Home > NFL, Roster Roundouts > Roster Roundouts: An Atlanta Falcons Preaseason Report

Roster Roundouts: An Atlanta Falcons Preaseason Report

flickr.com/55thstreet

flickr.com/55thstreet

Falcons One-liner: If Matt Ryan is the real deal, there’s no telling how far this team can go in the next three years.

But for the Falcons to actually improve on last season, they need something special to happen unexpectedly.  With the trade for tight end Tony Gonzalez, it looks like they are trying to make their own luck happen, which is as admirable as it may be misguided.  But something is telling about the fact that they dealt a 2010 pick instead of a 2009 pick for Gonzalez, and it’s something that tells be that G.M. Thomas Dimitroff is not much a fan of Phil Savage’s work.

This looks to be a deliberate attempt not to let a 2009 gamble affect the smoothness of the rebuilding process.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.  Maybe the Chiefs just thought the 2010 draft was stronger.  But by acquiring Gonzalez without trading a 2009 draft pick, the Falcons keep moving in the right direct while they give Matt Ryan a weapon that could put their offense over the top.

Let’s be clear: Gonzalez came with a serious cost to the Falcons to what could amount to just two or three years at the end of a hall of fame career at a non-premium position.  But what if Matt Ryan really is a once in a generation passer, and not just a good solid use of the third overall pick?  Sure, there’s no way to tell if he’s the next Dan Marino, but the comparisons have been made, and if he actually is, then Gonzalez could be the difference between a super bowl contender and a super bowl winner.  It appears to be another in a series of calculated gambles that will define Dimitroff’s tenure.

Now, back to reality.  Last year, the numbers said the Falcons would stink (they were wrong), and this year they say that they’ll struggle again.  No matter how well Ryan plays this year, he’s almost sure to be hamstrung by an ineffective defense all year, one that seems on the surface even worse than last year’s version.  They overcame their projected struggles last year entirely because of Ryan, Michael Turner, and unexpected strong play from the offensive line.

But now, you can factor in the relative strength of those players–not their 2008 levels, but an expectation for 2009 after mean regression–and the Falcons still don’t come out looking like a good team.  They only score a seven in QDS (quality starters plus depth)–this is the average score of the Bills, Chiefs, and Rams by the way–and while they are deciding plenty of things over a training camp grind, the immediate depth is a real issue for a team that managed to stay very healthy last year.

Of course, there’s two ways to make my quick and dirty metric looks like it knows nothing: have a great talent development machine, or have simply excellent performers in breakout years.  It’s way too early to determine if the Falcons qualify for either of these factors, but a last place finish in the NFC South would suggests that they didn’t, and were simply understaffed.

Let’s go back to Turner for a second.  One of the biggest expectations for decline in the 2009 Falcons is that their 1,700 yard back from last year qualifies for the “Curse” of 370: which suggests that running backs who see too many carries in a single season will decline in near-future seasons.  Turner qualifies for this curse, but it’s important to look into other factors for decline before simply writing off a back based on carries in year n-1.

For example, Turner has never averaged worse than 4.5 yards per carry in any season in his career (going back to college at Northern Illinois), which is what he got each of the last two years.  So what makes him a risk of a sub-4.0 ypc season?  It’s not the curse of 370.  The truth is, as Matthew Berry of ESPN pointed out, if Turner is overworked at 376 carries, then Adrian Peterson is likely overworked as well at 363 carries.  No one is predicting a major decline for Peterson, so what’s the difference?

It’s Turner who ran up his yardage against the softest opponents on his schedule: 200 yard games against Detroit and St. Louis, 120+ yard games against Tampa, Oakland, and Green Bay.  His median performance was a 3.7 yard per carry game.  Peterson, on the other hand, was held below 4.0 YPC only twice last year: ironically, against the Saints and Falcons.  Peterson was having his median days against the Bears defense, while Turner was simply going off against bad competition.

He’s good enough to generate eight in the box fronts, but he’s not good enough to open up the deep passing game should Matt Ryan start hot in the first four games.  That’s why there’s significant decline predicted from one back around 370 carries, and nothing from the other.  Looking at the levels of talent separates the two; despite last year, Turner is probably not one of the best 15 backs in the NFL.  But it also might provide some insight about the Curse of 370 itself: why do players like Larry Johnson and Michael Turner break the threshold, while more physically talented players like LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, and Adrian Peterson consistently threaten it, but do not break it?  Intriguing.

But, at the risk of simplifying the defense into three big time players (and one sentence): DT Peria Jerry, DE John Abraham, and LB Curtis Lofton, this all goes back to Ryan.  If he has 1,400 passing yards in the first four games, we might just be witnessing a truly historic player who will win 3-4 games for his team every season.  A player who may be the successor to Manning and Brady.  But it’s way more likely that the increased responsibility thrust on him by a suddenly inconsistent running game causes his first bit of adversity as an NFL quarterback.

The likely encore to last year’s 7 win improvement is a 4 or 5 win regression to the mean.  Schedule made a big difference in the Falcons affairs last year, and plenty of their wins were decided by tight margins.  Still, this is a well built team and it would shock no one if they returned to the playoffs this year, but the NFC is wide open for a reason.  The supposed “contenders” are flawed, and there’s no shortage of teams who finished behind you in the standings willing to knock you down a peg or two.  The rest of the NFC South is more talent laden than the Falcons, and they can’t count on immediate contributions from their young talent.  Without it, they can’t expect to return to the postseason in 2009.

Falcons Camp, Flowery Branch, GA

Lots of camp battles for a team that tends to be very thin on depth overall.

Third Quarterback: D.J. Shockley vs. John Parker Wilson

Shockley might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the other hand, he’s kind of been a de-facto number three quarterback in his career who played one season at Georgia before Matt Stafford took over.  Now, Parker Wilson was a great college quarterback who seems like a nice scheme fit because his skill set is very much in the mold of Matt Ryan.  Now, the backup quarterback here is Chris Redman, and he’s a bad scheme fit in the vertical offense the Falcons want to establish.  This is good for Shockley.

Running Back: Jason Snelling vs. Thomas Brown

Thomas Brown was a very successful running back at Georgia who was on the practice squad last season, and brings breakaway speed to the offense, making him a poor man’s Jerious Norwood.  Jason Snelling on the other hand is a converted fullback, who the team discovered could run the ball and pass block as a single back.  He’s a better fit for what they like, but if both players continue to impress, Snelling’s versatility means you can fit Brown on the 53-man roster if you choose.

Tight End: Ben Hartsock vs. Jason Rader

Jason Rader was the third tight end last year, and he out-played Ben Hartsock.  But the Falcons acquired Hartsock because they like his blocking and thought he could fill a major hole.  Right now, he’s very much on the bubble due to his lack of future value.

Linebacker: Jamie Winborn vs. Spencer Adkins

Winborn, the longtime vet, is nearing the end of the line, and Spencer Adkins is a linebacker from the University of Miami, meaning that he’s going to feel at home inside this division.  Like the RB situation, this is not an either/or kind of thing, but if Adkins shows he can play, there’s little point for Winborn on special teams.

Cornerback: Christopher Owens vs. Von Hutchins vs. William Middleton

This is the problem area of the Falcons.  Their top three corner are all really young: none are in more than their third season.  So you have two veterans in Hutchins and Middleton, but how much sense do veteran corners make as roster fillers?  I don’t have the answer to that question, so they’ll probably be apt to choose the most valuable special teams players of the bunch.

Surprise Cuts?

  • QB Chris Redman
  • WR Brian Finneran
  • DE Jamaal Anderson
  • DT Jason Jefferson
  • LB Coy Wire
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