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Tag:Matt Bryant
Posted on: September 3, 2010 3:43 pm
 

quick notes before the roster cuts

We should start getting news on roster cuts soon.   Last thoughts...


Dunta Robinson had expected to play last night.  The word from Dimitroff was that he was ready to go.  It wasn't health reasons that kept him out -  it was simply that Mike Smith decided to rest him along with John Abraham and Curtis Lofton rather than risk anything happening to the $50 million free agent CB.

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Matt Bryant didn't shank any of his shorter kicks against the Jaguars the way he did that extra point against the Dolphins.  But he still hasn't shown he's reliable from longer distances -  and his troubles from 40+ were why the Buccaneers decided to go another direction in the first place.

I don't think the Falcons are actually LOOKING to replace him right away, but in light of Jason Elam's woes last year, they're likely to stay on top of things a little better in 2010 than they did in 2009.  The most interesting situation is that Kris Brown is now on the open market.

Also, expect to see some of the top rookie prospects become available this weekend.  Atlanta went with Garrett Lindholm, who made the ESPN highlights because of that last second 60+ yarder in the playoffs.  But Lindholm really wasn't among the top 3 or 4 prospects.  The coaches would rather not be forced to go with a rookie, but if it came down to that, at least there are some better ones likely to be available.

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Interesting twist...  Corey Peters wasn't able to play last night.

Since Jonathan Babineaux is out just one game, the Falcons will have to decide whether to keep a fourth DT on the roster for the season opener.  Babs doesn't count towards the roster for that week.  The key question (and no one who actually knows is talking) will be the health status of Peters.

The Falcons typically keep three DTs active, with the fourth as one of the eight inactive players.  So if they keep all four other DTs for the opener, odds are that one of them would have to go when Babs returns for week two.  Best guess is that Trey Lewis has beaten out Vance Walker for the true #4 spot (and possibly even Peters for the #3 spot as well). 

So if Peters is healthy enough to play, the team might keep just Peria Jerry, Lewis and Peters for the opener, with Jamaal Anderson sliding in to DT in the 4-2-5 nickel package or on other passing situations.  That would allow the team to keep an extra WR for the first week, when the status of Michael Jenkins is still uncertain.

The likely odd man out is Walker.  He'd be on the inactive list for the opener anyway, so there wouldn't be that much point in keeping him on the roster just to bump him out a week later.  If Peters is healthy, Walker probably starts the year on the practice squad.

But if it looks like Peters might not be ready to go (and we won't know until well after the rosters are in), they'd need Walker to fill out the rotation.  Peters would start the season as the #4 on the inactive list while he recovers.  Any extra roster spots would have to be squeezed from other units.

I have no info whatsoever on Peters.  Pure guess = he's still questionable, and Walker sticks for the opener.

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Michael Palmer was a go-to guy for Chris Redman last night, and JPW threw a couple to him as well.  He's definitely going to stick, be it on the practice squad or on the main roster.

The sticky part of putting him ahead of Keith Zinger on the roster is that the #3 TE has major blocking and special teams duties.  Those are areas where Zinger stands out. 

The part that didn't make a whole lot of sense was that the commentators referred to Palmer as a kid who needed to add some bulk to make it long term.  Huh???  Okay, he's a youngster.  But he's already bigger than either Zinger or Peelle.  I'll take that remark as random lunacy by our preseason announcers (WXIA's Randy Waters and NFL-N's Brian Baldinger).   If he really does add some upper body strength, look out.  The kid will be a beast.

I'm still not comfortable with the idea of knocking what Dimitroff called the consummate blocker off the roster, but I'll go ahead and fill in Palmer as the #3 TE on my mock roster.  He managed to get open and was targeted throughout the preseason.  Zinger did get on the field, but you'd never know it unless you were specifically looking for him.

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Spencer Adkins got banged up a bit last night.  Unless it's a season-ending thing, I'm not expecting any official word on him until Wednesday.  But I think he has made the roster.  If he's not seriously hurt (it might have just been a cramp) it won't matter that he got banged up - as the #6 LB, he'd be on the inactive list for the first week anyway.

Bear Woods played well this preseason.  I doubt he made the roster, but I'm comfortable filling his name in for a practice squad spot.

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I don't think any of the RB/FB trio nailed down the #5 job.  I haven't seen enough from Dimitri Nance to make me entirely comfortable with him, but I do like his versatility:  he was successful in several short yardage situations, including two touchdown runs, and he did well catching passes out of the backfield.   But he had too many unsuccessful rushing attempts.  He didn't win the job outright.

Antone Smith was the team's leading rusher in preseason, but he messed up several reception opportunities, had a critical fumble last night, and also muffed a kickoff return opportunity.  Saving grace:  he did well picking up a blitz late in the game.  The Falcons are looking for their backup RBs to be capable of pass protection.

Dan Klecko had looked fairly solid throughout the preseason - until halftime last night.  He didn't play all that well in the second half, plus he's a pure fullback (at least on offense - he's also a defensive lineman).  He can block (and tackle), but he can't catch very well and won't get any opportunities to carry the ball.  That makes him as useful as Verron Haynes, though better on special teams - which wouldn't matter as he'd be a fixture on the inactive list until someone got hurt.

And of course the biggest question is whether the team will even keep a fifth runner to start the year.  If they go with just four (preferring to keep an extra wideout while Jenks is banged up or go with an extra offensive lineman or DB for the long haul), I think I'd pick Nance for the practice squad. 

If they go with five, it's a toss-up between Smith and Nance for the roster.  The other would be a strong candidate for the practice squad.

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The next rough decision will be in the secondary.  If Brian Williams is healthy enough for the main roster - and based on last night's game, it looks like he is - the team is carrying six CBs and ten total DBs.  And that's not even counting prospects Dominique Daniels, Rafael Bush and Eric Brock.

Now that safety Matt Giordano is gone, the guy whose chair is getting the hottest should be cornerback Chevis Jackson.  CJack was a disappointment in his second season last year, and he really struggled in coverage throughout the preseason. 

(My take... he's playing way too soft, giving receivers far too much cushion.  He doesn't have the recovery speed for that.  His only chance is to play physical and jam his man at the line.  If he's going to start out five yards off his receiver, he's basically just Chris Houston without the stupid attitude.)

But CJack might still have a chance, as he is a strong contributor on special teams (including a gunner-blocker on the punt return unit).  He might stick with an at-large roster spot specifically for his special teams role.

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Smitty won't comment on Michael Jenkins until the first official injury report on Wednesday.   The unofficial word is that the coaching staff is hoping (but not certain) that he'll be available against the Steelers, or at the very least against the Cardinals in the second game.

At wide receiver, the main guy who opened some eyes last night was Ryan Wolfe, who had two 20+ yard receptions plus a third shorter reception.  (Unfortunately, WXIA's coverage had sideline interviews during two of his three receptions, so he didn't get the attention he deserved from the announcing crew.)

Meanwhile, Brandyn Harvey had received most of the attention among the trio of undrafted receiving prospects.  Harvey had a game he'd rather forget.   Harvey was targeted five times but came away with one reception for only three yards.  He had another catch but pushed off unnecessarily, getting called for an offensive pass interference penalty that killed a drive.  He was also flagged for a holding call downfield that wiped out a long touchdown run by Jerious Norwood.  (Atlanta had to settle for a field goal on that drive - and ended up losing by four points.)

I'm not picking any of the trio to make the roster, and I'm not sure they'll beat out Andy Strickland or other prospects from around the league for a practice squad job either (remember - we don't HAVE to sign our own guys to those spots).  But I'm leaning towards putting Wolfe's name ahead of Harvey's on the list of prospects.  It might not seem right to think the coaching staff will make a decision based on just one game, but that was the ONLY game where Wolfe got real playing time, and he really made the most of it. 

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Brett Romberg stepped up and played better on the o-line last night than in the previous exhibitions.  Key question... is that enough for him to stick around?   He can play guard or center, but was signed mainly to be our backup center last year (ultimately beating out Alex Stepanovich and Ben Wilkerson after Jeremy Newberry decided to retire).

But the Falcons braintrust decided to look elsewhere for its center of the future, drafting Joe Hawley in the fourth round.  Will the team keep them both?  Will Svitek appears to have won the swing tackle position, as he's now the only backup with experience at LT.  Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson both play tackle and guard - and both appear to be ahead of both Hawley and Romberg at guard.

So Romberg's best shot would be if the team decides to keep ten offensive linemen - and if they decide to make the tenth man an extra C/G rather than an extra T/G.  If they wanted another T/G, the extra guy would be Jose Valdez, who got his first chance to play LT last night (having previously played RT and RG) and performed quite well.

That one would be a virtual toss-up.  Boudreau likes the idea of keeping ten guys and also likes the idea of being three-deep across the board.  Keeping Romberg as the #10 would achieve that.  But Valdez is a far better long term prospect than Romberg, who has little upside and who is a free agent after this season anyway.

My guess:  they start the season with nine.  Romberg is out, and Valdez starts the year on the practice squad.  Svitek, Reynolds, Johnson and Hawley are the backups.  Valdez gets called up before the end of the season though, regardless of whether or not someone gets hurt. 

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The team's official web site is really driving me nuts.  The new format is bad enough, but it's just plain PATHETIC when a team's very own web site can't get the basic facts right.  Even now, their "official" roster still includes offensive lineman Mark Ortmann (who was briefly signed for depth for the Miami game and was immediately released afterwards) and leaves out CB Dominique Daniels (who got extensive playing time in the second half last night).

Several players have no ages listed, Justin Peelle still has no position, and the rookies are listed as "1" under experience the same as the second year guys.  In other words, Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, etc have the same amount of experience as Chris Owens, John Parker Wilson, Lawrence Sidbury, etc.

JMike, we miss you buddy.  The web site has completely sucked ever since you left.


Posted on: August 22, 2010 4:15 pm
 

Ten players to watch - end of camp update

Most fans attend practices and watch preseason games to see the first units and the top draft picks.  But the real stories of camp are deeper down the roster.  There are 80 players in every training camp vying for only 53 roster spots. 

For the last three seasons, I've presented a top ten list of key players involved in these competitions.  Some are established players in jeopardy of losing their jobs if they don't come through.  Others are prospects on the rise or lesser known players that have an opportunity to step up and make more significant contributions.

This morning's special teams practice session marked the official end of training camp for the Falcons.  Here's an update on how this year's list of players to watch has fared:



1.  Trey Lewis

Reason he made the list:  the Falcons have six DTs (not even counting Jamaal Anderson) and probably just four roster spots for the big men to fill.  Of the three fringe players competing for the last spot, Lewis is the top story. 

End of camp update:  he's looking much better than he did in 2009, with Smitty noting that his play was one of the few bright spots in Thursday's otherwise dismal showing against the Patriots

He's still in jeopardy, but his current level of play, versatility (can play either DT spot - acted as a sub at UT for Rod Coleman in 2007) and size (listed as our largest defensive player at 316 pounds) will make it tough for Smitty to send the Turk his way.



2.  Steven Hauschka

Reason he made the list:  of the three kickers (including Michael Koenen) Atlanta had in camp, Hauschka was the primary unknown factor.  The team already knows what Matt Bryant and Koenen can/can't do, making Hauschka the wild card in the contest and the most important one to watch.

End of camp update:  the media reports say that Matt Bryant won the kicking battle.  A more accurate description would be that Hauschka lost it.  He was the younger candidate with the theoretically stronger leg.  But his longer field goal attempt against the Chiefs came up short, and his kickoffs lacked depth and weren't particularly strong for hang time.

Never mind that he couldn't outdo the struggling Bryant on field goals.  When it became clear he wasn't going to beat out Koenen for kickoffs, that sealed his fate.  The Falcons would still make a move to bring in another kicker if Bryant gets the yips like Jason Elam last year. But at least for now, Hauschka isn't it.



3.  Kerry Meier

Reason he made the list:  the top three WRs were essentially set in stone (Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as the starters, with Harry Douglas in the slot as the #3) even before camp, but the Falcons need to improve their depth at the position.  The fifth rounder from Kansas was the top candidate for the fourth WR spot.

End of camp update:  he had an outstanding camp, but he hurt his knee on a special teams play late in the Patriots game.  Like Douglas last year, he's out for the season.



4.  Lawrence Sidbury

Reason he made the list:  the Falcons didn't draft a DE or sign one in free agency.  They're putting all their chips on Kroy Biermann as a second threat along with John Abraham and Sidbury to step up as a third potent pass rushing end.

End of camp update:  so far, so good.  What El Sid needs most is experience, as he only played a bit over 100 total snaps last season.  He'll have far more snaps than that in preseason (he's on the field more than any other d-lineman), and so far he's doing pretty well.



5.  Keith Zinger

Reason he made the list:  he was the team's most improved offensive player in camp last summer, and if he stepped up again this year, he'd nail down a backup spot (forcing the prospects to start on the practice squad) and potentially even challenge for the #2 spot.

End of camp update:  so far, he has been nearly invisible.  He's watching Michael Palmer stand out this year exactly the way Zinger stood out last season, when he moved from #5 on the depth chart to win the #3 spot - beating out one of Dimitroff's top free agent signings (Ben Hartsock, signed to replace Alge Crumpler) in the process.

The battle isn't over yet, but Zinger has opened the door for Palmer to take the third TE job.



6.  William Moore

Reason he made the list:  it's the second season for the second rounder, and the public had yet to see him in action in camp or preseason.  He even missed minicamp after overworking his shoulder in the weight room.

End of camp update:  I expressed doubts earlier about all the media speculation that he'd challenge Erik Coleman for the starting job. His 2009 season was a lost cause, and he just didn't have the reps to trust him on the last line of defense. 

And he still doesn't -  we've finally been able to watch him in a few practices, but he missed minicamp (overworked his shoulder in the weight room) and has missed time during camp plus both preseason games so far this year.  He still hasn't faced NFL competition - in real games, exhibition games or even combined practices. 

The coming exhibition against the Dolphins will be his first time on the field for the Falcons.  He's still a talented prospect, but he's still a long way from being ready for action in the secondary when it counts.



7.  Quinn Ojinnaka

Reason he made the list:  the Falcons have a whole lot of talented linemen competing for what appears to be one opening on the roster.  Ojinnaka is the most intriguing story among them.

End of camp update:  he's getting time at multiple positions along the line, including left tackle.  The Falcons are definitely testing out his versatility.  The Mighty Quinn is very much in the hunt for that ninth backup line spot.



8.  Dimitri Nance

Reason he made the list:  all three candidates for the #5 RB/FB spot are interesting "stories", but Nance is the most intriguing as a potential Jason Snelling type hybrid RB/FB.

End of camp update:  not bad so far.  He has shown good ability in the power running game plus receiving ability out of the backfield.  If he can demonstrate some blocking skills, he's likely to be the guy.  One catch:  due to the Michael Jenkins injury and situations at other positions, the team may start out the season with just four runners.  Even if he wins the job, he could be starting the season on the practice squad.



9.  Eric Weems

Reason he made the list:  drafting Meier and Dominique Franks put Weems in jeopardy of losing both of his roles on the team.  He entered camp knowing he didn't have a secure roster spot and would have to step up to win a place on the team.

End of camp update:  the injury to Meier means that unless the team brings in new blood, Weems and Brian Finneran simply have to hold off Troy Bergeron, Andy Strickland, and the three undrafted rookies to win the #4 and #5 spots.  He's also the top KR/PR from camp.  His chances of holding his spot are much better now than they were a month ago.



10.  Brian Williams

Reason he made the list:  if he can make a successful return from injury, he spices up the competition for the DB positions considerably. 

End of camp update:  he hasn't appeared in preseason yet, but we did get to see him practice, with his first full participation coming in the joint sessions with New England on the final open day of camp.  He's slated to appear in these next two exhibitions.  I'm still particularly interested to see whether the coaching staff gives him playing time at safety. 

Key question: whether he'll be healthy enough after the Jaguars exhibition to keep on the roster.  The team had similar hopes for Von Hutchins last season, but Hutchins ended up being an injury settlement case when he wasn't ready to go at the end of preseason.  Williams is only now getting his first full contact this week.




Posted on: May 6, 2010 3:41 pm
 

Players on the hot seat

The basic Falcons 53-man roster typically consists of 3 QB, 5 RB/FB, 3 TE, 5 WR, 9 OL, 5 DE, 4 DT, 6 LB, 5 CB, 4 S, 1 P, 1 K, 1 LS, and one at-large spot. 

The at-large spot is completely up for grabs and likely to change during the season.  The team briefly had six defensive ends in 2008 and finished the season with ten offensive linemen.  Last season began with six cornerbacks but ended with an extra running back.

The team will naturally make tweaks as needed, such as in 2008 when they carried only 4 runners (with the fifth on the practice squad) in order to start the year with extra depth elsewhere.  But for the most part, that's what we can expect for the 2010 team.

I made a list of what I call the late season 2009 roster.  With injuries and replacements, it's difficult to nail down one set of 53 players as "the" roster.  But these were the players who were aboard for most of November and December.

Eight players from that list are now gone.   Eight incoming or returning players are penciled in as locks to make the roster:  Harry Douglas (assuming he's medically cleared), Peria Jerry, William Moore, Dunta Robinson, Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley.

The catch is that while some are easy one-for-one swaps (Douglas replaces Marty Booker, Sean Weatherspoon replaces Tony Gilbert), others are not (Corey Peters and Mike Johnson replace ????).  There are also many other returning or incoming players that will offer strong competition for roster spots.  And Smitty has already made the first "nobody is safe" reference of the year. 

So the key question is which players from last season are on the hot seat in camp this summer?

I've pegged as many as twenty that are at risk.  I think eight of them are probably safe, but the other twelve are in real danger of losing their roster spots.  Starting with the offense, they are:


1)  Eric Weems.  He made the roster last season for his potential as a return man, not strictly as a wide receiver.  He'll have a good shot at playing a few years in the NFL off of his special teams skills, but the fifth round of the draft may have sealed his fate in Atlanta.  The Falcons drafted potential return man Dominique Franks and potential WR Kerry Meier with their two fifth round picks.

Weems will also have to compete with returning practice squad candidates Troy Bergeron and Andy Strickland plus undrafted free agent Ryan Wolfe and two others just to have a shot at the at-large spot as a sixth WR.  And that DUI arrest in November certainly doesn't help his cause.


2)  Brian Finneran.  While Weems figures to be the first WR replaced, if both Meier and Wolfe stick (or if Bergeron, Strickland, Brandyn Harvey or converted quarterback Tim Buckley amaze the coaches), Finn may have a tough time returning once more.

His latest knee injury isn't anywhere near as bad as the two that sidelined him in consecutive seasons, but he's now 34.  He wasn't all that fast to begin with, so he can't afford to lose a step due to age or injury.


3)  Will Svitek.  He was an interesting addition to last year's roster and played competently as a backup.  But he's not a starting caliber player, and that's not likely to change in camp this year.


4)  Quinn Ojinnaka.  He can play any position on the offensive line.  So can third round pick Mike Johnson.  And the coaching staff chose Svitek to fill in for Sam Baker last season at left tackle.  If Svitek is still the choice at the end of preseason, Ojinnaka may be the one bumped out to make room for Johnson.

Ojinnaka is also the only backup lineman who was not brought into the organization under Smitty and Dimitroff.  I'm not saying Smitty and his staff will play favorites, but it's a factor.  Ojinnaka is a holdover from the Jim Mora days and was drafted because he fit the Alex Gibbs blocking scheme.  Everyone else was hand picked by Smitty and Dimitroff because they fit the current Falcons scheme. 


5)  Brett Romberg.  Yep, three of the four backup linemen are at risk.  Romberg played for Boudreau in St. Louis, and the Rams thought enough of him to start him. He's a solid - and experienced - backup. He's definitely a handy guy to have around.

But Mike Johnson probably takes over the #3 guard role this year, and the arrival of Joe Hawley puts his backup center role at risk.  To date, Romberg hasn't been a real candidate to play tackle, plus the team chose Ojinnaka ahead of Romberg to fill in for Harvey Dahl at guard.

If the team once again keeps only nine total linemen, these three are all at serious risk.  Johnson and Hawley will make the roster, so two guys will have to go to make room for them.  Prospects Jose Valdez and Rob Bruggeman are knocking on the door as well.



6)  Matt Bryant.  The Falcons had a steady-Freddy but aging kicker in Jason Elam to start the 2009 season.  They finished with another in Matt Bryant. 

He's about to turn 35 later this month.  He was 1 for 4 from 40+ yards last season after going 5 of 11 and 6 of 10 from 40+ the previous two seasons with the Buccaneers.  He's rock steady from inside 40, but that means the Falcons would have to get inside the 23-yard line to feel confident in making a field goal.  That's not good.

The team added Steven Hauschka for insurance in the final week of the season, as Bryant came away from the Bills game a bit gimpy.  Hauschka has a strong leg but missed a pair of shorter field goal attempts that cost him his spot with the Ravens.  If he can work out the mechanics, he's a strong contender.

And then there's the rookie, Garrett Lindholm.  He was mainly on the national radar for this:

In the playoffs, no time left, game on the line...


He turned it on his senior year, but his sophomore and junior year stats certainly won't blow you away.  And he definitely needs work on his mechanics if he is to maintain consistency, as you'll see in one of the clips below.   I don't know if he's the answer.  I think I might have preferred signing Damon Duval when we had the chance.

Some highlights (no sound)

Workout results... he made the 49-yarder but missed several shorter ones...

At the very least, Lindholm will add competition.  But my guess is that if Hauschka turns it on, he'll be the man.



7)  Joe Zelenka.  Joe who?  I'm sure many of you don't really care who takes the long snapper job.  But keep in mind that after Mike Schneck went on IR last year, replacement Bryan Pittman, holder Michael Koenen and kicker Jason Elam just couldn't get in sync, costing the Falcons at least one game and chances at winning two more.

Zelenka did well enough as the second replacement, but he hardly has a lock on the position the way Schneck might have had he not decided to retire.  The competition comes from undrafted rookie Justin Drescher, who has plenty of college experience after serving as Colorado's long snapper in all four years. 



8)  Coy Wire.  Frankly, I found it hard to believe he was included in the "On The Fringe" TV series last year.  There was no doubt in my mind that he'd make the roster.  He still has a strong chance this year, but it will be a little more challenging.

The catch is that if Sean Weatherspoon takes over as the starting Will backer, Mike Peterson would then drop down to the #4 overall LB.  So unless the team drops Peterson off the roster completely, Wire would then drop to #5, pretty much limiting him to special teams duty. 

So far, no problem there - he's our special teams captain.  And there isn't a need to drop anyone to make room for 'Spoon, as Tony Gilbert was not re-signed. 

But most teams prefer to have younger guys with upside potential filling those spots on the back end of the roster.  He'd be competing not only with the younger linebacker prospects, but also with the new safeties (Matt Giordano and Shann Schillinger) as special teams players.

I was hesitant to include him on this list, as he was solid as a replacement for Michael Boley in 2008 and has been outstanding on special teams. He's a fine player.  The question is whether the team would continue to keep a guy with zero remaining upside as the #5 LB.



9)  Spencer Adkins.  If Wire does stay aboard as the #5 LB, then Adkins will have to step up big in his second year or face competition for the #6 spot.  He was on the inactive list for most of the season, but the team worked him in on special teams for a few games when the WRs and safeties were so banged up.

The competition will come from 2008 fifth rounder Robert James and from this year's undrafted prospects, Bear Woods and Weston Johnson.

While it seems like a reach for one of the undrafted prospects to unseat a drafted player from the roster, keep in mind that it was considered a big stretch when the Falcons drafted Adkins in the sixth round in 2009 - mainly because of his blazing fast 40 time.  He was otherwise figured to be an undrafted free agent himself.

So once you put their projections on an even footing, there's a lot to be said for the rest of the pack.  Adkins was only a part time player for Miami.  Meanwhile, Weston Johnson was named team captain at Wyoming, while Bear Woods was the leading tackler at Troy.  The competition will be quite real.


10)  Trey Lewis.  Smitty said he was excited to have Lewis back last season, and that Lewis gave the team potential to work in some 3-4 as a package defense.  But it turned out that Lewis was far from full speed in his first season back from two reconstructive knee surgeries.  He spent most of the year as the #4 (inactive) DT, taking the 3-4 package off the table.

On the plus side, he showed as a rookie that when healthy, he can play either DT spot.  He's not strictly a nose tackle.  And his size adds an element that no other DT on the roster can bring.  If his knee will allow him to get back to form, he has a good chance of winning the #4 DT job again this year, serving as the #3 while Babs is out.

But he'll have to turn it up this summer or he'll be off the roster when Babs returns, if not sooner.



11)  Thomas Johnson.  I can't say enough good things about the job he did last season.  He truly was our Out Of Nowhere player for the 2009 season. 

The guy was an undrafted free agent who had already been released by three different teams and hadn't played a game since 2006.  He signed with the Falcons as a futures contract.  He wasn't expected to make the roster at all but ended up as our starting nose tackle.

Now move ahead a year...  Peria Jerry is expected to return, and the team has added Corey Peters.  Johnson is expendable, and he probably has the least potential upside of the backup candidates.  It's a brutal fact of life in the NFL.



12)  Vance Walker.  It shouldn't be a surprise that all three backup DTs are at major risk.  Unless one wins the at-large spot, the Falcons will have two DTs too many after Babs returns from suspension.  And that's not even counting Joe Klecko or Trey Bryant as serious candidates or DEs sliding in to play the middle.

The seventh rounder started the season on the practice squad and is still practice squad eligible.  If all else is equal between the three backup DTs, the coaching staff may try to keep them all for the start of the season by stashing Walker back on the practice squad.





Noteworthy players left off the list:

Brian Williams:  the only reason he's not on the list above is that he wasn't on the late 2009 roster in the first place, so he didn't have a roster spot to lose. 

Otherwise, he might be the most at risk player of all.  He's still far from 100% and won't be back until at least the start of training camp.  If his recovery takes longer, he may end up starting the year on the PUP list or get released on an injury settlement as Von Hutchins was last year.

If he's healthy, his main value (and best chance at making the roster) is that he can play safety as well as CB.  He would likely be the top contender for the #4 safety role. 



Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis:  if the Falcons had brought in a serious DE candidate, it would be obvious that one of these two would have to go.  But the team appears to be standing pat, bringing in only a pair of undrafted candidates to replace Maurice Lucas on the practice squad.

I won't say they're definitely safe, but at least for now there is room to fit all five DEs on the roster.  Unlike the DTs, they aren't in a spot where somebody HAS to go...  yet... 



Chris Owens, Brent Grimes:  the rookie Owens worked his way into the starting rotation, plus he's a Dimitroff prospect.  He isn't going anywhere.  Many fans don't care for Grimes, but he entered the season with just eight total games of experience.  He was essentially a rookie too.  He led the team with six interceptions.  The last time any Falcons player had more was 1998 (Ray Buchanan, with seven).

If Williams isn't healthy or makes the roster as a safety, or if Franks gets the at-large spot as a return specialist, everyone in the room could make the roster.  Only one CB absolutely had to go, and Tye Hill's release settled the question of who it would be.



Justin Peelle, Keith Zinger:  they certainly aren't safe, but the three prospects brought in this season aren't as much of a threat as the incoming DTs or offensive linemen.  While Colin Peek and Michael Palmer are both contenders, the Falcons may choose to start them on the practice squad as they did with Zinger in 2008.



Posted on: January 27, 2010 12:46 pm
 

Five OTHER offseason Falcons issues...

The short version of the CBA talks =  nothing's happening.  At least nothing good.  We're now 90% likely (and rising) to have 2010 as an uncapped year.  (We're also starting to feel the possibility of a lockout/strike in 2011.   It's getting ugly.)

But...  if we assume that we will actually have NFL Football in 2011, the odds are that the new deal will restore the salary cap system regardless of which side "wins".   This uncapped year is probably a one shot deal.  That's something teams will have to consider when approaching this year's free agency market.

Now that the draft season is underway, the chatter regarding the Falcons usually centers around the cornerback and defensive end positions and the first round draft pick. 

Those are fun discussions, but there are other areas occupying the minds of Atlanta's front office and coaching staff as well.  They've already started on two of them at the staff level by replacing the secondary coach and sacking the head trainer. 

We're now within five weeks of the start of free agency, so the real roster changes around the league will begin soon.  With that in mind, here are five roster issues facing our Falcons that have NOT received much attention yet:



(1)  Backup quarterback.    Other positions are more popular topics of conversation, but for the next five weeks no spot on the roster is more important than the #2 QB. 

Chris Redman is an unrestricted free agent.  He had one rough outing but put in a respectable performance this season.  He demonstrated that he's capable of stepping in at a moment's notice and running the offense effectively. 

To put his 2009 performance in context, he finished the season with a higher QB rating (78.4) than many other better known backup and even starting quarterbacks - including Chad Pennington, Derek Anderson, Daunte Culpepper, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Jay Cutler, Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck, JaMarcus Russell, Kerry Collins, Todd Collins, and Charlie Frye.

In other words, he's a legit candidate for ANY team wanting a solid #2 - and he's a better option than many teams have as starters.  If he decides to test the waters to learn his real market value rather than re-sign early, he WILL attract interest from around the league. 

That leaves us with a big, big problem.  John Parker Wilson and D.J. Shockley are our only backups under contract, and neither has played a single NFL game. 


ALTERNATIVES:   The Falcons would want a veteran presence.  If Wilson or Shockley could somehow emerge and become the #2, that's fine - but the team would still want experience for the #3.  Unfortunately, nothing out there jumps out as a better alternative than re-signing Redman.  He already knows the offensive scheme.  He's familiar with the receivers here.  And he's proven that he CAN step in and run Mularkey's scheme.  That might be an issue with any other potential #2 out there. 

So, let's hope our front office decides to throw enough money at Redman to keep him from testing the open market.



(2)  Punter.   Michael Koenen is a gem.  But he's also the second highest paid punter in the NFL (behind only Shane Lechler, who signed a multi-year deal last season to remain with the Raiders), and the Falcons have already used the franchise tag once to hang on to him.  That's pretty scary when you consider he hasn't even hit true free agency yet.

The guy is fabulous.  But the question is whether we can justify spending $2.7 million or more on a punter. 

If so, now would be a GREAT time to lock him in with a long term deal, since the team could front-load the contract and avoid most of the cap hit in future seasons after the next CBA kicks in.  

And if not, now is an equally good time to start looking at cheaper alternatives, so that the extra money could be used to sign guys at other positions.  There are plenty of adequate punters out there that could be had for $500k or less. 


ALTERNATIVES:  punter is one of the few positions where you really don't mind going with a rookie.  The playbook isn't particularly thick.  There will be several undrafted free agents this April, and there are still plenty of candidates from last year floating around.

But just for giggles, allow me to be the first to tell you about a certain 32-year old rookie free agent who is available right now.  His name is Anthony Rocca. 

Sound familiar?  His brother (Saverio Rocca) is currently the punter for the Eagles.  And like his older brother Sav, Anthony Rocca has made his career up to now playing Aussie Rules.

I've been wondering for years if this guy would hang up the boots and come to the U.S.  He has by far the strongest leg of any of the Australian players that have made the switch.  And when the AFL season wrapped up in September, he finally did announce his retirement - and has reportedly been training in American football since then, intending to follow Sav to the NFL.

He'll make a GREAT punter for somebody.  Sav Rocca and Ben Graham are both doing fairly well, and he's got a much, much better leg than either of them.  




(3)  Offensive line depth.    I have not heard this first-hand from the Nasty Boys themselves, but I'm told that Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl aren't thrilled with this year-by-year tender stuff.  It's not the money that's rubbing them the wrong way.  It's the uncertainty over whether they're really part of the team's plans for 2011 and beyond.  RFA tender offers are only one year contracts. 

And consider the rest of the unit, which featured just nine total players on the main roster.  Key backup Quinn Ojinnaka is another "limbo" restricted free agent likely to be tendered this season.  Justin Blalock, Will Svitek and Brett Romberg all have contracts that expire after 2010.  Todd McClure isn't getting any younger.

So if the Falcons tender the three RFAs now, we could be facing a nearly complete turnover of our line - including the backups - after the end of the 2010 season.  While it's not an immediate crisis, it's a serious issue that the team should start to handle immediately.

Are the Nasty Boys the long term future of our right side?  If so, sign them to long term deals and get it out of the way. 


ALTERNATIVES:   if our coaching staff views The Village Idiots (Boudreau's nickname for Atlanta's line) as merely stop-gap measures until better players can take over, the tender thing really is the way to go for now.  It would work, but the O-line would have to be a serious draft priority, with at least one early round and one late round prospect joining the fold.

I suspect our braintrust is happy with Clabo/Dahl and that at some point this year we'll hear about efforts to lock them in long term.  And personally, I'd still like to see how they'd do if they switched places, using Clabo's size at guard and Dahl's agility at tackle. 



(4)  Life without Babs?    The 2009 Falcons were much improved at DT in spite of losing Peria Jerry after only two weeks.  Thomas Johnson became the team's Out Of Nowhere man, beginning the year as a futures contract prospect and finishing it as a starter.  Vance Walker improved throughout camp, earned a promotion from the practice squad to the regular roster, and ended up performing well with significant playing time.  Trey Lewis wasn't in top form, but he worked his way back into action after a pair of major knee reconstruction surgeries. 

But the clear star of the Falcons defensive line this season was Jonathan Babineaux.  Babs was banged up for much of the season yet started every game, notched 47 total tackles (second among the d-linemen in spite of the bad shoulder), and led the team with 6 sacks.

There's just one catch... he's now facing a felony possession charge.  Depending on the outcome of his legal case, the team may be without him for at least half the season.   Even if he's acquitted, he's likely to face at least a four game suspension under the league's controlled substance policy. 

If the team is planning on releasing him, they haven't given any indication of yet.  Quite the contrary - Dimitroff's comments in one press session suggest that Babs has a future here in Atlanta.   All the same, the Falcons will have to make preparations now for a potential lengthy suspension.

Everyone else in the DT group has question marks too.  Was Johnson a one-year flash that has already reached his maximum potential?  Will Peria Jerry be able to return to form after his injury?  And after getting hurt three times last summer, can he stay healthy for a season?  Is Walker ready for starting duty?  Will Lewis step up and play like the beast he was before his 2007 injury?



ALTERNATIVES:  the best bet is probably to stand pat and simply rearrange the roles of various players if needed.  The Falcons play a three man rotation at DT.  They have four candidates in hand, not counting the DEs taking reps in the middle on passing downs.  So while Babs would be a noticeable loss, there are at least enough bodies available to continue without him.  They aren't stars, but they're at least competent when healthy.

And the remaining DTs have enough versatility that any two could be paired together.  Peria Jerry was the starting NT, but he really has the build and skill set of a three-technique under tackle.  Trey Lewis clearly has the NT build, but he also filled in at UT when Rod Coleman was out early in the 2007 season.  Thomas Johnson can fill in at either DT position.  Vance Walker hasn't been asked to play NT yet, but he probably could if needed.

Scary thought:  If Trey Lewis steps up this year and Peria Jerry is fully recovered by the start of the season (both Smitty and Dimitroff have said they expect him back), they might play some in tandem -  giving us the Jerry-Lewis DT line.  (Insert rim shot here.)

If so... Lewis would command a double-team.  So would Jerry.  That would make it difficult to contain John Abraham and Kroy Biermann on the ends, and it would make blitzing a lot easier for the linebackers or the nickel corner.

In other words, keep your fingers crossed that they're both at full speed in training camp.  They could make our pass rush surprisingly effective next season.  Lewis really was a monster early in his rookie year, and we saw what a difference having Jerry in the middle made for Abe and Biermann in the season opener.




(5)  WE NEED A KICKER.    We can talk about the inexperienced cornerbacks and the lack of pass rush all day long.  But we all know that the failures in the kicking game cost us a few wins and made the difference in the Falcons not making the playoffs. 

No other single position on the roster needs to be addressed this offseason more than place kicker.  It isn't necessarily hard to address or expensive in terms of contract or draft picks. 

But the Falcons have no area of need that is more important.  They MUST solve this problem.

Smitty noted in the postseason press conference that when the team signed Matt Bryant and Steven Hauschka, both were signed for 2010 as well as the remainder of 2009.  Well gosh, that's great.  Between the two of them we'll certainly have our kicker, right?

Bryant has only made 16 of 26 field goals from 40-49 yards over the last four seasons.  He went 0 for 2 from that range after replacing Jason Elam.  Oh, and he'll turn 35 in May.

The Ravens let Hauschka go in midseason when his accuracy proved to be only marginally better than that of Elam.  With two half-seasons (eight games last year, nine this year) of experience, he's an unproven commodity and is off to a really shaky start. 

He might come through with more experience.  After all, Matt Prater turned out okay - which is why the Broncos let Elam slip away to us in the first place.  Hauschka has a strong leg and would be able to handle kickoff duty as well as field goal attempts.  The question is whether the 2010 Falcons should be the team that serves as his proving grounds.

Since they're both under contract, we might as well give them both a shot at winning the job in camp.  But the Falcons need to bring in someone else as well.



ALTERNATIVES:   While teams carry only one kicker during the season, they typically use two or even three in the offseason.  Until September, that makes it tougher to bring in many of the street free agents on the verge of breaking through and sticking on a roster.   And those Aussie Rules guys are punters, not place kickers.  Can't help you there...

The best bet will probably be to use the seventh round compensatory pick - or even bite the bullet and use the sixth round pick - on one of the top kicking prospects in the draft.  Three of them (Alabama's Leigh Tiffen, Michigan State's Brett Swenson, and Ohio State's Aaron Pettrey) have been invited to the Combine.  A few others (such as Hunter Lawrence from Texas and Joshua Shene from Ole Miss) will get serious attention during their Pro Day workouts.

Most teams prefer not to use draft picks on specialists, but the Falcons otherwise have very few holes to fill on the roster.  With potentially eight picks in hand, the team can afford to use a late pick (the last compensatory pick is likely to be in the #230-240 overall range)on the position that might have put them into the postseason this year.



 
 
 
 
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