seahawks, circa the 2009 NFL Draft.  Had I been in the Seattle personnel department last year, I would have either gone with either Eugene Monroe of Virginia at left tackle or Mark Sanchez of Southern California at quarterback.  Instead, they chose a player in Aaron Curry of Wake Forest, a versatile 4-3 outside linebacker, with the number four overall pick.

This was my major problem for the top-five teams in last year’s draft, a much weaker crop than this year’s.  Aaron Curry of Wake Forest was the undeniable best prospect and, admittedly, is a rare player, from the standpoint of production, physical measureables and his leadership qualities.  However, is that all lump sum worth it in the top ten when numerous upper echelon outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme have come from later in the draft? Seattle was a team that, last year, was in desperate need of either a left tackle or a quarterback.  Now, I am not saying that Curry was a BAD pick.  I think he will end up being a great player.  However, when you have a shot at greatness at either quarterback or left tackle and have legitimate need at those positions, in my view, a team simply must take a shot there. 

Low and behold if they had gone that direction in last year’s draft, this year, they could be pushing out either Walter Jones right now (he of the surgically repaired knees) at left tackle or Matt Hasselbeck (he of the retreating hairline and breakin’ down body at 34) under center.  Hasselbeck is also in a contract year and, had Sanchez been taken, they could have groomed him for two years, improved the overall talent of the team and THEN inserted him into the lineup.

So, what this scenario teaches is that linebackers in the top ten in a 4-3 are, generally, not a good move.  While the Falcons select at 19, I still believe that there will be better value on the board and that is why I rank Weatherspoon lower.  Not because he is a bad player; simply, I think there are better values available to use a first-round selection on.

With all that said, Weatherspoon is an exceptional player.  His numbers fell off his senior season but a lot of that is the result of declining talent around him that allowed other offenses to scheme against him. 

While Weatherspoon is not overly large (6’0 and 7/8” inches tall at 240lbs.), his overall skill-set is very wide.  The main knock on him physically that I feel could be practical is his shorter arms.  However, he has shown the ability to shed blockers and not let them get too into his body.  He has more than enough strength in his hands and legs to be strong at the point of attack.  In terms of coverage skills, he is top-notch and would be a huge upgrade in this regard for the Falcons, who were one of the worst teams in the NFL last year defending passes against tight ends and running backs.  He makes excellent reads in the run game and is almost always going where he should be going.  On top of all of that, Weatherspoon is known as an emotional leader for a team and would be a high-character guy for the Falcons.

Again, I am not a huge proponent of 4-3 outside linebackers in the first-round but Sean Weatherspoon, if he falls to 19, would be someone I would consider.  On the final counterpoint level though, I would rather take a chance on either a defensive end like Paul (if he somehow slides) or Graham in the first-round.  Likewise, cornerback has been debatably “upgraded” for the Falcons now, which is why Haden is ranked ahead of Weatherspoon on my board for needs/schematic fit players.  Lastly, the rare interior lineman that rank as first-round prospects almost always tend to be very good players so, while o-line is not a tremendous need for Atlanta, I believe first-round picks need to be utilized very wisely due to the economics of the draft.

That is it for now Falcons fans.  Please do feel free to write me with your thoughts, disagreements, theories, projections, etc.

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7 February 2010

An Early Off-Season Assessment of The Falcons Needs

And Referencing The Success of The Indianapolis Colts As A Guide and A Highly Controversial “What If…” Scenario from The 2008 Draft

The 2010 draft is shaping up to be a fairly deep one, at least as recent drafts go.  In that, one may balk at the Falcons fortunes as they seemingly have picks only in the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth-rounds.  This is due to the trades for former Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez (which cost them their second-round pick) and for St. Louis Rams castoff cornerback Ty Hill (acquired at the expense of a seventh-round pick).  However…the key word here is seemingly. 

Last spring, Falcons general manager Thomas Demitroff let a variety of starters from the Falcons defense depart, including linebackers Keith Brooking (the highest-paid replacement level hometown hero in Atlanta’s linebacker history dating back to the Paleozoic era), Michael Boley, defensive tackle Grady “I’m This Fat Yet I’m Awful At The Point of Attack” Jackson, and cornerback Dominique Foxworth. 

Question:  So what does this mean for the 2010 draft?
Answer:  Compensatory Selections (potentially four of them).

I am going to go on a limb here and say that it ends up being three picks (and I will explain why) but I could easily be proven wrong on this.  The NFL has a fairly complex and unknown formula for how they award compensatory selections to teams.  In theory, if a team loses an unrestricted free-agent, the level of compensation they receive depends on a.) what the team lost in terms of previous playing time and production (i.e. starter versus a backup) b.) what the team acquiring said player gained in terms of playing time and production and c.) the contract market value of the said departing player compared to the rest of the free-agent market at his position.

In light of this, I predict that the Falcons will acquire anywhere from a third-round to a fourth-round pick for Foxworth (who left Baltimore and was paid about the fourth highest contract on the free-agent cornerback market last off-season), potentially a fourth-round pick for Brooking who started most of the year in Dallas, a fourth-round pick for Boley who departed to the Giants and started most of the year before a season-ending injury and a seventh-round pick for Jackson, who did his two-downs and a breather routine for the whimpering Detroit Lions.

The X-factor pick will be for Brooking due to the signing of Mike Peterson that the Falcons made from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

What this further reinforces in my mind is why teams, in general, should not re-sign free-agents that are deemed replacement level players and why they should DEFINITELY not sign aging players/replacement-level veterans to replace said departures.  The reason for this is simple; what a team gains in a compensatory selection, if used for said departed player, could likely produce a player of comparing level production but at a significantly greater value.

Last off-season, I campaigned for the Atlanta Falcons to start Stephen Nicholas in place of Brooking on the weak-side and to use the draft to acquire a strong-side linebacker (although Nicholas, despite his smaller stature, has proven adept on running downs, albeit in a limited sample size, when he has played, making him a potential strong-side starting candidate as well).  The problem I had with Peterson’s signing was not that it was a bad signing.  He was a relatively good value, a good locker-room type leader athlete and knew head coach Mike Smith’s system from their days together in Jacksonville.  The problem was a.) he is on the wrong-side of 30 b.) he has no upside and c.) he will end up potentially costing the Falcons a decently high compensatory selection (as he “cancels out” the Brooking signing as both had comparable seasons in terms of starts, impact and contract value).

In general, what teams that have excelled the last few years using 4-3 schemes with a good line in front of them have taught me is that 4-3 linebackers in particular are fairly easy to replace with low-cost parts.  Look no further than the Indianapolis Colts in this upcoming week’s Super Bowl.  None of the Colts linebackers are what one would call high-end in terms of the market value of their contracts.  Clint Sessions in particular has excelled this year and has shown that linebackers do not need to be a heavy investment for a 4-3 team, particularly if they are not the starting middle linebacker.

The Falcons right now are set in the middle with Curtis Lofton and, again I say, they need to give Nicholas a shot on either of the other flanking outside positions, if only to find out what they have in him.  The remaining starting position could then be addressed, I believe, in the third round or later.

Based on an early assessment of the 2010 draft and where it is strong and weak, I believe the Falcons should address their needs as follows (this is subject to change as I gather more information on prospects in the coming months) with their early-round (pre-round four) selections:

First-round:  Defensive End

Jamaal Anderson is clearly a bust. John Abraham will not last forever and is also on the wrong-side of 30.  Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are best in a third-down role where they can pin their ears back and not worry about rush lane responsibilities.  While the Atlanta secondary was horrible last year, particularly at cornerback, this could be an issue of correlation to a lack of a pass-rush rather than inherent causation (due to a lack of talent; although the Atlanta cornerbacks are by no means going to evoke Champ Bailey or Darrell Revis). 

The late Bill Walsh said that the “key to winning in the NFL is a pass-rush late in the game.”  Yes, that’s right folks; the same man who pioneered the West Coast Offense and was labeled The Genius primarily for said offense and bringing precision to an NFL who’s passing game principles was built on relative anarchy at the time and who built one of the NFL’s longest running dynasties ever did not boil late-game success to anything related to his offensive prowess.  For Walsh, he knew that preserving a lead built up by an explosive offense came down to getting to the other team’s quarterback when it mattered—late in the game.  This was something the Falcons simply did not do all of 2009.

In addition to defensive end, the offensive line is more of an issue than initially meets the eye as well as Tyson Clabo (offensive tackle) and Harvey Dahl (guard) are set to be UFA’s.

What I find interesting about this need is how it harkens back to the 2008 draft.  I will be one of the honest few and admit that I advocated that Atlanta trade down from the number three pick, not select a certain quarterback from Boston College named Matt Ryan (nor the “safe pick” of the day, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey), acquire additional selections and then use their now lower (and cheaper) first-round pick to grab Boise State offensive tackle Ryan Clady (who I’ve heard is a fairly solid offensive tackle for the Broncos now—sarcasm intended as he is arguably the best offensive tackle in football).

The previous Michael Vick debacle season that was 2007 saw both a rash of injuries to the offensive line along with a dropoff in talent at the tackle positions.  Todd Weiner, while competent, was nearing the end of the line and the Falcons had nothing to speak of on the left side.  While I liked Ryan more than any other prospect at quarterback in that draft, I thought it foolish to put him on the field behind the offensive line Atlanta was going to have in front of him.  I did not want to see Ryan go the route of former Texans number one pick David Carr or current Rams punching bag Marc Bulger and get utterly beat into the ground his first few years behind an incompetent line.

From what I read at the time, there were two very attractive offers on the table as well.  The Ravens were in love with Ryan and wanted to trade their first-round pick, second-round pick (#8 and #38 respectively), a fourth-round pick (#103) and a 2009 third-round pick to the St. Louis Rams for their #2 selection, get ahead of Atlanta, and select Ryan.  While the Rams did not swing on the offer, one can reasonably assume that the offer was there for Atlanta as well. 

Another (and less validated) set of reports from the time said the Saints were clawing over themselves to move up to select Glenn Dorsey.  The two reports for offers I heard most often were they were willing to offer their first and second-round picks that year (#10 and #40 respectively) and their first-round selection in 2009 to move up to select Dorsey.  The other offer was the #10 selection and offensive tackle Jamaal Brown.  Quite frankly, either offer looked massively appealing to me and the former is one I would have jumped on in a heartbeat, dealing with a divisional rival or not. 

In 20/20 hindsight too, this could have made sense.  While Dorsey has been somewhat miscast in Kansas City, one has to wonder if the massive cost the Saints would have given up to get him (Malcolm Jenkins and Tracy Porter, the guy who picked off Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game in overtime) would have actually come back to help Atlanta more this year than selecting Ryan.  Not having Sedrick Ellis would be a wash as he is looking like an average/replacement level defensive tackle being paid a not-so-average top-ten pick salary.  Plus, the Saints would be paying Dorsey even more than Ellis is getting and, as mentioned, not have Jenkins and Porter in the secondary.

As the 2008 season panned out, Michael Turner made the offensive line look really good, the line itself stayed healthy (as continuity is vital to a line’s success) and Matt Ryan displayed both a play-action fake that was fooling cameramen nationwide and a pocket awareness that made said line look better than it was.  However, while this made the line look like a strength heading into 2009, one could see signs of fault in this view if they looked deeper.  The Falcons lack depth along the line at almost all positions and injuries on offense are always more costly to a team than those on defense.  Beyond that, I have always believed that the tackle that Atlanta traded up for in 2008, Sam Baker, is best-served inside at either guard position.

Hence, we enter 2009 in need of a blind-side upgrade for Matt Ryan, along with potential starters for both spots on the right side depending on what Atlanta chooses to do with regards to Clabo and Dahl.

As this is a fairly deep draft at offensive tackle, I believe the Falcons could potentially go the route of an offensive tackle in round one and find good value as well.  However, if the Falcons do advocate going offensive tackle with their first pick, I would trade down into the second-round and acquire at least one more selection due to the depth at the position in this draft.  Either that or, if the right player falls, packaging picks to trade up into the second-round for an offensive tackle or promising pass-rushing end that can be an every-down starter.

FOR THE RECORD:  I am not saying in the imagined 2008 Draft scenario that picking Matt Ryan (in reality) was a bad pick.  Clearly, he is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.  There is no more important position to lock down than the man who steps under center every week and the Falcons have this dealt with for the next ten years.  That is huge.  Just ask the Green Bay Packers of recent vintage, the New England Patriots, the San Diego Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles.  Before them, the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys can link much of their success to having a few legends named Joe Montana/Steve Young and Troy Aikman dropping back from center every week.  Again though…as this is primarily an NFL draft site…one has to wonder what might have been for 2009 with any of the scenarios I painted playing out.  Plus, my scenario would have given Atlanta the #13 pick in the 2009 draft; one just a few spots ahead of where the New York Jets traded up from to pick a rookie quarterback named Mark Sanchez who was playing a decent game last week in the AFC Championship and looks as though he will mature into a solid, if not as spectacular (and even this is still up for debate) as Ryan, caliber of quarterback.

Third-round:  Linebacker and/or Cornerback.

Again, I say and/or because it could perhaps (and I believe likely) end up being a scenario where the Falcons are awarded at least one compensatory pick in this round, if not two (less likely).  I have always believed that 4-3 teams are built around a strong middle (i.e. good defensive tackles who can tie up blockers, a versatile linebacker in the center, and ballhawking/hard-hitting—ideally both—safeties).  The edges, particularly at cornerback and linebacker, flow out of that strong center.  In that, these positions can be filled with adequate starters in this round or later I believe.

On the free-agency front, I think that Aaron Kampman could be a great addition at defensive end.  He is stewing about Green Bay playing a 3-4 scheme, one in which he is miscast as a linebacker, and wants out of town.  While I likely see the Minnesota Vikings trying to sign him on the cheap (division rivalry/furthering the Brett Favre and “ex-Green Bay Packers Moving to Minnesota For Revenge” theme), Atlanta could be a good landing spot as well.  Playing alongside John Abraham would be a selling point, as would playing on the fast turf of the Georgia Dome (i.e. more sacks for Kampman than on grass).  I am rarely a believer in spending money in free-agency but Kampman could be a fairly “cheap” addition that would address a major need for Atlanta as well.  In addition, unlike the Peterson signing a year ago, Kampman still has some upside to him as well and is not on the declining side of his skill-set.  Beyond that, the collective bargaining agreement situation and the lack of a salary-cap for the NFL in 2010 means that the contract could be fairly front-loaded so as to lessen impact in future (and likely capped) years.

In addition, the restricted free-agency front is stronger than I have ever seen it.  Typically, teams avoid this market due to the inherent draft choice compensation involved (the minimum tender gives at least a matching round draft selection in whatever round the player was originally selected in) in this market.  However, this year’s list of RFA’s is incredibly talented and loaded with younger players.  In fact, if I were a team with a top-ten pick this year (where draft choices are inherently given disproportionately large contracts compared to the veteran, i.e. proven players, market) and could not find a trade partner, I would seriously consider using said pick on one of the many attractive RFA’s ot there who may be given a first-round tender. 

Per this article from the writers at Football Outsiders, I think the RFA’s that could make a lot of sense for Atlanta to pursue would be Marcus McNeill, the current left tackle for the San Diego Chargers, or (so as to weaken a rival) Jamaal Brown of the soon-to-be-Super-Bowl-something-or-others New Orleans Saints.  Both would be good schematic fits, fitting the mold of wide-bodied maulers that Mike Smith wants up front to open holes for Michael Turner.  The reason I slate McNeill higher is the possible tenders both will receive.  McNeill was a second-round pick in 2006 versus Brown being a first-round pick from 2005.  If each club tenders at the original round compensation level, then McNeill is clearly the better value. 

Logan Mankins of New England (offensive guard) is also an RFA but will likely be re-signed by New England from all reports I am reading.  I am more in favor of spending money on tackles and not guards (as elite tackles tend to be found higher in the draft while guards are fairly easy to find after round one…although research finds that guards selected in round one tend to be elite players) as well so this signing would likely not be wise for Atlanta. 

Again, so much of what could happen here will depend on what tenders players are given and what UFA’s are resigned, not to mention any pre-draft trade shakeups (a la Jay Cutler last year and possibly Donovan McNabb of the Eagles or any of the many talented RFA’s this year) but, as things progress this off-season and we get closer to free-agency and the draft, I will update my views on what I would do if I were in Thomas Demitroff’s position.

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14 December 2009

It's Been a Long Time Coming

The Two-Faces To The Atlanta Falcons; A Summation of the 2009 Season Through Sunday’s Loss To The Saints

Per predictions I made earlier this year, the Falcons are in fact turning out to be a Charles Dickens’-esque “Tale of Two Teams” (as opposed to Cities) type of team this 2009 NFL season.

On the one-hand, even with a somewhat struggling and inconsistent ground game, the Atlanta Falcons offense has consistently put up respectable numbers.  While the current toe injury to Matt Ryan has cast a pale on recent weeks, the explosive air attack he has fueled has kept Atlanta in most games this year, even those games that have been lost.  However, the main problems for the Atlanta Falcons come when the offense has to step off of the field and subside to whatever cards the defense then deals them for their next time taking the field. 

Typically, this 2009 Atlanta Falcons defense has been characterized by these traits:

*An Inability to Stop Number One Receivers

This problem could very easily be two-fold.  On the one hand, the Falcons have pedestrian caliber cornerbacks at best.  The Falcons, based off of the advanced metris I use to measure team performance (which use a comparison-based analysis, averaging out how teams perform on a situational level across the NFL), the Falcons are 32.5 percent worse than the average team in the NFL at defending against another team’s number one receiver.

While the cornerback play for Atlanta this year has been awful, all of the blame cannot be attributed to Chris Houston, Brent Grimes, and Chevis Jackson (the top three cornerbacks on Atlanta’s depth chart) for Atlanta’s pass defense woes.  There is a second part to the equation in Atlanta’s problems with defending in the passing game.

*Outside of John Abraham and Kroy Biermann, the Falcons Lack A Pass Rush

One of my predictions for the 2009 Falcons was tentative, namely, that John Abraham would get hurt again (as, prior to this year, he has never had a year where he has started all games for two straight seasons) IF the Falcons did not rotate him more to keep him fresh.  For all of the Atlanta defense woes this year, they HAVE successfully done this right.  Kroy Biermann, a fifth-round pick a year ago, has come off the bench on third-downs and given the Falcons a very solid pass rush.  However, the problems come on downs one and two for Atlanta in this department.

*Atlanta’s Middle-of-the-Pack Rush Defense Stats Are Deceptive

Based off of the situational-based statistics I use to average out performance across the league, Atlanta SEEMS to be doing well in defending the run, coming in ranked as the 15th best team in the NFL for rush defense.  However, this house of mirrors only serves to reflect what all teams know; why run on Atlanta when you can THROW to your heart’s content?

I think it is safe to label 2007 first-round defensive end Jamal Anderson a major bust.  He simply does not get to the passer.  He has a very long first-step and lacks the suddenness and ability to stay low and bend his body (essential for an end who is 6’7”).  If anything, he has been more effective paired inside this year next to Jonathan Babineaux (a surprising pass-rusher from the inside who, at present, is facing a potential suspsension due to a marijuana possession charge).  Regardless though, he is a player that has not paired with Abraham on the early downs to give Atlanta a competent dual-side pass rush from the edges.

Abraham started off the year a house on fire within the first few games but he is now settling down to earth.  Teams simply do not respect the other side of Atlanta’s defensive line and can slide protection over to Abraham.  This is somewhat negated on third-downs as Biermann provides a competent presence on the other side but he is not an every-down end.

To Atlanta’s credit on defense, they are near the middle-of-the-pack in defending against tight ends in the passing game.  Again though, a part of this is they play in a division with no real threats at tight end (Jeremy Shockey is above-average for New Orleans, as is Kellen Winslow with Tampa Bay but the latter is stuck on an awful team).  This combined with, again, a weak set of cornerbacks and a lack of a pass-rush make Atlanta ripe for long plays along the sidelines.

On the other side of the ball, Atlanta is ranking near the middle in all categories this year on offense but that is somewhat skewed by the recent loss of Matt Ryan.  The offense has been affected by injuries as well, besides that to Ryan.  Losing Jerious Norwood for a time took an element of explosiveness out of the Atlanta offense as well as the return game that has since been restored with his return.  However, Ryan and his pocket awareness has made the offensive line look better than it truly is the last two years.  The last few weeks with Chris Redman has shown that a quarterback has a huge impact on an offensive line’s performance in the passing game.  Compare Ryan to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers first-half performance and one can see what it looks like to have a young, stud quarterback with all of the tools physically but also has a mental awareness around him that matches his physical abilities.  Ryan is very cerebral for a young player while Rodgers and Redman (while a veteran) are simply not as aware of the pocket.


LOOKING AHEAD:

There are a few things Atlanta needs to address on the personnel front this off-season.

--They need to get a competent pass-rusher at end to pair with Abraham on early downs.

--A shutdown cornerback would help the rest of the secondary greatly.  These types of players do not grow on trees however and are typically tough to acquire in free-agency (see the Oakland Raiders slapping the franchise tag within about 1.3 seconds on Nnamdi Asomugha, the best cornerback in football and then proceeding to give him a contract that is higher than the GDP of certain Third-World countries).

--They should secure Norwood with a long contract.  While Michael Turner is the bread-and-butter to the running game, Norwood’s style complements Turner perfectly.  Turner lacks the precise agility to make fine cuts in traffic, being a very north-south type runner.  If Atlanta wants to spread the defense out more with multiple receivers (a wise route with Matt Ryan under center and the weapons available in their passing game), Norwood is the better back to go with, despite Turner’s number one back status.

--While he has been out of this world good this year and is again pushing back the hands of time, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez needs to have a young apprentice brought in.  Tight ends are fairly easy to find in rounds later than the first two in the NFL draft so Atlanta does not need to worry too much about where to find this player in my view but they would be wise to bring in this replacement sooner than later.

--Will Svitek is not a long-term answer at left tackle and Sam Baker may be better inside, meaning a left tackle could also be a welcome addition for the Falcons.  I noted in the Washington game earlier this year that Ryan looked particularly skittish in the pocket as the Redskins excellent left-side combo of Brian Orakpo and Albert Haynesworth kept him sweating all game.  While that pair is a somewhat abnormally good blind-side pairing, Atlanta as a whole has let Ryan get hit too much from the left-side of the offensive line this year.  This needs to be remedied.

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17 September 2009

The Graybeards Still Got It

Gonzalez and Peterson Spark Falcons Opening Victory Over Miami, 19-7

Admittedly, he is Tony Gonzalez; only the man who sparked the revolution with the tight end position in the NFL over the last decade.  Like Kellen Winslow before him, Gonzalez spent a little over a decade with the Kansas City Chiefs redefining the role of a tight end in the passing scheme.  Be it held close to the line as per conventional alignments, flexed out wide, in the slot, or set off the line in a flexible H-back type position, Gonzalez showed a knack for sneaky route running, deep speed that threatened the center of any defense, incredibly reliable hands, and outstanding leaping ability in jump-ball situations (the man was a basketball player in college as well).  However, I personally viewed his acquisition by the Falcons with a bit of trepidation.  Record-setter and future Hall-of-Fame athlete that he may be, the man was going into the 2009 season 33 years-old.  While many have been projecting declines for Gonzalez the last few years, he has avoided Father Time thus far, a feat made all the more amazing considering how much of a morose his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, have been on offense the last few years.

This Sunday though, Gonzalez more than showed his worth, hauling in a twenty-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan.  What was more impressive than just the touchdown was how Gonzalez pulled the feat off.  He caught a short pass in the flat from Ryan, then made a cut to the inside that showed great agility.  Miami safety Yeremiah Bell was the closest defender and, while making his cut, Gonzalez shoved him off with his left hand.  Wide receiver Roddy White helped spring Gonzalez with a nice block but even that block was brought about by Gonzalez’ juke that temporarily froze Will Allen long enough for White to engage the block.  That touchdown catch put Gonzalez into an elite stratosphere of receiver, becoming the 21st player in NFL history to cross the 11,000 yards receiving threshold.  The team as a whole did a good job of spreading the wealth on offense, with four players hauling in four or more passes.  Gonzalez may be aging, but he is still capable of threatening a defense deep, evidenced in Atlanta targeting him six times (out of the total of nine targeted passes) down the field at ten or more yards through the air.

If there was any consistent theme in Sunday’s victory it was “don’t count out the old men just yet.”  In addition to Gonzalez’ 5-catch, 73 yard performance, the main defensive acquisition of note for Atlanta this off-season, linebacker Mike Peterson, made two game-changing plays, forcing a fumble off of a ferocious hit as well as making a fingertip interception.  He joked after the game about how he “has the best hands on the team but nobody here believed me.”

The defense as a whole for Atlanta, the sore spot for this team, held up well against the innovative Miami offense.  The much-acclaimed Wildcat formation (essentially a recreation of the single-wing offense from years past) was contained, albeit with an asterisk.  Miami rookie quarterback (and wide receiver…and halfback; as the Wildcat makes a backfield player capable of multiple roles) Pat White had a chance to gash the Atlanta defense but disconnected on a deep pass with Ted Ginn in the first half.  The play was set up well, with two backs next to White and TE

TE Anthony Fasano set off the line in a flex/wing type position.  Outside was Ginn who ran a deep post that was opened up after White froze the safeties with a well-executed play-action fake.  However, while Ginn had more than a few steps on the Atlanta safeties, White overthrew him by about five yards.  As a whole though, the Atlanta defense did very well maintaining gap integrity and not abandoning assignments, two keys to defending the Wildcat, as shown in the NFL.com link.  For the record, I think Brian Billick is an utter idiot in his explanation of what the Wildcat isn’t and Mike Mayock completely schools him in this video with a very logical explanation of the formation’s versatility.

While Atlanta may have to play a very conservative defense all year long to make up for its shortcomings and relative inexperience in the secondary, they will be able to do that if they continue to have the pass rush that they had Sunday.  Picking up from his should have been an All-Pro season last year, defensive end John Abraham notched two sacks.  A key to keeping Abraham healthy and fresh will be to rotate him in and out constantly and Kroy Biermann, a fifth-round selection last year, proved effective in a sub-rotation at defensive end, notching a forced fumble on the second play of the game and ended up with two sacks himself.

Naturally, what would a review of the Falcons be without discussing The Franchise; quarterback Matt Ryan.  Again, this young man showed on Sunday why he was the best possible choice last year at the number three spot in the draft.

Facing heavy pressure Sunday that forced him to both unload early and occasionally throw the ball away, combined with running back Michael Turner being utterly stuffed the whole day, Ryan did more than his fair share to lead the Falcons.  The man I have been campaigning for now for two years to get the ball more finally got to show some of his stuff Sunday, with running back Jerious Norwood going for more yards receiving (49) than Roddy White (42).  Ryan’s unflappable nature came out early though, despite the pressure of Miami’s defense.  In the 2nd quarter, he threw a very nice backside skinny post to Michael Jenkins for a 22 yard-gain that was thrown on the money.  Not only was the throw the right read (Atlanta was in a four receiver set that ended with three on the right side after White went in motion, left to right), he threw the ball in such a way to keep Jenkins alive as there was a Miami safety bearing in on him quickly. 

Ryan threw the pass low and slightly under Jenkins, allowing him to both come back a bit as well as sit down immediately and avoid a monstrous collision.  It is these many little fine details that continually impress me about Ryan; for a player of his experience level, he is already showing an awareness that separates the elite quarterbacks from the rest of the crowd.  A few plays later, White and Ryan connected on a third and eleven play where Ryan rifled a pass in between two Miami defenders that White sat down in between in a perfect read of the zone coverage that Miami was in.

Overall, the Atlanta offense showed that it is likely to transition to more of a pass-focused team than they were a year ago this past Sunday.  In addition, while not a stellar performance from the secondary, the Atlanta front-seven did an excellent job of playing disciplined as well as generating a ferocious pass rush, sparking the team’s first victory over Miami, 19-7.

NEXT WEEK:  vs. Carolina.

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28 June 2009

An Early Assessment Of The 2009 Atlanta Falcons

In order to assess where the 2009 Atlanta Falcons are headed, one must look back and see where the 2008 Falcons left.  Their season, arguably the biggest surprise success story in the NFL last year, ended when Larry Fitzgerald began his epic post-season run by making mince-meat out of the Atlanta secondary in last year’s 30-24 wild-card playoff loss.  Kurt Warner left the field with a clean jersey, not sacked even once by the Falcons defense, going 19 of 32 for 271 yards.  Fitzgerald, the uber-extraordinary wide receiver, began his post-season domination by hauling in 6 passes for 101 yards.

That loss highlighted the primary weakness of the 2009 Falcons and that was defending passes up the middle of their defense.  As a whole, the Falcons were relatively stable on the corners despite their motley crew collection of players that they had at cornerback all year long.  Some of their success, perhaps more so aversion from failure, was aided by a zone-scheme that kept most of the action in front of them but also a career-year for defensive end John Abraham.  In addition, the Falcons were also one of the worse teams defending the run, particularly up the middle of their defense.

While the addition of Matt Ryan at quarterback and the prized addition of Michael Turner at running back helped to give the Falcons an offense that looks to be formidable for years to come, there is still work that needs to be done on the defensive side of the ball.

Unfortunately, the majority of what ailed the Falcons at the end of the 2008 season still will ride with them into 2009; their defense will be one-year older and they are still weak in coverage at linebacker, safety and have reduced depth at cornerback.  In addition, the Falcons were one of the healthiest teams in the league last year on both sides of the ball, meaning a return to the median is likely to come about in 2009.

A greater analysis, one that will break the 2009-2010 Atlanta Falcons down by individual units, will be coming from me in the coming weeks but here are the broad strokes of the brush for how I see 2009 panning out for the Falcons:

The Offense WILL Be Better...

Adding Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs for a 2010 second-round pick will prove to be a bad move for the long-term but, for now, it gives Matt Ryan the one receiving component he lacked last year, which was a threat down the middle.  Time has not slowed Gonzalez yet and who knows what having a quarterback with Ryan’s poise and accuracy throwing to him will do.

Jerious Norwood NEEDS TO GET THE BALL MORE; for everyone’s sake.  Michael Turner had a staggering workload last year and it amazes me as to why the Falcons do not utilize the multi-faceted skills of Norwood more.  I predict that will change in 2009, whether by intentional design or through Turner getting injured.

The offensive line will not be as good at run-blocking this year and will likely have more injuries.  Again, much like the defense, the line was exceptionally healthy last year and most of the starters played together all year long.  Part of the implosion of the 2007 Falcons offense came through the many changes in the weekly starters for the offensive line (both due to injury and performance).  Time has proven that it is often better to keep one unit together for a season rather than making minor tweaks in the line so as to try to incrementally improve performance.  Last year, Sam Baker was lost early in the season but the Falcons adjusted well.  They moved Todd Weiner, now retired, over to the left side and allowed Tyson Clabo to emerge on the right side.  The Falcons may not be as lucky this year and, in particular, cannot afford injuries to the interior of the line where they lack depth at all spots.

Matt Ryan will continue to emerge.

If anything, Ryan will throw more this year than last as the Falcons were one of the few teams in the league to eschew the growing spread-oriented tendencies on offense and focus more on a power-running game.  This year, I believe the coaching staff will incorporate more three and four-wide receiver looks for Ryan with the newly acquired chess piece that is the multi-skilled Tony Gonzalez moving around all over the formation.  Expect to see Gonzalez lining up at tight end, in the slot, and as a split end or flanker at various times this year.  In light of that..

The wide receivers numbers will go down individually but improve as a unit.  I do not expect either Roddy White or Michael Jenkins to be targeted as much this year by Ryan.  However, great offenses are built on balance (not necessarily a balanced play distribution though), with multiple weapons being targeted all throughout.  The Falcons addition of Gonzalez will have a ripple effect that will improve the offense as a whole if that means certain parts of the machine (i.e. White, Jenkins, and Turner) see the ball less.

The “Wildcat” (or some iteration of the single-wing formation) will/should be used more.

There has been very little true innovation in the NFL from a strategic standpoint in recent years.  The best thing we have seen is probably the unique, modular defensive structure that Bill Belichick utilizes for the New England Patriots, with linebackers often being defensive ends, tackles, cornerbacks, or safeties.  In addition, Belichick’s use of pattern-matching zone coverage is relatively unique as well.  Offensively though, I dare you to name the last truly innovative idea to come along to the NFL…are you stuck on “well, the West Coast offense?”  Sorry, that was new in 1979, when Bill Walsh was redefining what ball-control offense meant by using four and five-yard passes as effective handoffs.  Maybe you say “the spread formation?”  Well, in some iteration or another, the spread has been around for some time.  The run-and-shoot had very similar principles, the only difference being that the spread is less of a read on the fly type system as receiver routes are more predetermined than they were with the run-and-shoot.  For some time now.

The formation started last season by the Dolphins though dubbed the “Wildcat” is both a rewind and a fast-forward for the league.  Incorporating the elements of the spread, the formation itself is essentially the 1920’s single-wing all over again except now, instead of two ends on the line of scrimmage, one of those ends (usually a running back with wide receiver skills) is flexed out wide and put into motion to the inside of the formation as the ball is snapped.  The ball is then snapped to a running back behind center that has quasi-quarterback skills.

Where the plot thickens as this relates to the Falcons, again, is around the under-utilized (to this point at least) puzzle piece known as Jerious Norwood.  Norwood played some at quarterback in high school and his skill set is such that he would make an ideal behind center, single-wing back.

If only for the sake of innovation alone, I hope the Falcons utilize this difficult (due to it’s multiple option focus) to defend formation but also because, quite frankly, it makes sense to use on occasion with their personnel.

The defense could be REALLY bad.

Last year, the Falcons notched a total of 34 sacks; 16.5 of them were from one player and that was defensive end John Abraham.  Another interesting factoid about Abraham; he has never played two consecutive seasons starting every game—in his career.  The man is also on the wrong side of 30 as well, meaning a slowdown in production could likely occur due to age anyway.  Thankfully, the Falcons are doing things to safeguard against this.  Selecting defensive end Lawrence Sidbury in round four was both a steal from a value standpoint but also because he gives the Falcons an off-the-bench rotational end that can come in to give Abraham a breather and, quite possibly, push the disappointing former first-round selection Jamal Anderson for playing time.

The defensive backs could improve or decline…it all depends on who lines up for them come opening day.  Last year, the Falcons made a great value addition just before the trading deadline, picking up Dominique Foxworth from the Ravens for a 2009 seventh-round draft choice.  Foxworth put together a solid season but, long-term, may not have been the best player to add for the Falcons.  The reason I say this is because it delayed the playing time (and thus the development) of 2008 rookie Chevis Jackson at cornerback.  This year, I predict he will end up starting alongside Chris Houston.  I am a firm believer that the best friend of two young, developing starting cornerbacks is a healthy pass-rush up front.  If Abraham can manage to stay healthy, not decline dramatically and if more Falcons defenders step up to provide support in the area of pass-rushing, than these young cornerbacks could have a solid, developmental year. However....

Jamal Anderson is in put up or shut up time.  Last year, he at least notched a few (literally, two) sacks, which was a dramatic improvement over his rookie year (zero, nothin’, nada, nathan, zilch, cero…however you count it and whatever country you are from, NONE—no sacks).  He also showed improvement in the running game at the point of attack as well.  Still, for a number eight pick in the draft, the Falcons need a whole lot more from him than what he has given to this point.  I actually believe Anderson could be the difference for the Falcons this year at end and all reports early on are saying that he looks to be progressing well through OTA’s and mini-camp thus far.  However, we shall see what this young man can give once the snaps count for wins and losses come September.

The linebackers are likely to remain awful in pass coverage.  I will be honest and say that Mike Smith’s benching of linebacker Michael Boley last year in favor of converted safety Coy Wire was a surprise to me.  I thought that Boley’s skill set was one that could have made him become a poor man’s Julian Peterson for the Falcons.  For whatever reason though, Boley just did not get off on the right foot with the new Atlanta coaching staff.  However, his replacement in Wire was nothing to rave about either.  As stated earlier, last year the Falcons were repeatedly undone with passes over the middle to tight ends and running backs, which was a sin that primarily fell on the shoulders of the linebackers.  Praise the heavens, the Falcons have finally gotten rid of Mr. Overpriced/Perennially Under performing child of Georgia known as Keith Brooking.  Last year, his cap number was a hair below a staggering $8 million.  For $8 million, one would hope a guy could do more than be effective within the tackle-to-tackle box on running backs (and even there, as a later article will show, Brooking was not overly good at plays run directly at him either).  Brooking was flat-out AWFUL against the pass.  While a great character player and tremendous leader, he simply did not warrant the pay he received.  The one glimmer of hope last year was at middle linebacker, where Curtis Lofton came in and had a great rookie year for Atlanta.

So for one to then evaluate the 2009 team, one must look at the likely starters on the flanks for the linebacker unit.  As stated, Coy Wire replaced Boley last year but this year, that position is likely to be an open competition between Wire and third-year man Stephen Nicholas.  Personally, for the long term and the short-term, I hope the Falcons go with Nicholas.  He simply is a faster and better athlete than Wire, giving them greater potential both in coverage and as a pass-rusher.  While a bit small, he is actually larger than Wire by about 10 to 15 pounds so he may even be better in the running game as well.  On all levels except experience, it makes sense to start Nicholas.  Where worry exists that is not so easily rectifiable is on the strong side.  Mike Peterson, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was brought in due to his knowledge of Mike Smith’s defense from their time together in Jacksonville.  However, Peterson never played the Sam position, consistently setting up shop at the Mike (i.e. middle) linebacker location.  If Peterson can be protected schematically, wherein he his main job will be to stuff tight ends, he may have a chance outside.  Again though, in the diverse, growingly wide-open league that is the NFL, a linebacker who is a liability in coverage is worth roughly the Gatorade bucket on the sideline. 

As it stands now, I do not see the woes of the 2008 Falcons against tight ends and running backs in pass coverage being addressed with the personnel moves made at linebacker.

The Falcons have a lot to look forward to in 2009.  Matt Ryan should, if history is any guide, have a better second starting season than his first (as most quarterbacks improve their second year).  Michael Turner, through either greater emphasis on passing in the offense or possibly injury due to his overuse last year, is likely to decline a bit but will still likely have a very good year.  Hopefully, Jerious Norwood gets the ball at all levels more often than last year.  The receivers, with the addition of Gonzalez, are a very balanced bunch and could give opposing secondary units nightmares this year.  The line, if it can stay relatively healthy and stable, should continue to open holes for Turner and give Ryan, a very aware quarterback as is, enough time to throw down field.  The biggest problems will occur on defense, where the Falcons just do not have a lot of difference makers, as well as potentially through the natural decline that could come through more injuries than what occurred last year coupled with a tougher schedule.

My early line on the Falcons 2009 season is:

9-7 with a possible (but not likely, unless they win their division on 9-7) wild-card playoff spot.

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28 April 2009

Evaluating the Atlanta Falcons 2009 NFL Draft

First-round (#24 overall):         Peria Jerry—DT, Ole Miss

Evaluation:  The Falcons took the second-best overall defensive tackle in this year’s draft behind Boston College’s B.J. Raji (who went at number nine to Green Bay).  While this writer would have preferred Raji, the cost of moving from #24 to #9 would have proven far too great and I am glad the Falcons stayed where they were at and selected Jerry.  Jerry comes in as a slightly older rookie, coming in at 25 years-old.  What this means is that his upside is relatively limited due to his advanced age so what should really be looked at is what are the Falcons clearly getting now versus trying to project down-the-road what Jerry could become.

Jerry can excel if allowed to play a three-technique position exclusively and play with a one-gap responsibility, allowing him to best utilize his great quickness off the snap and burst.  He has only average bulk strength and leg drive so he will not often be able to push offensive guards back in a bull rush type move.

Where I find this pick interesting is how it relates to the current scheme the Falcons favor on defense.  In head coach Mike Smith’s 4-3 alignment, the defensive tackles he tends to favor are of the larger, bulkier variety, so as to occupy space, take up two-gaps, and keep lineman off of the fast-flowing linebackers.  As it stands now, Smith has two starters in Jerry and holdover Jonathan Babineaux that are both one-gap, slanting, quickness-over-power types.  What this means long-term may not be that significant but, per my first mock draft, I wonder if trading back into round two for the larger, more stout Ron Brace would have been a better fit for the Falcons, in addition to acquiring additional selections in either this year’s draft or next year’s.

Second-round (#55 overall):         William Moore—S, Missouri

Evaluation:  Moore will come in from day one and replace the departed Lawyer Milloy at strong safety.  Heading into the 2008 season, Moore was projected as a first-round selection at safety in this year’s draft but his sub-par senior season caused him to drop into the second-round.  What the Falcons are getting with Moore is a player who grades extremely high in terms of his physical metrics (4.58 forty-yard dash speed on a 220lb. frame with a 37.5” vertical leap) and has shown his toughness, both as an athlete but also as a person, overcoming extreme hardships as a child.  However, I am not one to fall in love with players who look like Tarzan but play like Jane; while Moore is not the latter, he is more so definitely not the former in terms of actual production.

My main criticism with this pick is I see it as not being an overly large improvement over what ailed the Falcons at strong safety a year ago; an inability to cover tight ends and backs.  The main upgrade Moore does provide there is speed as I project Milloy to be at least a step slower than Moore is right now.  Again though, Moore’s instincts in coverage are spotty at best.  He is best served playing a role that allows him to be close to the line of scrimmage as a sort of eighth man.  If he is utilized this way in the scheme, Moore could prove to be a valuable pick in the second-round.

Third-round (#90 overall)         Chris Owens—CB, San Jose State

Evaluation:  San Jose State has a fairly decent recent track record, as last year’s fourth-round Jets selection, Dwight Lowery, hailed from that university and put forth a solid rookie campaign.  Owens himself as a player is a bit on the small side at 5’9” and ¾ and is also not a very explosive leaper.  As such, he will not fare well if, in his likely role as a nickel cornerback, he is matched up against the Larry Fitzgerald’s of the world (than again, does anyone do well against Larry Fitzgerald?).  What Owens does bring to the table though is primarily his instincts.  He is an excellent zone coverage player, displaying both route recognition skills as well as the ability to read a quarterback’s eyes and burst on to the ball.  He also plays bigger than his size would indicate, being a solid tackler and run support corner.  Overall, a solid pick for the Falcons in the third-round.

Fourth-round (#125 overall)         Lawrence Sidbury Jr.—DE, Richmond

Evaluation:  This is actually my favorite of the selections made by the Falcons.  If utilized properly, Sidbury could prove to be an excellent third-down, rotational defensive end, allowing John Abraham much needed rest (as Abraham was pretty much all of the Falcons pass rush last year).  The main thing lacking from Sidbury’s game is an arsenal of pass-rush moves to pull from.  At this point, he is more or less a one-trick pony, possessing a spin move.  At the moment, he does not have overly good use of his hands to swim, shed, rip, tug or pull lineman off of him that he faces.  However, I would argue that those attributes could be acquired through diligent practice and observant coaching (something he will get with Atlanta versus Richmond).  Sidbury does not grade out particularly well on tape but he has a set of physical metrics (the fastest 40-time of any defensive lineman in this draft, 35 5/8” arms, and a great burst off the edge) that make him the ideal developmental pass-rush prospect in the fourth-round.

Fifth-round (#138 overall)         William Middleton—CB, Fulton

Evaluation:  Middleton does not overly impress me as a prospect.  He possess’ decent size for the cornerback position, providing a bit more bulk than does Owens.  However, he lacks the overall agility and stop-and-start ability that a cornerback needs to be successful.  He does provide good ball skills though and is a tough run support player who may be able to make the final roster.

Fifth-round (#156 overall)         Garrett Reynolds—OT, North Carolina
Reynolds flashes excellent length in his arms (one would hope so at 6’7”) and the ability to pull and get out in space.  However, the main problem with Reynolds is an overall lack of foot quickness and coordination.  The main flaw that he has, as a pass protector and run blocker, is he tends to get too upright.  The Atlanta coaching staff needs to work on him keeping his hips lower as well as work on his overall lateral movement.  The fact is though, there is only so much coaching can do for a player and, due to his foot quickness/coordination issues (he often loses balance when he has to make a sudden lateral movement) limit his upside to him probably never being more than a road-grader type blocker, serving as a backup on the right side of the line.

Sixth-round (#176 overall)         Spencer Adkins—ILB, Miami (FL.)

Evaluation:  Adkins has an interesting set of physical abilities.  He flashes great sideline-to-sideline range, good top-end speed, is a reliable tackler, is a very natural and smooth athlete, and also shows great burst and takeoff.  He was actually used often at Miami as a situational pass rusher for his explosiveness.  There are two major limits to him as it relates to the Falcons.  The first is that Adkins is not an instinctive player.  As great as physical attributes are, what can make a guy like Mike Vrabel excel as a linebacker with 4.8 forty-yard speed is his tremendous instincts.  Football is a game built on reacting quickly, particularly on defense, and Adkins may never develop those kind of instincts.  Again though, I think it is wise to take risks on physical specimens later in the draft (i.e. after round three), as they possess a greater upside; so it is with Adkins.  The second limitation is actually schematic.  Adkins would fit very well with a 3-4 team as an inside linebacker, particularly for one with a more fast-moving front such as the Ravens or Steelers.  While I have argued for awhile that the Falcons should consider a switch to the 3-4 (John Abraham was a 3-4 rush linebacker in college), as of now, they are a 4-3 team with no signs of that changing.  As such, Adkins could provide value though at any of the three positions at linebacker; a good, late round pick.

Seventh-round (#210 overall)         Vance Walker—DT, Georgia Tech

Possessing a powerful bull-rush, Walker could give Jerry tips on getting underneath lineman to drive them backward.  Walker though struggles to change direction and lacks the agility needed to make plays inside all along the defensive line.  The odd thing is though, despite his stocky build, Walker too is better as a slanting, on-the-move lineman than he is at standing his ground and taking up two gaps.  He has a high motor, good burst and HUGE hands.  In what is turning out to be a bit of an interesting defensive line interior, Walker could do well if the scheme is altered in Atlanta to suit the talents of the growing number of “movement-type” defensive tackles, serving as a rotational tackle so as to keep the starters fresh the whole game.

Overall grade:  B-

While I do not overly disagree with any of the Falcons selections, I think they could have maybe gotten better value at some spots.  In the first round, I think the two players that were best fits for Atlanta were either Jerry or Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis.  One could argue that after the Mike Peterson signing, there was a greater need at defensive tackle.  However, while the need was slightly greater, I see Laurinaitis being more of a sure-fire bet to do well as either a middle or weak side linebacker than Jerry is set to do well as an interior lineman.  Plus there is the age-factor as discussed that gives Laurinaitis a greater upside.  Again, not a bad pick but was it the best pick?  In my opinion, Laurinaitis would have provided greater value.

In round two, I like Moore’s upside but I think that Sen’Derrick Mayes, a defensive tackle out of Auburn who went to Tennessee, would have been a better fit.  Moore does possess great physical ability but I believe that the first two-rounds are not where you take guys that are athletes versus high-level performers.  I would have selected Mayes only in my scenario of taking Laurinaitis first.  However, as such with what actually occurred (I’m great at theorizing possibility, bad at describing reality), Moore could prove to be a good player down the road.

In round three, the two players I most liked that were on the board that I thought would have been a good fit for Atlanta were both tight ends, Chase Coffman of Missouri and Travis Beckum of Wisconsin.  While the recent acquisition of future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs would make a third-round selection on a tight end seem gratuitous, one has to also consider that Gonzalez will be 34 years-old this next year and the Falcons gave up a 2010 second-round pick to acquire him; a high choice for a player, while still a high-performing veteran, they may only get one to at most two years out of at his current level.  Selecting a tight end with the upside of either Coffman or Beckum (who, were it not for injuries this year, likely would have gone in the first-round) would have given them long-term stability at the position and allowed either player to learn from one of the all-time best tight ends in the history of he NFL.

Their work from round four on though I think was excellent.  As stated, I love the selection of Sidbury in round four and am also high on the selection of Adkins in round six. Walker could prove to be a good rotational defensive tackle if Mike Smith alters his scheme a bit too favor the predominance of one-gap, slanting lineman he has versus his traditional strong, two-gap type lineman his system has historically favored.

Overall, a solid day for the Falcons with no real strong gripping points against what Thomas Dimitroff and company pulled off.

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