Posted on: August 17, 2012 12:00 pm

extra details from Falcons vs Bengals

The big fuss last week against the Ravens was that Atlanta used starters and potential starters on special teams, losing Bradie Ewing for the season and Akeem Dent for an unknown amount of time.

Mike Peterson took Dent's place as the starting MLB.  And like Dent, Mo Pete is playing those special teams units.

The first unit KR team:  Jacquizz Rodgers, Mike Cox, Antone Smith, Robert James, Kevin Cone, Cliff Matthews, Peter Konz, Johnathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann, Shann Schillinger, and Mike Peterson.  Massaquoi and Matthews flanked Konz as the deep blockers, and two of them would form the wedge (depending on the direction of the return).

The first unit punt coverage team:  Kevin Cone and Antone Smith played as the gunners, with Matt Bosher punting and Joe Zelenka alternating with Josh Harris as the long snappers.  Spencer Adkins, Chris Hope, Shann Schillinger, Suaesi Tuimaunei, Mike Peterson, Kroy Biermann and Mike Cox made up the rest of the unit.  

(I thought it interesting that Tuimaunei was in this group instead of Charles Mitchell.  I'm wondering if the idea was to have Tuimaunei on the field at the same time as Schillinger for direct comparison.  Otherwise, I can't see the reason for putting a likely practice squad prospect in with the first unit.)

The first punt return unit:  Dominique Franks as the return man, with Kevin Cone, Thomas DeCoud, Cliff Matthews, Antone Smith, Shann Schillinger, Jacquizz Rodgers, Robert James, Robert McClain, Darrin Walls, and Spencer Adkins.

The first kickoff coverage unit had Chris Hope, Mike Cox, Cliff Matthews, Robert James, Shann Schillinger, Kevin Cone, D.J. Davis, Antone Smith, Lawrence Sidbury and Dominique Franks, with Matt Bosher as the kicker.

The offensive line units were similar to the Ravens game. The first unit line, from left to right:  Baker, Blalock, McClure, Reynolds, Clabo.  Last week, McClure came out early and Joe Hawley worked with the first unit.  This week, McClure remained with the group throughout the first quarter.

The second unit line had Svitek, Jackson, Hawley, Konz, and Johnson.  For the second week in a row, Johnson only played right tackle.  In minicamp and OTAs, he was in his usual spot as the second unit left guard.  In training camp, he played some at left guard, right guard, and right tackle.

When Konz briefly came out with what appeared to be a hand injury, Philipkeith Manley came in at left guard and Jackson moved to the right side.

The third unit had Bryce Harris, Jackson, Hawley, Konz, and Johnson.  This is a change from last week, when Konz slid in to center, flanked by Manley and Jackson.  If he did bang up his hand, the coaching staff might have opted not to have him handling the ball.

The fourth unit had Harris, Manley, Tyler Horn, Konz and Johnson.  Apparently Konz and Johnson are getting as many reps as possible on the right side.  They worked pretty well together.

Noteworthy line mishaps:  on that pass from Matt Ryan to Jacquizz Rodgers for a loss (the one Ryan should have simply thrown away), Garrett Reynolds was getting beaten on the line, and Quizz helped him out with a double team.  Unfortunately, he didn't spot the outside man coming around to the middle on the stunt.  That defender came free, forcing Ryan to flee the pocket.

And yes, that was our old pal Jamaal Anderson who was in Ryan's face when he threw the ball.  Interesting to see him reunited with Mike Zimmer, who was our defensive coordinator when we drafted Jamaal.

The second unit line also had trouble picking up a stunt, but the Bengals came with a six man rush on that particular play, so it's not too surprising.  Andrew Jackson got beaten on that play (he whiffed badly on a block last week that led to Redman getting decked), but this time his man wasn't the one that delivered the hit.  The outside man who rolled inside on the stunt was the one who leveled Rojohombre. 

Svitek also got beaten on one play, with Redman taking a hit.  That play came immediately after Svitek had been called for a false start, so it might have still been in his mind.  Otherwise, Svitek has played well in both games.

The left side of Harris, Manley, and Horn on the fourth unit is still shaky, which is about what you'd expect from a trio of undrafted rookies.  The big sack on Davis came when Manley was beaten first, leaving Harris facing a hopeless one on two situation.  Davis dug himself into a hole by scrambling backwards rather than outside (where he could have thrown the ball away).  But to his credit, he did convert the first down.

For the second week in a row, Max Gruder came in as the second MLB, ahead of Pat Schiller, though Schiller got more time at the position.  Spencer Adkins and Robert James played the outside LB spots for both of them and remained on the field in the nickel package, with the MLB prospects coming off.

Jerrell Harris and Rico Council were the third pair of OLBs, and both Gruder and Schiller had reps working with them.  James and Adkins continued to play as the nickel package linebackers, replacing the prospects.

Dominique Franks and Darrin Walls came in as the second unit cornerbacks.  Robert McClain joined them for the nickel package, with Franks moving into the slot while McClain took his place outside. Chris Hope and Shann Schillinger played safety with this group. 

Charles Mitchell came in for one series with Hope.  He returned in the final two minutes, paired with Suaesi Tuimaunei. 

That was the only series Tuimaunei had at safety, which is why his appearane with the first unit punt coverage group stands out.

The various DB units are still trying to get it together as groups, having occasional mishaps with communications.  One play had a receiver left wide open for an easy touchdown.  Dominique Franks had released the receiver to the safety in order to cover another receiver in his zone - which is pretty standard for cover two.  But Chris Hope wasn't behind him to pick up the man.  There's no telling who was responsible, but it was a clear miscommunication between the two.

Another pass in the fourth quarter had Orson Charles all alone over the middle for a big gain.  Jerrell Harris started on Charles in the short zone but released him to the safeties - who weren't there.  More than likely Harris was supposed to stay with Charles, but again there's really no telling what the play call was and who had what zone of responsibility. 

The defensive line didn't rack up sacks, but they had consistent pressure throughout the game.

Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews were the second unit DEs (not counting Biermann, who rotated in as part of the first group).  Massaquoi later came in for Sidbury and paired with Matthews for the remainder of the game.

Travian Robertson paired with Vance Walker as the second DTs.  Robertson would continue to rotate in with the third unit, pairing at times with each of Micanor Regis and Elisha Joseph.

Kevin Cone and D.J. (Drew) Davis paired as the second WRs.  Marcus Jackson eventually replaced Cone, working one series with Davis (and with Tim Toone as a third receiver) before James Rodgers replaced Davis.  Kenny Stafford also rotated in during the final two minutes.

Tommy Gallarda had the third TE spot behind Gonzalez and Palmer.  Newly arrived Chase Coffman only made a brief appearance, with LaMark Brown finishing the game.  Dominique Davis apparently got over Brown's tip for an INT last week.  Brown was his favorite target during the fourth quarter scoring drive, including the touchdown pass.

Davis still had subpar play from his teammates, with frequent pressure and four dropped passes.  But at least this week he has a stat line that reflects his stellar play:  11 of 18, 121 yards, 1 TD, and a QB rating of 99.5.  Marcus Jackson dropped one of his passes, Kenny Stafford dropped one, and James Rodgers dropped two, including the one that ended the game for the Falcons.

Odd moment:  the replacement officials called a personal foul on "number 76 in white" at the end of the first half.  Neither team had a #76 on the field for that last play.

Posted on: April 24, 2012 2:55 am

Pre-draft notes: tight end

We've heard it before:   Tony Gonzalez says this year might be his final season in the NFL.

But the word is that this time around, it's his WIFE that is telling him to hang 'em up when the season is done.  The boss has spoken, and I believe her.  This is it for the greatest tight end in NFL history.

The Falcons should count their blessings that he returned even for this season.  Justin Peelle got banged up in preseason last year and was released on an injury settlement.  The Falcons signed Reggie Kelly as his replacement, bringing back some bad memories for long-time fans.  (Dan Reeves traded away a future first rounder for the second round pick he used to get Kelly in 1999.  It proved to be a top five overall selection, which the Ravens used to grab Jamal Lewis.)  Kelly is now an unsigned free agent and likely to retire.  

So if Gonzalez had decided to call it a career, Atlanta would have been without either of its top TEs.

Michael Palmer is an emerging player to consider, though he didn't get many pass-catching opportunities as the #3 in Mike Mularkey's system.  At 6-5, 252, he presents a good target for Matt Ryan, and he got a lot of opportunity to work with the quarterbacks as the main TE during the unofficial OTAs during the lockout. 

He doesn't have blazing speed, but he has good hands to go along with his blocking skills.  I don't know if he'd be the answer as the future starter, but he's certainly capable of holding down the #2 spot.

After that, we're down to a trio of practice squad prospects -  Marquez Branson, Tommy Gallarda, and Ryan Winterswyk.  Branson is quick but only has small school experience and limited blocking skills.  Winterswyk is a converted defensive end, but he showed real promise in preseason last year before getting banged up in the final exhibition game.  Gallarda is a big, strong guy who can catch a few passes as well.  He'd mainly be a blocking TE but could also be valuable in the red zone. 

The big question:  should we go after a TE in this year's draft?

The Falcons have obviously known for years that the clock was ticking on Gonzalez.  That was a big part of the decision to trade up last year for Julio Jones.   The idea was that the coaching staff knew the next starter probably wouldn't be able to match TG's production.  So they went for a massive upgrade at WR instead.  That way, it's okay if the next tight end proves to be a mere mortal.

Tight end may be the weakest position in this year's draft class.  The general consensus is that there are three top tier prospects:  Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and Orson CharlesLadarius Green is the most intriguing of the rest of the bunch, with his speed and receiving ability (though his size and experience make him questionable for in-line blocking, essentially giving him the same function as a WR).

After that, most scouting reports say there's a pretty big dropoff to the rest of the pack, and there are mixed opinions on how far Green is from the top three.

My take:   this could easily be viewed as the top draft priority.  If one of the top three is still available at the #55 spot, the team should strongly consider taking him.

If that happens, that prospect would have a year to work with Gonzalez and learn from the best before moving into the starting role in 2013.  Michael Palmer would remain the #3 this year before stepping up to the #2 role, giving the team a pretty solid duo.  If any of the other prospects distinguish themselves in camp and on the practice squad, they'd be strong contenders for the #3 spot.

I'd also consider this year's TE class a case of top three or bust.  If none of the big three are available, I'd prefer to see the team trade down, use their picks at other positions, let Michael Palmer play as the #2, and find a new starter next year. 

For that matter, if new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter really does migrate towards a vertical passing attack, the tight end position might not be all that important outside of the red zone.  The plan for 2013 might end up being an in-line TE for blocking duty (Palmer or even prospect Tommy Gallarda would suffice) and an h-back type.  In that case, a very late pick might do the trick.  One name I like for that type of role is Massachusetts h-back Emil Igwenagu, who has also played tailback, fullback, and traditional tight end.

But I'd rather try to draft a new starter if we could, and I'd prefer to go ahead and get him now, letting him work his rookie year as the #2 behind Gonzalez.

Bottom line:   if I were in the war room, I'd be fighting hard for a top-three TE at #55.

Posted on: April 24, 2012 1:50 am

Pre-draft notes: running back / fullback

The overriding factor in every decision a general manager makes is the salary cap.

The cap isn't just about profit and loss.  It also serves as the league's best tool for maintaining a competitive balance, by forcing teams to focus on asset allocation.

Think of it this way:  you're the GM of a brand new expansion team, and you're allowed to try to sign any players you want from any team.   You have the ability to sign Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady as your three quarterbacks.   Is that a good idea?

The answer would be a definite NO.   You'd have at least $40 million in cap space (and probably over $50 million) tied up at the quarterback position, and only one of them could play at any time.  You'd only have $70 to $80 million left to spend on the other 50 players on your roster.  Good luck getting a defense, receivers, and blockers with that low of a budget.

That's where asset allocation comes in.  You can't have everything.  You have a limited supply of magic cookies, and you have to figure out where to use them.

So what does this have to do with the Falcons and the offensive backfield?  

Over the offseason, our braintrust had to make a lot of key decisions about the team's cap dollars.  And one of the biggest decisions was whether to stay with the power running game.  Starting RB Michael Turner and starting FB Ovie Mughelli carry some hefty salary cap costs.  Do we stay with our Pro Bowl backfield for one more year, or clear the roster and free up cap dollars to use elsewhere (such as at left tackle)?

My take:   the team publicly stated its commitment to Turner for this season.  Let's take them at their word and assume Turner stays. 

In cap terms, it makes sense.  Turner's signing bonus counts $2.5 million per season against the cap.  He's signed through 2013.  If the team trades or releases him before June, they would have to count both the 2012 and 2013 portions of that bonus against this year's cap.  They'd lose Turner and still face a $5 million cap cost.  If they keep him, they'd pay his $5 million salary and count the 2012 portion of his bonus.  The cap cost would be $7.5 million.

Keeping the team's offensive workhorse would only cost an extra $2.5 million of cap space.  Might as well have him stick around.

It's not as obvious with Mughelli, as the team would free up $3 million by dropping him.  Other fullbacks would be much cheaper.  But Atlanta's offensive production last season really dropped off the shelf after Mughelli went on IR.  The coaching staff knows how important he is to their power attack.  So if they're going to keep Turner, they could quite easily opt to keep Ovie for one more year as well.

It's a different story next year though -  Mughelli will be a free agent, and moving Turner next year would free $5 million of cap space.  I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them both gone from the picture in 2013.  But for now, it looks like they're still going to be our starters in the offensive backfield.

Another item to consider:   we've heard that the team wanted Dirk Koetter at OC largely because of his thorough knowledge of the vertical passing attack.

Well, you can't work a strong vertical attack when you're playing a "22" package (two RBs and two TEs, with only one wide receiver on the field), as the Falcons often did in 2010-2011.   To get vertical, you're almost forced to go with more single-back formations.  And that means less of Turner, Ovie, or both.

Turner hasn't been much of a receiving threat out of the backfield.  He could pass block, but the team has stressed for a couple of years now that they really need to balance the load a bit more.  They *want* to get him off the field more frequently if they can.

Mughelli might be interesting as the lone back.  He can be effective catching passes out of the backfield, and he's the best blocker we have among our runners.  He'd certainly love a few more opportunities to carry the ball.  If he stays, he might see action as the lone back.

Jason Snelling would be ideal in a single back set, which may have been one reason why the team put a priority on resigning him.  He can run inside, catch passes, lead block, and pass protect.  He's not a speedster, but he's otherwise perfect for a team wanting to implement a four vertical attack. 

Jacquizz Rodgers has demonstrated that he's quite willing to throw his body against an incoming blitzer, but the results have often been painful (yet hilarious) to watch.  Hopefully Koetter would take an alternate approach and use him as the hot man for the outlet pass instead of making him a kamikaze pilot.   With his speed, he's a weapon - and that can be just as effective as blocking.  If a blitzer runs past him after the quarterback, a screen or hot pass would have Rodgers off to the races. 

The other big question is whether we keep four total runners on the roster (as we did for the entire 2008 season) or go with five (as we have most of the time since then). 

The obvious follow-up is if Koetter wants five, do we have the fifth man already in house or do we need to find him in the draft?  The in-house candidates:  

Antone Smith has held the #5 spot for the last two seasons.  In two seasons on the roster, he has a grand total of ONE rushing attempt -  for negative three yards.  He also has zero pass receptions, making him pretty much a waste of a roster spot.  The coaching staff opted to keep him in 2010 because of his speed.  But he was a disaster in the passing game in preseason, leading many fans to wonder whether the team kept the wrong man.  He turned it on in the final preseason game to save his roster spot last year, but afterwards appeared only on special teams -  or on the inactive list.

Dimitri Nance came to camp as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and was the main alternative to Smith.  The Falcons opted to try to stash Nance on the practice squad.  He didn't last long before the Packers signed him away.  He was available this offseason, and Atlanta quickly scooped him back up for camp. 

Based on what we saw of him in the 2010 preseason, he was a decent inside runner and could catch.  He needed more work on his reads in pass protection -  possibly an issue of trying to learn the offense as an undrafted rookie.  He doesn't have tremendous speed but does have versatility.  If he turns it on in preseason, he's likely to beat out Smith this time around.

Mike Cox is a pure fullback.  He came aboard when Mughelli went on IR last season.  Mixed grades on his effectiveness.  He didn't know much of the offense, so the team wasn't able to use him in as many situations as they could Mughelli or Snelling.  If nothing else, he does have experience.

My take:  I'm not sure I'd keep any of these three as the fifth man, though I'd let them all compete for the job in camp.  Nance needs to show he can block.  Smith needs to show he can run routes and catch.  Cox needs to show he can learn the whole offense and be more than just a pure lead blocker.

I wouldn't make RB a draft priority, but I'd consider it in the later rounds.  I'd definitely add at least one RB as an undrafted free agent.  The ideal guy would either be someone versatile like Snelling or a speedster who has KR experience and who would be deadly on the screen pass.  Atlanta thought it had Noel Devine as an undrafted free agent last year.  Someone like that would do.

This year's potential crop of undrafted runners doesn't seem to be as strong as last year's.  The other side of that coin:  by the end of August, there will likely be several candidates from last year's college class available as free agents or waiver pickups. 

I would generally prefer to go with five runners rather than four, as the team ran into trouble in 2009 when several players got banged up. 

But if the right candidate can be found for the practice squad (and if we can keep him -  we lost Kenneth Darby in 2008 and Nance in 2010), going with four would allow the team to carry an extra player elsewhere, such as an extra receiver or a DB for special teams. 

The fifth man could also be someone doubling up from another unit -  such as a backup TE lining up at the h-back spot in a spread package.

The big picture:   to quote the old song, a change is gonna come.  But not yet.    RB really shouldn't be an area of need for this draft.  

Posted on: April 22, 2012 8:41 pm
Edited on: April 22, 2012 8:43 pm

Pre-draft notes: quarterback

The Falcons are obviously set for 2012 at starting quarterback.  Matt Ryan is signed through 2013, and the team is likely to work on an extension at the end of this season.  The main question for the draft is at backup quarterback.

Chris Redman has been the one bright spot to come out of The Bobby Petrino Experience.  The former second-rounder had been out of the league after major back surgery, was selling insurance, and had signed on to try his hand at Arena football when the call came from the Falcons.  He has been a solid backup.  The catch:  he turns 35 in July.  Time is quickly catching up with him.

John Parker Wilson was a favorite of the coaching staff, who opted to keep the Alabama star #3 in 2009 rather than stick with the former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley.  Quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave thought highly of JPW, and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey raved about him.  However, Musgrave is now the OC for the Vikings, while Mularkey is the new head coach of the Jaguars.  Our new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, hasn't even had a chance to see him on the field yet.

That makes him a major question mark.  Is he ready to step up to the #2 spot?   Preseason last year was a lost cause.  He was leading a drive fairly effectively in the first exhibition game, but the backup prospects on the line and in the backfield weren't able to protect him.  He suffered a concussion, missed the next two preseason games, and was badly out of sync in the preseason finale.  He didn't make the roster, but when Musgrave tried to snatch him from the practice squad, the Falcons responded by promoting him to the roster. 

The Falcons could certainly use an extra arm in camp.  The question of JPW's readiness is a major factor in determining the priority.  If he's ready to step up to #2, then the team could use a late pick on a #3 -  or even sign one of several potential candidates as an undrafted free agent.  There will be some noteworthy names going undrafted this year.

On the other hand, if there is any doubt at all about his suitability for the backup role, the team needs to think about drafting someone who could step in right away as the #2.  That would likely mean one of the earlier picks -  perhaps the third rounder -  would go towards landing a new quarterback.

My take:  the key person in all of this will be Glenn Thomas. 

Surprised?   Ever even heard of him?  

He has been an offensive assistant to Mike Mularkey going back to the 2008 season.  He knows the offensive roster.   And with Bratkowski following Mularkey down to Jacksonville, Glenn Thomas has been reassigned.  He's our new quarterbacks coach.  Dirk Koetter won't know himself whether he'll share Mularkey's high opinion of JPW.  He'll be depending on the information he gets from Thomas.

If it's up to me, I go after a potential immediate #2 in this draft.  We know Redman won't be around much longer, and the question on JPW is whether he's even suitable as a backup, not whether he can take over the offense and win a championship.  We need a player who can make things happen if something happens to Deuce.

My favorite QB prospect in this draft class is Russell Wilson.  Sure, Andrew Luck and RG3 are better prospects, but they're not available.   My take is that Wilson is hands down the best one within our reach.

Something else to keep in mind is that we're now hearing the salary cap is likely to remain close to the current level for several more years.  If that proves to be the case, Matt Ryan might prove too expensive to keep beyond 2013.  If we land an immediate #2 such as Wilson now, that prospect might be ready to start by 2014 -  giving the team options.

But as much as I'd be delighted to have Russell Wilson as the new backup, I suspect it won't happen.  (It's not often that our team selects our top choices in the third and later rounds.  We're lucky if they select the first rounder we want.)  I'll chalk it up as wishful thinking.

We're reportedly scouting B.J. Coleman and Austin Davis as potential targets in the later rounds.  So if we don't have a QB by the time the draft reaches round four, keep those names in mind as possibilities for the final day of the draft.

Posted on: April 22, 2012 4:19 pm

Pre-draft notes: offensive line

The first question....  should we really be bummed out about our line heading into the new season?  No doubt, their play left a lot to be desired last season.  They had three pretty good years in 2008-2010 but then fell flat in 2011. 

The verdict from our braintrust was that it was a coaching issue as much as a personnel issue.  Line coach Paul Boudreau was sacked.  On the personnel side, the right guard position was identified as the weakest link in the chain.  Vince Manuwai was signed to plug that gap.

My take:  I agree with the decision.  Boudreau was a highly experienced coach who did well in 2008-2010, but he really dropped the ball badly last year.  Our linemen simply weren't well prepared and didn't play fundamentally sound football.  They were up high all season, getting no leverage and getting pushed back into the backfield.  Michael Turner typically had first contact a yard behind the line.  If he made three yards after contact, that was still only good enough for a two yard gain.

I suspect that Boudreau had a hand in going with two older journeymen (no upside) rather than two of our own prospects last year.  Throw in the awful idea to play Sam Baker at right guard when he had only had one full practice after his back surgery, and the decision to make a coaching change seems pretty obvious.

And Manuwai is an upgrade over any of Kynan Forney, Harvey Dahl, Garrett Reynolds or Joe Hawley at the right guard position.  Great move there.  Manuwai and Clabo provide a whole lot of beef on the right side.

Second question:   what's the answer at left tackle?   The team has publicly stood behind Sam Baker, noting that he played through injury all year.   (Key:  he was experiencing back problems even in preseason.  He tried to play through it, was horrible, and finally opted to have surgery when it became obvious that he wasn't capable of getting the job done otherwise.)

Fortunately, Will Svitek stepped up in Baker's absence last year and showed that he can be a competent left tackle.  He may not be Pro Bowl material, but his play (including utterly shutting down Jared Allen) was good enough to put him above average among starting LTs.  If it comes down to it, we do have a Plan B.

Many of us want to see an upgrade in free agency, particularly Marcus McNeill.  And yes, McNeill backed up by Svitek does have a pretty sweet sound to it.  But will it happen? 

My take:   don't count on it.  The odds are against it.  McNeill is visiting many other teams and will likely have other options.  Even if we move out Baker to clear cap room, we'll be hard pressed to fit McNeill under the cap.  Another team could easily outspend us and land the free agent.

As for Baker, never mind his skill level.  We're talking about a 300-pound man who makes a living throwing his body into other large people and has already had two back surgeries in the last four years.  Do we really expect him to hold up the entire season without more health concerns?

I wouldn't bet on it.  But I do have confidence in Svitek.  I'd hope that the team would forget about trying to work Mike Johnson at guard and let him practice at tackle instead.  He has the potential to be our future left tackle -  he did pave the way for a national championship at Alabama at LT, after all.  If Baker ended up on IR, Svitek backed up by Johnson could work, *if* the coaches do practice Johnson at tackle.

Third question...   do we use one of those top draft picks on a lineman? 

A lot of "big name" mock drafts now have the Falcons going with an offensive lineman at the #55 pick.  We're talking about a late second rounder here, so just about anything is possible.  But I wouldn't be so hasty as to identify the OL as the most likely area that Dimitroff will target with our top pick. 

Under Mike Smith, the Falcons have tried to go with nine offensive linemen on the roster when possible.  Counting Baker and Jackson, we currently have ten.   Even if Baker does become a cap casualty or lands on IR in preseason, someone else would have to go to make room for an incoming rookie -  who would spend 2012 and likely 2013 on the bench anyway.

So suppose we did take a second round lineman to groom as a future LT.  The most likely casualty would be that Jackson returns to the practice squad this season.  Johnson would be worked as a backup guard rather than potentially returning him to tackle (where he played at Alabama).

If we get the right guy, he might be an upgrade.  But would it be enough of an upgrade to be worth spending the second or third round pick?   Probably not.  We have more obvious needs elsewhere, and Dimitroff openly admits he's a needs-based GM in the draft.

My take:  the main roster is probably fine as it is.  Where we really need to reload is on the practice squad.  We lost Rob Bruggeman when we opted to bring back Boudreau favorite Brett Romberg.  We lost Jose Valdez to our former QB coach when we opted to sign Kirk Chambers rather than promote Valdez.  If Jackson makes the main roster, the developmental pool will be empty.

So look for plenty of undrafted free agents and perhaps a late rounder (such as the compensatory pick).  But I do hope that Dimitroff will address more important needs with the earlier picks.

The big picture...  the whole thing really hinges on Pat Hill doing a better job preparing his men than Boudreau did last year.  If Hill can get it done, we'll be fine.   One potential combination:  we might end up with Svitek, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Manuwai and Tyson Clabo as the starting five, backed up by Johnson, McClure, Jackson and Reynolds.

That's actually a pretty darn good group.  But it still depends on new coach Pat Hill having them ready to go.  Even in December, last year's team looked like it was still in preseason mode.  Hill will have to have them much more prepared this year.

Posted on: March 17, 2012 4:21 pm

Falcons resign Abraham

I know everyone wanted Mario Williams or some other (younger) beast.  But let's get real -  we can't afford it.  I'm surprised we could even afford Abraham.  Apparently he came way down on his asking price. 

The bottom line on getting John Abraham back is that our pass rush will at least not be any worse than it was last year.  So should we still feel down about our defensive line?  

The coaching staff has told us that Ray Edwards played through injury all season and wasn't 100%.  At this point, comments from our coaching staff and front office don't carry as much weight as they did in 2008.  I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm ready to stop listening completely and blow off everything they say during the offseason.

But we know Edwards had knee surgery before last season (and missed training camp because of it), so that part of it is easy enough to believe.  Will he be another beast in 2012?  Probably not.  But he should be better this year than he was last year.  That part should be a minor upgrade.

I'd say the major upgrade is Mike Nolan.  Changes to the scheme will help all our defensive linemen.  Of course, that's the big unanswered question -  whether Nolan can get more out of Abraham, Edwards, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews than Brian VanGorder did. 

I frequently wanted to smash hotel TV screens watching BVG's idiotic blitz designs.  I can't help but think that whatever tweaks Nolan makes to the defense, they'll have to be improvements.  Smitty and Dimitroff both raved that "the arrow was up" with BVG. 

But then again, they poured massive resources into the defense for years, and the best that BVG could do was get the defense to middle of the pack - with a far below average pass rush.  So chalk all that praise up to simple kindness for those who have moved on.  That's Arthur Blank's way, and it's the way of his organization. 

Can Sidbury and Matthews step up?  El Sid finally got to play last year and excelled in limited playing time.  I'm looking forward to seeing how he does in Nolan's scheme.  The coaching staff was also stoked about Cliff Matthews in training camp last year.  But naturally, they stuck him on the inactive list even after he returned from his preseason injury, just like they had done with Sidbury in 2010.  It's rather difficult for these guys to pressure opposing QBs when they're stuck on the bench.

My take:  we actually DO have the pieces in place for a decent pass rush.  It's simply up to our new DC to put those pieces together and make it work. 

Two elements that I'm hoping we'll see in Nolan's scheme:  press coverage and the dime package.  Assuming we land another competent DB to pull off the dime package, both of those items could help Atlanta's defense significantly.

In particular, jamming receivers might do wonders for Kroy Biermann.  KB had been among the league leaders in QB hits and pressures in 2010, but he has remained one step shy of getting the QB on the ground.  If the DBs can prevent the receivers from getting into their routes cleanly, that buys an extra second for the pass rush to get to the QB.  (For those new to the board, that's the cornerstone principle behind the "Tampa Two" defense.)

It might also help Chris Owens.  Think back to his rookie season.  When injuries to Chris Houston and Brian Williams forced the team to start Brent Grimes and Owens, they had the kiddies play aggressively and press.  Owens stood out as an impressive rookie playing in that style.  But in 2010, the team went back to BVG's favorite pillow-soft cushions.  Give a slot receiver 8+ yards of open space, and all Owens could do was play follow-the-leader.  He was awful. 

He'll be playing the final year of his rookie contract this season, and his career is pretty much on the line.  Let him play the aggressive style that worked for him in college and in his rookie season here.

The benefit of the dime package would be that each eligible receiver (including TEs and RBs) would have a man lining up on him (which works hand in hand with press coverage), one extra safety would be in reserve over the top, and there would still be five defenders to rush the passer on a blitz.  Alternately, the team could go with a four man rush, assign the LB to the running back, and keep a second safety back for a standard cover two shell. 

This is a key element of the Texans defense.  They don't even bother with the nickel package.  They go straight from their base package to a dime package, with four defensive linemen, one linebacker, and the six DBs.  It was extremely effective for them last season.

Posted on: November 1, 2011 3:59 pm

Giving McKay due credit

Our former assistant GM Billy Devaney is currently having yet another rough season as GM of the Rams.  

That crossed my mind when I recently heard Mr. Blank attribute the recent Falcons success to three key hirings, starting with Rich McKay and followed by Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith.  

Hearing that from Mr. Blank and hearing the beginnings of anti-Devaney rumblings in the St. Louis media reminded me of the way that the media here (especially the sports radio stations) widely blamed McKay for anything and everything that had gone wrong in Atlanta in 2005-2007.  If it rained, it was McKay's fault. 

Some of it was way off base.  For example, Jeff Schultz over at the AJC pinned the team's horrid 2003 offseason and draft on McKay.  And yes, it was a terrible offseason.  The team traded away its first round draft pick for wide receiver Peerless Price, who they signed to a long term deal.  The other key free agent of that offseason was defensive back Cory Hall, who signed a five year contract.  And the key player of that draft class was safety Bryan Scott in the second round, followed by fullback Justin Griffith in round four, and players named Jon Olinger, LaTarence Dunbar, Waine Bacon and Demetrin Veal in the late rounds.

(Side note:  that Falcons draft had a classic Mel Kiper moment.  The one pick of the bunch that Darth Helmet Hair blasted was Griffith in the fourth.  He said the pick didn't make any sense to him, because with Dunn and Duckett, the team certainly didn't need another running back.  Kiper missed that Griffith was a fullback, and Atlanta's long time starting fullback Bob Christian had just announced his retirement after suffering major concussions the prior season.  The irony is that the one pick that Kiper openly criticized turned out to be the only one of the bunch that panned out for Atlanta.)

So yes, the personnel moves in 2003 were rather dubious.  But blaming McKay is utter nonsense.  For the record, Rich McKay was the general manager of the Buccaneers at the time.  He didn't come to Atlanta until 2004.  The guys at the AJC might as well blame Sean Payton for last year's collapse of the Panthers.

Need proof that McKay wasn't so bad as GM?  Never mind that he built a Superbowl winning roster in Tampa.  Instead, just look at the current roster of the Falcons - four full offseasons since he handed over the GM duties to Dimitroff.  

John Abraham was a McKay acquisition, as were Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Brent Grimes, Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock, Ovie Mughelli, Stephen Nicholas and Eric Weems.   A big knock on McKay back in 2007 was that none of "his" players made the Pro Bowl.   That was rather obvious after 2007 - no Falcons players made the Pro Bowl at all in the wake of The Bobby Petrino Experience.  But six of the nine Falcons that appeared in the most recent Pro Bowl were brought into the organization by McKay.

Some (but certainly not all) of the general fan base now realizes that Arthur Blank isn't just being kind to his top executive when he includes McKay among the hirings that brought about the team's improvement.  McKay had outstanding drafts in 2004 and 2005, and even brought aboard a good supply of prospects in that dismal 2007 season.

And perhaps one day even Jeff Schultz will come around and recognize McKay's positive impact on building this franchise.

Posted on: October 30, 2011 2:35 pm

Looking ahead... free agency

One of the rare weeks where I'm in Atlanta for the weekend, and naturally it's our bye week...  Oh well.  That makes it a pretty good time to take a look at this coming offseason. 

The Falcons had it easy with free agency heading into the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as the team was loaded with young players locked under contract.  But the pendulum swung the other way this season and will be full tilt this coming offseason.

John Abraham will be a free agent.  So will Brent Grimes, since we only tendered him as a RFA this year.   Ditto for Eric Weems.  The team only resigned Jason Snelling for a one year deal.  He's a free agent again this year too.  Same story with linebacker Mike Peterson.

Tony Gonzalez is in the final year of his contract.  So are Todd McClure and Chris Redman, plus Joe Zelenka (long snappers are people too).  And so are the second and later rounders from the 2008 draft:  Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann, and Harry Douglas
And except for DE Ray Edwards, who inked a long term deal, all of our new Falcons are only signed for this season:  Kelvin Hayden, James Sanders, Brett Romberg, Reggie Kelly, Kirk Chambers, Mike Cox.

That's 19 unrestricted free agents on the current 53-man roster.  Yikes...

At quarterback, Matt Ryan is still here.  But John Parker Wilson is already a free agent -  all practice squad members are free agents who could be plucked at any time.  It's not a good sign for his future that the team chose to expose him rather than keep him on the roster.  And Redman will turn 35 before the start of training camp next year.  He may still have another year or two left in the tank, but I wouldn't depend on it.   So figure at least one new quarterback - and maybe two - in our future next year.

At running back, the Falcons are in reasonable shape for 2012 - mainly because serviceable running backs are so easy to come by, and because the backups are still so underused.  (Michael Turner has 138 carries going into the bye.  The other RB/FBs have a combined total of 24.)  Antone Smith has yet to carry the ball this year at all.  He's likely to be a fringe player once again next summer.

At tight end, Michael Palmer is an exclusive rights free agent.  That means the team can simply renew his contract, which makes him the only tight end they have locked in at all.  Gonzalez has said he feels like he can play a few more years.  He has also said before that he'd like to end his career with the Chiefs, so there's no telling whether he'd resign with Atlanta.  Practice squad players Marquez Branson (injured) and Tommy Gallarda are likely to be here for camp on futures contracts.  But we'll probably need more -  I wouldn't expect to see Kelly back for another season.

At wide receiver, I would guess that Douglas wouldn't be too difficult to resign.  Roddy White and Julio Jones are both here long term, and Kerry Meier is still under contract and likely to be more involved in his second year back from ACL surgery.  The interesting question is whether one of the prospects might challenge for a roster spot.  The front office reversed course last season.  Instead of going for big guys with good hands but who are slow as molasses, the team started looking at speedsters.  D.J. Davis and Kevin Cone are both lightning quick, and they're both getting a chance to learn the offense on the practice squad. 

(I'm thrilled to see the change - finally.  Too bad they couldn't have gone that route back in 2009, when we really could have used a speedster.  Our scouts had seen Johnny Knox at the Texas vs The Nation game - but after trading away Laurent Robinson, Dimitroff left Knox sitting on the draft board to take cornerback William Middleton instead.)

For all the fuss about how Atlanta's offensive line would supposedly be devastated by free agency this season, we turned out to be overloaded instead.  McClure is getting banged up pretty hard this year, and it's the final year of his contract.  Don't be surprised if Ol' Mud Duck hangs up the cleats.  But except for fill-ins Romberg and Chambers, everyone else is under contract at least through 2012.  (One caveat:  Sam Baker may be on one of those option or voidable years.)   And there's already extra depth in the pipeline, as both Andrew Jackson and Jose Valdez are still sitting on the practice squad.  

Specifically at center, Romberg would be likely to resign.  He came aboard this season as a street level free agent.  He's mainly working as a backup guard right now, but he's a natural center and was here previously as the #2 behind McClure.  He became expendable last year when the team drafted Joe Hawley.  Now he'd be a pretty obvious choice to bring back as Hawley's backup. 

At DE, we're in trouble.  Both Abraham and Biermann will be free agents.  Can we even afford to sign both?  We'd need at least one of them returning to supplement the remaining trio of Edwards, Lawrence Sidbury, and Cliff Matthews - and Sidbury will be a free agent after next season.   If we're going to stick with the current 4-3 scheme, the DE position will continue to need attention every year.

At DT, we're set.  Vance Walker will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and if he's still here, Carlton Powell would be a restricted free agent after 2012.  But the trio of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry won't be free agents until 2014.

At linebacker, resigning Lofton will be a priority.  But otherwise, Peterson is the only free agent this year, and Spencer Adkins is the only one set to become a free agent next year. 

At cornerback, the question is whether we'd be able to hang on to Grimes at all.  He was hoping for a long term deal this year but only got a tender.  He's coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and continuing to make highlight reel plays.  If he hits the open market, somebody is bound to offer him the big bucks, as the Ravens did with Domonique Foxworth a few years back.   Hayden will also be a free agent this offseason, and Chris Owens will be entering the final year of his contract.   The team has already started preparing for 2012 by keeping undrafted rookie Darrin Walls on the roster, while Dominique Franks also continues to develop.

One potential scenario:  Grimes bolts for the big bucks, but the team resigns Hayden.  Even before the draft, that gives Atlanta a quintet of Dunta Robinson, Hayden, Owens, Franks and Walls.   Throw in few futures contract or two - perhaps bringing Kamaal McIlwain in for another run at training camp - and the group as a whole would at least be no worse off than in 2009 and 2010.

At safety, Decoud and Sanders are both free agents.  That leaves William Moore (who will be in the final year of his contract) and Shann Schillinger as the only safeties locked in.  The team opted to expose Rafael Bush to the practice squad instead of Walls, and he has already been plucked away.  Suaesi Tuimaunei is getting a chance to learn the system as the replacement for Bush on the practice squad.   He's an intriguing possibility as a long term project, but he won't be ready for real action in 2012.  At least one more safety will be a must. 

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or