by Michael Chastain – just “lil ole” me
NFL Christmas (The Draft) is less than two months away and fans everywhere have begun their window shopping. Some will get Christmas early with a used toy; others will have to wait for Christmas weekend. Sadly enough not everyone will get the toy(s) they are wishing for. All the little Falcons in Atown and around the world are still trying to recover from the devastation that occurred less than a month ago when all their hopes and dreams were about to come true just before it all came crashing down. Many say it wasn’t the Sandman, but the Shanahan that turned their dream into a nightmare. Alas we have all awoken, most of us anyway, and a new day is dawning. This new day will bring new faces for us to look deep into (over analyze), cheer for, ridicule, and cheer for again! We will also have to say good bye to a few that we have loved in the past. The new hope and dream is for our beloved Falcons to take us on that majestic flight to the sacred Lombardi!
For those who are still reading I will stop trying to channel some well written wordsmith whose name I cannot seem to recall and get into the current state of the Atlanta Falcon’s roster. Let us begin with some numbers. There are currently 46 active players on Atlanta’s roster for the 2017 season. The Falcons have 27 players who will become some type of Free Agent on March 9th. Of those 27 players 18 are Unrestricted Free Agents (they can sign with any team they want to), 4 Restricted Free Agents (Atlanta has the right to match any offer a player receives from another team), and 5 Exclusive Rights Free Agents (they cannot negotiate with any other team if Atlanta places a veteran minimum tender on them). At the time this was being written the Falcons have 28.8 million in salary cap space. Only the 51 highest paid players count against the salary cap. For those who are thinking there is no way the team will fill the 80-90 man roster that most team field during training camp with football players and not just cardboard figures there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
Beginning with the Quarterback position I will look at what the team has, what the team needs, possible resignings, possible free agent signings, and what might happen in the draft. Please understand that I don’t have Mayock time or skills to analyze the draft prospects. The ones I present are based off limited knowledge and information. I hope to have a better feel for the draft prospects after the combine and pro days!
Starter: Matt Ryan – 2016 NFL MVP, Need I say more?
Backup(s): None! There was only one backup Quarterback on the 53 man roster in 2016.
Expectations: Three Quarterbacks will be brought in to compete for the backup spot. Matt Schaub knows the offense, but he made 2.75 million in 2016, which is more that the team can afford to spend on a backup Quarterback in 2017, and he might be on his way to the 49ers if he wants one last shot as a full time starter. Two other veteran Quarterbacks that could possibly be brought in since they both have some familiarity with the system in Atlanta are Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown. Hoyer might resign with the Bears since it is rumored that they will be parting with Jay Cutler. McCown would probably be a one year signing at the veteran minimum. At the age of 38 can he still play the game? Can McCown overcome the recent rash of injuries he has endured behind the Browns Offensive Line?
Two, off the beaten path, possibilities are Adam Kennedy and Keith Price. Kennedy currently plays in the Arena Football League, but he played under the Falcons new Quarterback coach at Arkansas State in 2013 and posted a 69.1 completion percentage on 314 pass attempts. Price currently plays in the Canadian Football League, but played under Coach Sarkisian at Washington from 2010 -2013. Price was a three year starter whose completion percentage was over 60% each year. He threw for 33 touchdowns his sophomore year.
Finally rookie possibilities! Who wants a rookie to fill in if Ryan gets injured? I don’t see Coach Quinn drafting a Quarterback before the sixth round if at all. Most likely one or two get brought in as undrafted rookies. Personally, I like Davis Webb out of Cal. I think he is a better player than last year’s number one draft pick. But, he is currently projected to be drafted early on the third day. My guess is that he will be drafted on day two. Three possible undrafted rookies are Seth Russell (Baylor), Wes Lunt (Illinois), and Brady Gustafson (Montana). All three had good college production. Lunt looked good during the Shrine game. Russell is one of the top passers to come through Baylor, but has had a couple of nasty injuries to deal with. Gustafson has the size and production for the NFL, he will need to show that he can handle the increased speed of the game.
Starter: Devonta Freeman – Freeman has been the workhorse and excelled in the Atlanta offense the past two years. He has broken the 1,000 yard rushing barrier twice and scored 11 rushing touchdowns each of the past two seasons. The problem is we all remember what looked to be his missed blocking assignment on that 3rd down play in the Super Bowl. It was like a slap in the face after Freeman’s agent was calling for Freeman to get paid for his production prior to the Super Bowl. One play does not show the worth of a player, but it can leave a lasting impression on the fans. The Front Office will need to make a decision on Freeman before this time next year, but I do not expect an extension for him until after all the drafted rookies are signed. By then there will be a better idea about how much cap space will be available for the team to work with.
Backups: Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward – Coleman was slated to be the starter at the beginning of the 2015 season before injury opened the door for Freeman who took the reins and hasn’t let go. Coleman has shown improvement over the past two seasons and was a major contributor in 2016 with 8 rushing touchdowns. Ward is a scrapper that has managed to fight off all contenders for the third Running Back spot. Ward only made the game day roster five times in 2016, but he made the most of his opportunities by increasing his average yards per carry from 3.3 in 2015 to 4.9 in 2016.
Expectations: This is the stable of Running Backs that has carried the rock through the past two seasons. I expect the team to bring in a lesser known free agent or two and a couple UDRFAs to compete in camp. I do not expect any changes to the stable this year unless someone gets hurt or one of the UDRFAs beats out Ward for the third Running Back spot. One possible UDRFA that might unseat Ward is DeAngelo Henderson out of Coastal Carolina. He averaged over six yards per carry and had over 90 receptions. Henderson has good vision and a sweet jump cut. He’s a bowling ball built similar to Freeman at 5’7” 209 pounds. He would be an interesting signing to watch if he’s not drafted.
There are many who feel that the team should carry a power back as the third Running Back for short yardage situations. During the 2016 season the third Running Back was only active for 5 games. Coach Quinn only had three Running Backs active for three regular season games. The other thirteen games only two Running Backs were active. This shows that Coach Quinn values other positions, for the 45 man active game day roster, over the Running Back position.
Expectations: Dimitroff has said that the team is interested in resigning Patrick DiMarco. He was the only fullback on the roster in 2016 and he is an unrestricted free agent. He was active for all 16 regular season games. He was primarily a blocking back and never carried the ball. He did have seven receptions during the season. New Offensive Coordinator Sarkisan likes to use double Tight End sets. This will take away even more from the Fullback role on the team. A decision might be made to not carry a Fullback and use a Tight End or Lineman in the backfield the few times a blocking back might be needed if DiMarco is not resigned.
If Coach Quinn wants a Fullback for 2017 it should not be an expensive signing. There are only five Fullbacks in the league that make more than a million per year, so a Fullback should not break the bank. Kyle Juszczyk is the best Fullback on the market and could arguably be an upgrade, but would he sign with a team that will reduce his snaps? The price tag on Juszczyk would also be higher than DiMarco.
Look for one maybe two Fullbacks to be brought in as UDRFAs even if the team decides to cut the Fullback position from the roster. Extra bodies are always needed for the various drills and situations that are ran through in camp. Somebody has to play the oppositions Fullback in practice!
Starters: Julio Jones, Moe Sanu – Julio is going to be Matt Ryan’s number one for years! Sanu came in and played much better than I expected during his first season in Atlanta. His production should improve in his second season as he improves the chemistry with Ryan.
Backups: Justin Hardy, BJ Daniels, Devin Fuller, Anthony Dable – Of the current backups only Hardy had any receptions in 2016 and could potentially become the starting slot receiver. Daniels is a converted Quarterback who is learning the Wide Receiver position. He is not overly fast, but could compete for a spot on the back end of the roster. Fuller is the seventh round pick from 2016 that was brought in to be a returner before a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve. Look for him to compete for a returner and receiver position. Dable is a 28 year old Frenchman who started playing football when he was 19 years old. He is 6’4” 224 pounds and runs a sub 4.5 forty. It will be interesting to see how he performs in camp.
Expectations: Eric Weems and Aldrick Robinson are both unrestricted free agents. Even though Weems did not catch a ball in 2016 there is a chance that he will be resigned just to play on Special Teams. Robinson will probably sign with another team, most likely the 49ers. Nick Williams price as an exclusive rights free agent is as cheap as it gets. It would be a 1 year deal at the minimum salary. There is no reason not to tender Williams unless the coaches feel like he does not have anything to offer the team. Taylor Gabriel was fourth on the team in receptions and tied Julio for the most receiving touchdowns with six. As a restricted free agent it is expected that a 2nd round tender (1 year at 2.85 million) will be placed on him. Taylor knows the system and made a number catches at critical moments in games.
The teams needs at the Wide Receiver position is mainly the slot and backup positions where some younger guys currently on the roster may step up to fill. Some options from the free agent market include slot receiver Adam Thielen, Marquess Wilson, and Josh Gordon. Thielen is a shifty slot receiver in the mold of Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, but he is a restricted free agent and if he gets first or second round tender then Atlanta will not sign him. Wilson was a promising receiver whose career has been derailed by injury. Can he stay healthy is the question. Gordon was a star in the making and can still be if he can overcome his off the field issues. Atlanta has the coaching staff and locker room that can help Gordon get back on track. A performance incentives based veteran minimum contract would be the way to go with him just in case he backsildes. Imagine Matt Ryan having Julio, Sanu, Gabriel, and Gordon on the field at the same time!
Don’t look for Coach Quinn to draft a Wide Receiver before day three. Many Georgia fans would love to hear Isaiah McKenzie’s named call when the Falcons are picking. He can come in and play outside or in the slot. He is quick, shifty, and fast. McKenzie is also a proven return man which is an area that needs major improvement! Here are some other out of the spot light prospects that could be brought in. Travin Dural had modest production at LSU. He is a player in the mold of Odell Beckham, but he has a much lower projection than Beckham did. Victor Bolden Jr (Oregon St) is a smaller receiver that has nice return skills. He was used sparingly as a returner at Oregon State because he played a heavy role in the offense. Robert Davis (Georgia St) is 6’2” 225 pounds and put up impressive numbers at Georgia State. He has experience in a pro-style offense, but still needs to improve his game.
Starters: Austin Hooper – Headed into his second season he still has numerous areas of his game that need improvement!
Backups: Josh Perkins, Darion Griswold, Brian Vogler – Perkins had 3 receptions and a touchdown this past season. He is more suited as an H back than an inline tight end. Griswold had his rookie season end before it began when he was injured in the Colts camp. This former basketball player out of Arkansas State shows good hands and the ability to block. He also spent some time lined up in the back field as a blocker for the Red Wolves. He will be one to watch in camp to see if he can perform in Sarkisian’s Offense. Former Alabama Tight End Vogler is considered a blocking tight end with only average blocking skills. He is tall at 6’7” but he will be fighting an uphill battle to be more than a camp body in August.
Expectations: A second starting quality tight end is needed for Coach Sarkisian’s system. Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo will be unrestricted free agents. They each played 32% and 55% of Atlanta’s offensive snaps in 2016 respectively. Hooper was the only other tight end with significant playing time (39%). Tamme has always been a receiving tight end and is getting up in age. Toilolo has been a project from the day he was drafted and has shown some improvement. Of the two Toilolo is the most likely to be resigned since he is only 25 years old. According to DImitroff they are currently working on resigning him. He did have the highest yards per reception (20.3) on the team in 2016. DJ Tialavea is an exclusive rights free agent that will probably be tendered. He is considered to be a very good blocking tight end with decent hands. His only reception in 2016 went for a touchdown.
The free agent tight end class is not as good as the tight end draft class this year. Two possible free agent tight ends that Atlanta might consider are Trey Burton and Mychal Rivera. Both are in their mid 20s and have their best football ahead of them. Burton is a mismatch guy for opposing defenses. He has also spent some time at fullback. Coach Quinn has some familiarity with Burton as they were both at the University of Florida at the same time. Trey is a restricted free agent and could be tendered by the Eagles. If so do not expect the Falcons to pursue him. Rivera has experience in a two tight end system. He has soft hands and his blocking has improved from his rookie season. If signed he would have to come in and compete for a roster spot.
The draft is the most likely place that Atlanta will bring in a tight end that will get significant snaps in 2017. There is a good possibility that Falcons fans will hear a tight ends name called on day 3 possibly as high as the fourth round. Here are some prospects to watch from this year’s strong tight end draft class. Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech) is an oversized wide receiver. He was rarely asked to block during his college playing time which will be an area of his game that he will need to work diligently at. This former quarterback has been projected as early as the first round and as late as the fifth round. Jake Butt (Michigan) spent the last two years in Jim Harbaughs pro-style offense. He is a solid option as a blocker and receiver. Jake is currently projected to be drafted between rounds 3 and 5. Michael Roberts (Toledo) is a former basketball player with great hands. He has experience as an inline blocker which will fit nicely into Sarkisian’s offense. Expect him to be drafted on the third day. Pharoh Brown (Oregon) was on everyone’s radar until a gruesome knee injury ended his 2014 season. He did not play again until 2016 when he put up good numbers. Many teams will remove him from their draft boards because of the uncertainty of how well his knee will hold up to NFL play. He might get drafted on day 3, but will most likely be an UDRFA.
Starters: Jake Mathews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Ryan Schraeder – The team is returning four of the five players who started every game in 2016! They meshed well as a unit and will hopefully continue to improve their chemistry.
Backups: Wes Schweitzer, Kevin Graf, Carter Bykowski, Blake Muir, Trevor Robinson – Schweitzer was drafted in the 6th round of the 2016 draft and competed with Chris Chester for the starting right guard position. Look for him to compete for the starting right guard spot in 2017. Graf has spent most of his NFL career on the practice squad of various teams. He will be a long shot to make the 53 man roster. Bykowski spent time with the 49ers and Vikings before joining the Falcons practice squad in 2016. Look for him to compete for a roster spot as the swing tackle. Muir is an Australian born Guard that did not begin playing football until his senior year in high school. He played two years for the University of Hawaii before transferring to Baylor. Muir was signed to Atlanta’s practice squad in November and has been improving his game on a daily basis. It will be interesting to see how the Aussie performs in camp. Robinson started 13 games at center for the Chargers during the 2015 season, but did not play well as a run or pass blocker; Pro Football Focus graded him as the worst offensive lineman in the NFL. He is a long shot to make the 53 man roster.
Expectations: At the Combine Press Conferences Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Quinn informed the press that the team was looking to improve the offensive and defensive lines this offseason. At a minimum expect new blood at right guard in 2017.
Chris Chester and Tom Compton are both unrestricted free agents. Many considered Chester, who started all 16 games, to be the weak link in Atlanta’s offensive line. Compton was active for all 16 games as the swing tackle. Ben Garland, a restricted free agent, played on the offensive and defensive lines. Look for the 28 year old to be resigned as a backup due to his versatility.
Some free agents that may get a look are J.C. Tretter, Ronald Leary, Patrick Omameh, and Austin Pasztor. They are all under 28 years old and each of them graded out well per Pro Football Focus. The lowest grade of the group was at a 77, compared to Tom Compton’s 50 and Chris Chesters 62.5 any of these players would be an upgrade. Tretter started at center for the Packers before he was injured. He can also play guard. Leary has developed into a solid lineman, but he lost his starting job to Lael Collins in 2015. He did start some games in 2016 when Collins was injured. Ronald was basically the 6th lineman on arguably the best line in the NFL. Omameh has bounced around to a number of teams since 2013. He started at guard for Jacksonville after Luke Joeckel went down with an injury. Omameh played well until he sustained a foot injury and was placed on injured reserve. Pasztor has started 43 games at either guard/tackle since 2012. He could come in and be the 6th man on the offensive line filling in at guard and tackle.
The draft is the most likely place the Falcons will acquire a new starting right guard from. The pick at 31 could be Dan Feeney from Indiana. Feeney has great footwork and does well run and pass blocking. He will not last until the end of the second round and might be gone before Atlanta picks at 31. Jordan Morgan out of Kutztown is a third to fifth round prospect who played tackle in college but he projects as a guard in the NFL. He played well against the lower level of competition and has the skill set to succeed in the NFL. Even if the Falcons sign a starting Guard in free agency expect them to draft an offensive lineman at some point to develop.
Coming next week: stay tuned for the next installment by just “lil ole” me, The Defense and Special Teams.