Projections May Need Tempering
As we officially enter the “Dead Zone” of Falcons and Football, it’s time to start looking at what will be come September and the 2014 version of our Atlanta Falcons. After the trainwreck, boatsink, planecrash of the 2013 season, the front office did a pretty good job of restoring some faith and enthusiasm for fans going forward. They didn’t have the flashiest of drafts, but it was a great foundational draft that has been sorely needed for years now. There always seems to be an over-projection of the actual impact that many draft picks make, especially with Smitty’s beloved “Witness Protection Program.”
Last year was anomaly due to all the injuries. Desmond Trufant started every game and that was expected for a first round draft pick. Robert Alford played in every game and finally ended up getting 4 starts after taking over for an ineffective Asante Samuel. The rest all had little to no impact at all. 4th round pick Malliciah Goodman technically played in 14 games, but only a handful of plays and pulled down a grand total of 8 tackles. Levine Toilolo played a lot, but didn’t really show that much. He had 11 receptions for 55 yards, but did pull down 2 touchdowns. Stansly Maponga collared a grand total of 2 tackles, Kemal Ishmael rarely made it on the active list, and Zeke Motta played decently before being injured. QB Sean Renfree was injured for the year in preseason.
There was a very rare exception due to injuries, where both Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu saw significant playing time and took full advantage of it. Worrilow started 12 games and pulled in 127 total tackles and even added 2 sacks. Bartu started 13 games, had 85 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 1 pass defensed. But again, would they have ever seen the field if it were not for a slew of injuries?
Jake Matthews – Right Tackle
It’s a no-brainer that Matthews will be starting from day one. The assumption is that Matthews will start at right tackle, but it’s just a matter of time before the Sam Baker experiment at left tackle comes to an end. Some think it may be better for Matthews to start on the right side and earn his stripes before moving over the more challenging blindsided. Others feel as though it’s better to go ahead and rip the band-aid off and learn from his struggles for a brighter future. Either way, it’s a long welcome relief to add a stud to our offensive line. Assuming he stays healthy, fans expect to see Matthews on the OL every snap of every game.
Ra’Shede Hageman – Defensive Tackle / Defensive End
Most have high hopes for the super potential of Hageman, but fans may want to temper their expectations. First, you have to look at Smitty’s pattern, and that’s one of any pick not taken in the first round is not a lock to play very much. Even a few years ago, Sean Weatherspoon didn’t take over permanently as a starter until midway through the season. And that was with a porously weak LB unit. Alford finally took over for good for Samuel, but that wasn’t until the season was long lost. Smitty loves his veterans and will always defer to them and stick with them until the evidence is well past the tipping point and completely obvious to even the most general of fans. The second point is the question of where he’ll mostly play and what place in the pecking order he’ll take. Normal assumption would be that he’d get a ton of playing time right off the bat, but the Falcons actually upgraded their defensive line a pretty good bit. They signed both Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson via free agency, as well as keeping Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry.
Most think that Hageman will occupy the defensive end assignment in 3-4 looks, which Smith says they aren’t running. He’s also versatile enough to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 setup and some think he’s strong enough to even play nose tackle if need be. And that might be the main reason he actually does see the field more often, due to his versatility.
Dezmen Southward – Safety
The Falcons really boxed themselves in good with this selection. Southward does have a lot of potential, but can you really see Smitty not starting a veteran he got from Jacksonville (Dwight Lowery)? It even took William Moore a full year to crack the starting lineup, even though some of that had to do with injury. Southward may make it in spot duty and could even overtake Lowery by the end of the season, but it’s doubtful that he’ll be the starting free safety early or even at all in 2014. Of the most NFL ready safeties, Southward was well down the list and that’s including a head coach is always hesitant to play any rookies, especially any draft picks outside the first round.
Devonta Freeman – Running Back
Freeman actually seems to have a better chance to get playing time over 3rd round pick Southward. The running back stable had been deteriorating to a position of weakness with Steven Jackson hitting the 30 wall, Jason Snelling retiring, and Jacquizz Rodgers never taking the next step many thought he would beyond being a solid role player. Antone Smith? Coach Smith obviously has a grudge against giving Smith a legitimate shot. I suppose having a 29 yard per carry average and 2 touchdowns on 5 carries wasn’t good enough.
Most think that Freeman will surpass Rodgers on the depth chart due to his better speed and running style. Ultimately, you have to remember that Smith is going to go with Jackson as long as he can (remember the Veteran Preference Program) and unless Freeman really shows out in preseason, there’s a good chance he won’t make quite the impact some think he will. Antone Smith had about as good of 5 carry run of anyone in history, and that still wasn’t good enough for ol’ Smitty.
Prince Shembo – Outside Linebacker
Some believe Shembo will actually make the field as the Falcons look to move more towards a 3-4 look and that Shembo could fill the role as rush linebacker. But like Hageman, he faces a lot of competition for those spots. Joplo Bartu, Jonathan Massaquoi, Stansly Maponga, and even his fellow draft pick Tyler Starr will be looking to make their mark on a wide open competition, and that’s not even including veterans Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora. Weatherspoon will also likely move outside in 4-3 sets. Shembo wasn’t one of the top flight pass rushers, but was the best available when they selected. Like Southward, 2015 looks more like Sembo’s real opportunity.
Ricardo Allen – Cornerback
Even though the cornerback from Purdue was drafted in the 5th round, there’s a decent chance that Allen could make it on the field as a rookie. It will be a tough competition. Trufant and Alford seem to be a lock for the top two spots, but the next 3 spots appear wide open. The Falcons staff seem lukewarm on Robert McClain for some reason and there’s a bunch of competition after his nickel spot including Javier Arenas, Josh Wilson, Dominique Franks, and now Allen. It will likely see him move to #4 or #5 on the depth chart, but Allen was one of the best CB’s in a deep draft class so you never know.
Marquis Spruill – Inside Linebacker
The theme of competition continues once again and that is no more the case than at middle linebacker. The assumption is that with the Falcons (not according to Smith) going to 3-4, there will be a lot more sets of having two linebackers inside. The assumption is that Weatherspoon and Paul Worrilow are the favorites to man the middle, but some believe that either Spruill or Yamin Smallwood could make a run to challenge the two for playing time, particularly Worrilow. Both seem to have a bright future, but making the leap from a later round draft pick to beating out two veterans seems a bit too far.
Yamin Smallwood – Inside Linebacker
It’s hard to believe that Smallwood lasted all the way to compensatory picks in the 7th round. Smallwood had one of the best statistical records of any inside linebacker in the draft class. In fact, it was surprising that Spruill was taken that far ahead of Smallwood, at least in terms of draft projections. Like Spruill, Smallwood will have a tough time making the team and he also has to beat out Akeem Dent, which probably won’t be that hard. At this point in time, it looks like either Smallwood or Spruill would get any extra snaps, not both.
Tyler Starr – Outside Linebacker
Starr got much of the buzz in the rookie training camp and may end up being the steal of the draft. He could follow in the tradition of Worrilow and Bartu, but you have to remember that they likely wouldn’t have gotten their shot without a lot of injuries. It’s hard to imagine Starr not making the team with his pass rushing specialty on a team that’s starved for pass rushers, but seeing him make a leap above veterans like Umenyiora, Biermann, Bartu, and Massaquoi seems like a pretty big jump even for the most talented of rookies.