10:54 pm March 27, 2014, by Dawson Devitt (D3)
Still Plenty of Holes after Free Agent Signings
Hester's Nice, but Needs Role on O (AJC)
The Falcons added a total of 5 new free agents and have filled some of the gaps in a roster that went 4-12, but they’ve also created a few more that weren’t originally there. They also have some major concerns in terms of depth at many positions as well. There may be a few more small additions between now and the draft, but nothing more than some lesser, depth signings. The Falcons have brought in NT Paul Soliai, DE Tyson Jackson, RG Jon Asamoah, CB Javier Arenas, and KR/PR Devin Hester. That likely represents a few gaps that have been plugged, but several weaknesses still remain. In theory, many of them can be slotted with the upcoming draft, but it’s hard to believe that all of them can be. A look at the most glaring weaknesses on a team still in need of major improvement……..
1) Offensive Tackle
Baker = $41 Million Man (AJC)
Technically, this should be right tackle with the epitome of stability Sam Baker manning the left side of the offensive line. They predictably decided to pass on getting a tackle in free agency with the plethora of talent at the top end of the draft, Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson leading the way, Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin towards the middle of the round, and a few others towards the end of the first round. The Falcons offensive line was one of the worst in the entire NFL. That included Ryan Schraeder (51st), Jeremy Trueblood (53), and Lamar Holmes (75th) out of 76 offensive tackles in the NFL. Sam Baker only played 4 games, but he managed to rank 120th out of 128 tackles before he was injured.
They re-signed Mike Johnson and brought in former 1st round bust Gabe Carimi to either add to depth or have another all-out “competition” for the RT spot, one of Smitty’s favorite games when he likes to play pretend. Since the free agency ship has sailed, this is what has Falcons fans waking up with balmy nightmares. Of course this all could be taken care of if they actually go against their nature of making the big splash and taking the best available OT on the board at #6 (Matthews or Robinson) or trade back to get either Lewan or Martin. This wouldn’t guarantee the Falcons offensive line suddenly becoming the Seven Blocks of Granite, but it would finally add a much needed injection of top end talent to an OL otherwise starved of it, particularly going forward.
Could Schraeder Be an Answer? (AJC)
Another option is the Falcons going defense with their first pick and then coming back to offensive tackle in the second round. This would include a group with Cyrus Koundijo, Morgan Moses, Antonio Richardson, and Jack Mewhort. This could be a viable strategy, but the fear is that the talent difference may not be that big from what the Falcons already have in camp. Also, in taking this route, these tackles are much less polished and would need more coaching up, not the finest of Coach Smith and his staff’s traits.
The nuclear option of course is that the Falcons feel fine, fit, and confident in “who they have” in an open competition with a new offensive line coach in play. Even in the best case scenario, this is just absurd to think that it’s an actual option. Some feel that since the Falcons improved the right guard spot that everything else will be better and a new top-tier OT talent isn’t necessary. Those same people also have a prime set of oceanfront real estate for sell in Kansas. It would be one thing if this was the first time, but if they’re idea of “recalibrating” (Dimitroff’s new pet buzzword) the offensive line is by bringing in Mike Tice and Gabe Carimi, you may want to find a new sport from around September through December for sanity’s sake.
2) Pass Rusher
Some would say that this should be at the top of the list and trying to see which is worse between protecting the QB and running the ball and rushing opposing QB’s, it’s a lose-lose scenario. Both have been equally terrible. However, the difference is the potential. The defensive side of the ball have at times shown a few spurts here and there, where the OL has been mostly awful across the board. The defensive ends for the Falcons ranked 32nd (Osi Umenyiora), 34th (Malliciah Goodman), and 37th (Jonathan Massaquoi) out of 52 total DE’s in the 4-3 and all of them had major negative grades according to Pro Football Focus. Stansly Maponga ranked 83 out of 93 when including players with lesser snaps.
Can Massaquoi Step Up? (AJC)
As a team, the Falcons ranked dead last (as in better than not one single team) in rushing the passer. This is nothing new of course, since the Falcons have been abysmal for 6 years. The linebacking corps didn’t fare much better. Sean Weatherspoon (20th), Paul Worrilow (23rd), and Joplo Bartu (34th) ranked below average and close to the bottom of all 35 LB’s. You can’t blame Worrilow and Bartu too awful much since they were both undrafted free agents, one from Delaware and the other hailing from Texas State. Weatherspoon, on the other hand, needs a great year to move out of the “bust zone.”
Almost all of the lack of pass rush rests with Mike Smith and his pathetic development system. The fact that they’ve not developed one single player (DE, DT, or LB) that can consistently rush the passer in 6 years is a joke. Perhaps this makes a case for the Falcons going with an elite rusher more than offensive line, but they have several defensive linemen they’ve taken over the years that has to produce something. Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, Kroy Biermann, Akeem Dent, Sean Weatherspoon have all been drafted and not one has turned in anything. Not to mention Lawrence Sidbury, Spencer Adkins, Curtis Lofton, and a handful of others. Dimitroff deserves a lot of the blame, but has every single one been a bad draft pick?
The main pass rushing candidates on the table are Jadaveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, and Anthony Barr at #6 in the first round. Mack seems the most NFL-ready, but both Clowney (character / motivation issues) and Barr (rawness) will need coaching up and that’s asking a lot from a staff that hasn’t developed one pass rusher in 6 years. The issue with Mack is that the Falcons would be drafting a linebacker in the first round for the 2nd time with their last 4 first round picks and the issue players with their hands in the dirt, not linebackers.
Worrilow's a Keeper (AJC)
Since both sides of the argument have legitimate points, it’s hard to say one is that much higher than the other. One way to compare the two is to look at it from this perspective: would you rather have Mack, Clowney, or Barr with the Falcons same OL from 2013 minus a new right guard? Or would you feel better plugging in Matthews or Robinson and rolling with Umenyiora, Biermann, Bartu, and Massaquoi? Tough call either way.
3) Free Safety
Some would argue that this may be ahead of the other two since there’s not one starter currently plugged in. Although not great much of the time, Ryan Schraeder and Lamar Holmes started most of the year at the tackle spots. Same goes for Umenyiora, Worrilow, Bartu, Biermann, and Massaquoi. The same couldn’t be said for free safety, where Thomas DeCoud made every start except two in 5 years. He generally did a terrible job, but he did have two years that were decent (2009, 2012 Pro Bowl Alternate).
There’s no denying that DeCoud completely bottomed out in 2012. He ranked 83rd out of 86 safeties in the NFL in the overall category according to PFF, 83rd in pass coverage, 75th in stopping the run, and 82nd in opposing QB Rating stats (gave up 147 out of a total 158.3 highest possibility). No one will argue that letting DeCoud go was the issue, but rather what the plan going forward will be. They didn’t sign a safety in free agency and didn’t appear to even show any interest. They have either Zeke Motta or Kemal Ishmael as the only other safeties on the roster. They may be OK to fill in, but it would be a fairly dangerous prospect expecting two 7th round draft picks to blossom in year two with limited experience in year 1.
Motta an Answer at S? (AJC)
The final option is rolling with a safety via the draft. This definitely could work and there’s plenty of safeties out there who could do the trick. But the problem is how high do they draft them when they have other needs that are so pressing (see above). Assuming they don’t trade up and away picks (a big IF considering this crew’s history), than the earliest they presumably would take one is round 3. On the surface that’s fine, but take a look at Dimitroff’s 3rd round drafting history and you might start getting a little nervous.
They could have spend the $3 million a year they spent on Devin Hester combined with a few more cuts here and there and signed either of the two best safeties on the market in TJ Ward or Donte Whitner for $6 million a year. Both safeties are perennial stars in their prime and would have formed a fierce duo with William Moore.
4) Tight End
Putting aside the concerning fact that Levine Toilolo is set to take over and attempt to fill Tony Gonzalez’s enormous shoes, the Falcons only have one tight end on the roster. Technically, they have four, but the other three are practice squad perennials Andrew Szczerba, Mickey Shuler, and Adam Nissley. And since the Falcons always roll with 3 tight ends on their active, 53 man roster, they are looking to fill not one, but two spots. The tight end market for free agents was very weak, but they decided against bringing in any tight ends, either as promising young talents or older veterans for insurance. They let Chase Coffman walk out the door and they are down to one Mr. Toilolo.
Now looking at Toilolo. The front office evidently feel that Toilolo may be the future at tight end. But they have a habit of proving their brilliance in draft picks even when the facts become overwhelmingly obvious. As a backup to Gonzalez, Toilolo had negligible impact as a rookie. He pulled down just 11 catches for 55 yards, but two of those did include touchdowns. He no doubt is a definite redzone target with his size. And to add some positives, he came in ranked higher overall than Gonzalez and caught 11 balls when only thrown to 14 times with no drops. The problem was his inability to get off blocks due to his weaker upper body, looking clunky in his routes, and not being able to get any separation. He also performed poorly in run blocking according to PFF. Perhaps he will grow into the Falcons #1 tight end, but that’s a scary proposition as it stands.
Toilolo More than a #2 TE? (AJC)
The free agent option is obviously off the table at this point and the draft looks to be the only recourse. There’s some good middle round talent in this year’s class, as it’s hard to imagine the Falcons pulling the card on a tight end before the 4th round, assuming they don’t trade back and gain picks. Some of the tight ends with middle round grades include Troy Niklaus, Arthur Lynch, and CJ Fedorwicz, but the problem is the quantity. A small run on tight ends could easily make the cupboard bare really quick. This is similar to the free safety situation. When camp starts in August, this will likely be more stable, but right now it looks a mess.
The fact that the Falcons find themselves in this position is simply unacceptable on every level. They traded for Tony Gonzalez when he was 33 years old. And for the next five years, they have been unable or incapable of finding his replacement. The fact that this position is in such a mess when Gonzalez has been talking of retirement for years is outrageous.
5) Running Back
What once seemed to be an area of strength suddenly took a major hit. Steven Jackson is coming off an injury-plagued year that has seen his body take over 10,000 yards of NFL punishment and is set to turn 31 this summer. He also looked overall really weak in the passing game. Anyone would have looked terrible running behind that OL, but he seemed to be hopping and dancing more than running and hitting the hole. He’s evidently set to be the lead back in 2014, but it’s hard to imagine it being much different than 2013.
Jacquizz Rodgers had a decent year in the #2 role and came down with almost exactly the same amount of carries, yards, and receiving yards as he did in 2012. He rated the highest in overall category according to PFF and is a very nice change of pace back. The problem with Rodgers is that he’s really shifty, but lacks top end speed and it’s hard to figure out what type of back could complement him the best. He runs tough, but he’s currently not much more than a 3rd down back at this point in time.
Antone Smith = 29 yards per carry (AJC)
Always dependable Jason Snelling unexpectedly decided to retire and, even though he wasn’t a frontline starter, he was a jack of all trades and would do anything the Falcons asked. Including excellent special teams play. He ran as tough as any Falcons running back on the team. His presence will definitely be missed. A few days ago, FB Bradie Ewing was also cut, signifying another poor pick in the draft. You can’t help injuries, but did we really need to take a fullback in the 5th round?
Finally, there’s the curious case of Antone Smith. Perhaps not single better example of Mike Smith’s stubbornness or ineptness. With Steven Jackson injured, the Falcons were searching for something in the running game. With a pitiful offensive line, not much was to be found. But in comes Smith and reels off 5 carries for 145 yards, two touchdowns, and a 29 yards per carry average. And he was never to be heard from again. When questioned, Smith said that his “knee was bothering him,” yet he looked perfectly fine sprinting downfield covering kickoffs and punts. Call it a Witness Protection Program, Veteran Preference Program, or whatever nickname you prefer, it’s undoubtedly an epic failure all the way around.
Like always, there’s plenty of talent to be had in the middle rounds at running back, including Lache Seastrunk, Charles Sims, and Jerick McKinnon, to name a few, but ultimately it won’t matter if the head coach keeps them tied to the bench.
"what if there were no hypothetical situations?"