In the Trenches and Beyond
by Michael Chastain / just “little ole” me
The 2018 Draft is less than a week away. In part two of the series we will be looking at the Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, and Offensive Line. Who will the front office select for us to cheer for and or complain about? Will a player from one of these three positions even be selected in the draft or will the team only add Undrafted Rookies to the mix? Let us look at where the roster currently stands and what might happen in the near future.
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 two seasons in Atlanta. His production should continue to improve this season as he improves the chemistry with Ryan.
Backups: Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Reggie Davis – Hardy has been a 20 reception player each of the three years he has worn the red and black. He could possible see an increase in targets in 2018 depending on how he competes and what other receivers are brought in during the off-season. Hall was activated in mid-October this past season. In his first game he had a 40 yard reception for a touchdown. The rest of the season was very quiet for him. He finished the year with nine targets and only two receptions. Fuller spent the past two seasons on injured reserve with a shoulder injury(2016) and torn ACL(July 2017). If he is finally healthy look for him to compete for time in the slot position and as the teams main return man. He averaged 24.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.8 yards on punt returns in college and is a slot type receiver who can win speed matchups with safeties and linebackers. Davis spent the entire 2017 season on the Falcon’s practice squad. He has an uphill battle to make the team in 2018.
Expectations: With the loss of Taylor Gabriel and Andre Roberts in free agency, Atlanta now has an opening for a slot receiver and a kick returner. The team had publicly said that they want current players on the roster to compete for those spots, but to think that they will not bring in any other competition is foolish. The team does not have the cap space to sign any veterans to much more that the minimum salary. So look for a receiver to be drafted and a high number of undrafted rookies signed to increase competition. If these options do not work out then expect the team to sign a player that gets cut during the preseason or even trade for a veteran receiver close to the beginning of the season. If the salary cap will allow it!
Draft Options: There is a rare chance that Atlanta selects a receiver in the first round, but it is doubtful. There has not been a single draft under Coach Quinn when an offensive player was selected in the first or even second round. It is much more likely that a receiver could be the choice in the third round or later. A variety of options that should be available throughout the draft are: Christian Kirk, Michael Gallup, Tre’Quan Smith, Deontay Burnette, Trey Quinn, Justin Watson, and Jonah Trinnaman.
Christian Kirk was the only player in the SEC in 2017 to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. On offense he played almost exclusively in the slot position. He uses his speed to take the top off defenses. He average 12.3 yards per receptions during his college career. Kirk is an elusive receiver who forced 35 missed tackles on 233 receptions. He will be a day one starter in the Slot and in the return game. Kirk may be off the board by the time Atlanta picks at #26, but he would be an instant upgrade to the roster.
Michael Gallup is the highest graded receiver according to Pro Football Focus. He was one of the nation’s most productive receivers over the past two seasons. Gallup knows how to create separation with his route running skill and with his hands. This super competitive player is willing to block downfield and gives the extra effort at the end of the play. He projects as a day two selection. It is doubtful that he will still be on the board when Atlanta picks at number 90 in the third round.
Tre’Quan Smith does a great job tracking and high pointing the ball. He has had some spectacular one handed catches and uses his exceptional wing span and leaping ability to get over defenders. Smith is a very willing blocker in the run game. He had over 40 receptions of 20+ yards during his college career. In 2017 over 75% of his receptions resulted in first downs. He received AAC all academic honors. Needs to improve against press coverage and field awareness. Smith is a very coachable player who only played two years of HS football. Most projections have him being selected between rounds three and five. There is a chance he could still be on the board in the fourth round when the Falcons pick number 126 is on the clock.
Deontay Burnette is considered by many scouts to be more quick than fast. His thin frame may not hold up to a NFL beating, but he is not afraid to go over the middle. After the catch he is good with the ball and can make people miss. He has experience in the return game. Many project him as a typical NFL slot receiver. On the third day is likely when he will be drafted, but there is a chance he could go late on the second day if a team falls in love with him.
Trey Quinn is a player in the mold of Wes Welker. He’s an inside receiver that catches everything. This resulted in him leading the nation with 114 receptions in 2017. That’s not even his greatest accomplishment. In the 2008 Little League World Series he threw a no-hitter. Some consider him to be a one year wonder, but that is no fault of his own. He spent his first two years of college in LSU’s run heavy offense where he was second on the team in receptions during 2014. After his sophomore season he transferred to SMU to play in their pass heavy offense. 2017 was Quinn’s first year on the field at SMU and he exceled in their pass happy style of play. Quinn has some wiggle to his game, but many times he will look to punish defenders after making the reception. He has some experience as a returner, but may not have the speed to be a successful at the NFL level. Current projections have him being drafted in the middle of day three. There is a slight chance that he will be on the board when Atlanta picks in the sixth round.
Justin Watson has all the measurables of a NFL receiver at 6’2” 215 pounds. He ran in the mid 4.4s in the 40 yard dash, put up 20 reps on the bench, and jumped 40” in the vertical on his Pro Day. His college stats back up his athletic measurable, but he played football in the Ivy League. So not only is he athletic, but he is intelligent. According to his Coaches he has a first in last out work ethic. Watson had over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his last three seasons. He is currently projected as a sixth round draft pick, but do not be surprised if he comes off the board much earlier.
Jonah Trinnaman is pure speed. He posted a sub 4.3 40 yard dash at BYU’s Pro Day. Prior to the Pro Day he was an undrafted rookie free agent at best. Since then he has been getting more buzz and looks from NFL teams. He has the ability to take the top off the defense and keep special teams coaches up at night as a kick returner. He is still projected as a day three selection at best. He would be a steal if selected in the seventh round.
Starters: Austin Hooper – Headed into his third season he still has numerous areas of his game that need significant improvement! He has been working with Matt Ryan this offseason, but will that be enough to make him an impact player?
Backups: Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen, Alex Gray – Saubert was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 draft out of Drake. He spent the 2017 season as a blocking Tight End and Special Teams player. A back injury sidelined him for part of the season. He will need to make major improvements in his game to be much more that a bench warmer in 2018. Paulsen was brought in to take over the primary Tight End blocking duties. His presents should help to improve the run game, with a minor contribution in the passing game. Gray is part of the NFL Europe program so he doesn’t count against the roster, but he is a developmental player and camp body at best.
Expectations: A second starting quality tight end was needed for Coach Sarkisian’s system. So the team signed Logan Paulsen who is better known for his blocking than his receiving ability. There were a couple of years where he had over 20 receptions. He is a temporary stop gap and not the long term solution. The young guys on the roster are going to compete for their spots against any other Tight Ends who are brought into camp. There is a chance that the team could draft a Tight End, but with all the other more pressing needs it is doubtful that a Tight End selection will be made before day three. Does the team really need another developmental Tight End, or will the team make a surprise pick earlier in the draft?
Draft Options: The top end of this year’s Tight End crop are strong receivers, but none are the complete package. Teams drafting Tight Ends are going to have to choose between a receiving or blocking Tight End. Some of the prospects have the potential to become complete, but they all have areas that are going to require significant work. Here are some possibilities at the position: Dallas Goedert, Chris Herndon, Jordan Thomas, and Jeb Blazevich.
Dallas Goedert would be a surprise pick for the team in the first or possibly second round if they traded down. I doubt he will still be on the board at pick number 58 in the second round. He has all the attributes of a quality Tight End along with great production. The question is can he replicate that production at the NFL level after playing in the FCS. He is a mismatch guy that averaged 8.2 yards after the catch. While he excelled against FCS opponents, he also played very well against FBS opponents. His blocking will need work, but he is considered by many to be the best Tight End in the class. Look for him to be one of the first three Tight Ends off the board.
Chris Herndon played behind 2017 first round selection David Njoku the first three years of his college career. He has lined up all over the field, inline, out wide, as an H-Back, and in the backfield. This versatility will be an asset moving to the NFL. For teams that want to occasionally put a player in the Fullback spot on the field, but do not want to roster a full time Fullback, Herndon is an option worth considering. He has the athletic ability to be productive at the NFL level. Some teams may shy away from him due to the MCL injury he sustained in November. If not for the injury he would be a solid day two selection. He is currently considered to be an early day three prospect.
Jordan Thomas is a big boy Tight End. He was 265 pounds at his Pro Day, but has played as heavy as 280 pounds. He is very athletic for his size and will be a match-up nightmare for most defenses. He is quicker than most Line Backers and big enough to truck most Defensive Backs. Thomas has spent significant time lined up out wide due to injuries to a number of Mississippi State’s other receivers. He is a decent blocker, be he needs to continue to work on improving that aspect of his game. If he does not pan out as a Tight End he could possibly be moved to Defensive End where his combination of size and speed could be utilized on the defensive front. Thomas is currently projected to be a day three selection. Most like being drafted during rounds five or six.
Jeb Blazevich could be the sleeper in this year’s Tight End draft class. As a freshman at UGA he was awarded “Newcomer of the Year” after putting up over 250 receiving yards and blocking for Running Backs Gurley and Chubb. When the offense changed in 2016 all Georgia Tight Ends saw a major dip in their role as receivers. Blazevich spent his final two college seasons blocking in Jim Chaney’s offense. He has spent a great deal of his college time blocking for UGA’s running game and has the ability to be a receiving threat. Many scouts see him as an undrafted free agent, but he will be a steal for some team in the seventh round.
Starters: Jake Mathews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Brandon Fusco, Ryan Schraeder – The team is returning four of the five players who started every game in 2016 and most of 2017! Mack is the rock in the middle of the line. Mathews and Levitre are in the final year of their contracts. The unit as a whole took a step back in 2017 due to injuries and subpar play from the Right Guard position and the back-ups. Fusco was brought in during free agency to take over the Right Guard position in 2018. He played well during the 2017 season and should have an easy transition into Atlanta’s offensive scheme with its similarities to the offense Kyle Shannahan runs in San Francisco.
Backups: Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland, Sean Harlow, Austin Pasztor, Ty Sambrailo, Jamil Douglas, Daniel Brunskill – Schweitzer was drafted in the 6th round of the 2016 draft and took over the starting right guard position in 2017. He failed to meet expectations grading out as “Poor” by Pro Football Focus. Schweitzer’s poor play led to the signing of Fusco. Garland played well as the main back-up in 2016, but failed to match the same level of play in 2017. He is a versatile lineman who has also played on the defensive line. He was resigned to a one year deal for 2018. Harlow was drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He was on the 53 man roster, but did not see any game time this past season. Pasztor was signed before the season in 2017. He played in seven games as a backup at OG and OT. Sambrailo was the prize from the front office’s SNAFU (trade) of this year’s fifth round pick to Denver. He started two games when Schrader was out and allowed the highest percentage of Quarterback pressures of any Lineman on the team. If he fails to perform during camp this year there will not be any dead money when he is cut. Douglas played both Guard and Left Tackle in college. He was drafted by Miami where he was pressed into duty at Center when Mike Pouncy was injured. He played poorly during his six starts his rookie year. Since then most of his time has been spent on practice squads for New England and Atlanta. He is a camp body that will have to work his way into a roster spot. Brunskill was signed as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2017 season. He spent the season on Atlanta’s practice squad. He is undersized for a Tackle (257 lbs), but has been training at Tight End.
Expectations: Last spring Thomas Dimtroff said that he wanted to improve the Offensive Line. If the play of the Line is any indication of his ability to improve the Line, then the fan base should not expect much better for the 2018 season. With the team’s current salary cap situation and the number of starters that will become free agents at the end of the 2018 season the team needs to have viable players behind the current starters. Otherwise the Offensive Line could have drastic changes after the 2018 season.
Draft Options: Any selection made for the Offensive Line is most likely going to be a selection for the future. A first round selection at Guard or Tackle would be a surprise as there are more pressing needs for the upcoming season. Some options throughout the draft include: Isaiah Wynn, Frank Ragnow, Jamarco Jones, Wyatt Teller, and Will Clapp.
Isaiah Wynn could come off the board before the Falcon’s first round selection, but he has experience at Guard and Tackle. He was All-SEC first team in 2017. He is projected to play Guard in the NFL, but he excelled at Tackle during UGA’s National Championship run in 2017. He could play immediately at Guard in 2018 then transition to Tackle if the team is unable to resign Mathews. Wynn will be drafted in the first round.
Frank Ragnow has been flying under the radar for most of the pre-draft process. He has been the highest graded Center in college the past two seasons per Pro Football Focus. He did not allowed a Quarterback sack in over 2,600 snaps. He can play the Guard position as well as he plays Center. He could fill a need at Guard while preparing to become the heir at Center for when Alex Mack calls it a career. Ragnow is currently projected to be selected on day two. Atlanta would need to select him with their second round pick. It is doubtful that he will last long into the third round.
Jamarco Jones is an NFL ready Tackle with good form in pass protection. He has long arms and good play strength. He has improved every year at the college level and should continue to do so in the NFL under good coaching. He missed half his senior year due to injury. His subpar showing at the combine has dropped him on a number of team’s draft boards which will make him a gem for some team during the middle of the draft. Projections have him coming off the board sometime between rounds three and five.
Wyatt Teller was recruited as a Defensive End. After his redshirt freshman year the coaching staff moved him over to the Offensive Line. He did not lose the aggressive play that made him a standout on defense when he switched sides of the ball. He is a nasty Lineman that has incorporated his defensive skills into his offensive position. Hard worker on and off the field. Draft projections have him all over the place. If a team falls in love with him he could come off the board on day two. It is more likely that he is drafted sometime on day three.
Will Clapp played well at both Center and Guard at LSU. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in play strength. He may be better suited for a power running scheme, but has proven that he is not a liability in the passing game. His high football IQ will help his stock. Look for him to come off the board sometime in the middle of day three.
The front office may not see any of these three positions as heavy needs for this year’s team, but without them the future is in question. The draft will show if they believe that the team’s success in 2018 will be more dependent on current players improving or if adding players to improve these positions is what is needed.
Questions for thought:
Can the team improve from 2017 with the current players on the roster? If so who do you see stepping up? If not, rank each of these three positions prioritizing the greatest need.
Do you think the team will resign OT Mathews and/or OG Levitre? Do you think they should?
Is the future of the Offensive Line going in the wrong direction?
How do you feel about the team’s current TE situation?
Do you truly believe that Coach Quinn will let the current Receivers on the roster compete for the starting slot position, or will the team bring in a player who will have to “lose” the position to the current players?