It’s very debatable on how much stock to put into the preseason. Some believe its simply a glorified training camp practice and it means little to nothing. Others think that preseason, at least pertaining to the starters, can preclude some areas of great strength, but more importantly, serious issues that can linger long into the regular season. Either way, it’s a well-established belief that the third preseason game is the best representation of preseason because teams put in a gameplan and play their starters for the longest amount of time in an attempt to get them game-ready. That being said, six searing questions as the Birds travel to visit the 2011 AFC Champs……
Even though we may venture in to being too critical at times, most of us here in The Cage readily admit to viewing our Birds with a tint of rose-colored glasses, this author certainly included. However, the most recent post was framed in a way that came off as entirely too negative and was cast as completely lacking merit and being out of bounds after the game against the Jaguars. That may have been the case, and I among many of us concede to filling out the fanatic part in the word “fan” when it comes to our Falcons.
A dose of reality is needed to see what this regime has accomplished in only 3 short years after a season that would’ve killed many franchises. A reminder: first coaching staff to ever have back-to-back(-to-back) winning seasons in FRANCHISE history, 33- 15 record over last three seasons (one of best winning percentages in entire NFL), made playoffs 2 out of 3 years, achieved the #1 seed in the NFC with a 13-3 season record, tons of Pro Bowlers over the last three years (including a staggering 9 Falcons last year), 2008 NFL Rookie of the Year, superb drafting and player development, and top 5 in the league in scoring offense and defense. It’s good to have a cold dose of reality every now and then.
That being said, though, the intent was only to examine that there has been a pattern with the Falcons and the issues arising in preseason. Several things mentioned in the previous post have been lingering problems for the Birds since 2008. Also, issues that have arisen in preseason have gone on to be troublesome in the regular season. Chief among them being the inability to get off the field on 3rd down (2008, 2009, Playoffs), weak secondary depth (2008, 2009, Playoffs), and an overly conservative offense (2010). The opinions certainly may have come across as overly negative, but the goal was to simply acknowledge the frustration that fans have had with the recurring issues over the last three, going on four, years.
Maybe fans such as this author just got a little too carried away with the bright flashes of tight end Michael Palmer over the past year. The homegrown Parkview product came in to camp as an undrafted free agent, worked his tail off, and not only won a spot on the coveted 53 man roster, but had showed many points of promise in the pass game with sharp routes, good hands, and even scored a touchdown as a rookie. Justin Peele is one of the more underrated backup tight ends in the business, but he was never seen as the heir to Tony Gonzalez at tight end, but more of a potential transition to the next player at tight end. Many felt Palmer could possibly be the eventual heir to Gonzalez with his immense upside, pass-catching ability, and good hands.
That idea has seemingly taken a hit with the enormous opening being created by Justin Peele’s recent knee injury. The immediate thought was that Palmer’s track for success may have been sped up. Then the Falcons went out and signed 34 year old Reggie Kelly who was a free agent and caught a paltry 42 yards last season. If reports are true from AJC Falcons Beat Writer D. Orlando Ledbetter, Kelly has been working as the #2 tight end. That would surely make a huge hit on Palmer’s potential as being he next Falcons starting tight end. Sure, he’s very young, but if were truly the heir apparent, then this would be a golden opportunity to work him into a potential starting role. He’s also been noticeably absent this preseason as well.
Defensive End Ray Edwards will make his long anticipated debut against the Steelers on Saturday night. The Falcons big off-season acquisition has been roundly hailed as yet another magnificent free agent strike by Thomas Dimitroff, especially considering the value the Falcons got him ($30 million vs. Charles Johnson $72 million). Pass rush has long been the talking heads favorite term of criticism coming towards the Falcons defense. That now has seemingly been answered. Edwards had as many sacks last year (8) as the entire defense not named Abraham or Babineaux has had over the last three years combined. The results still have to be given on the field. Is the brand new Falcon the missing piece for a defense lingering around the middle of the league? Guess, we’ll get a preview on Saturday night.
Not who will be the starting nickel back when the season opens, but rather the cornerback that will be rounding out the roster. It seems almost a forgone conclusion that it will be either Chris Owens or Dominique Franks in the nickel back spot and the player who loses out as the dime back. Neither may strike the most confidence in fans with so many talented passers due up this season, but their potential is particularly high. The next biggest question is who will take the 5th cornerback spot. This roster has been pretty settled for a long while, but this question has been a big one since they parted ways with Brian Williams early on.
The battle for the 5th spot seems to be between Rafael Bush and undrafted rookie Darrin Walls. Both seemed to have had pretty good camps and gotten good reviews from the coaching staff. Walls, in particular, has very good size at 6’1, 190 and they may elect to try and keep both with their affinity for cross-training their players. Either Bush or Walls could practice at safety and really could be used as a 6th cornerback/backup safety. If it comes down to splitting hairs, you’d have to think that it favors Walls since he’s a true rookie and Bush has already spent a year on the practice squad. The final point is whether or not Dimitroff and Co. will look on the waiver wire for a nickel back or 5th corner the way they did with Brian Williams. Even though possible, the coaching staff and front office seems very content with developing their own players.
Even though the Falcons backfield lacks a true game-breaking burner to the likes of Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson, they have one of the deepest and most talented running back lineups ready to go for 2011. With 2-time Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner, excellent and versatile backup Jason Snelling, and now a superb and gritty change-of-pace back in rookie Jacquizz Rodgers. The depth is very much welcomed since Turner is speeding towards the dreaded age 30 curse and has shown some signs of slowing down. The great depth can be a blessing and a curse to OC Mularkey. Unlike some other positions, many running backs thrive on momentum and touches. It’s going to a very interesting dynamic to see how the carries are split up, especially with Rodgers very strong preseason showing. Rodgers isn’t a burner, but he is definitely more complementary to both Turner and Snelling than either of them are to one another. Perhaps a preview to come against the Steelers.
For the most part, the 53 man roster looks to be pretty settled. Only a few training camp battles seem to be raging for the coveted roster spots. Some of the only spots that seem to be open are the fight for the 5th cornerback spot between Darrin Walls and Rafael Bush. The safety position is one area that seems pretty wide open with even Shann Schillinger’s spot on the team possibly in doubt. It will also be intriguing to see who gets the last OL spot. Clabo, Blalock, McClure, Baker, Reynolds, Johnson, and Hawley are obvious locks. The battle seems to be between Jose Valdez, Will Svitek, and rookie Andrew Jackson for the last two spots. Jackson has been getting rave reviews, so it may be between the veteran Svitek or potential of Valdez. Time may be up for Lawrence Sidbury with both rookie Cliff Matthews having an excellent camp as well as practice squad stalwart Emmanuel Stephens. Matthews is almost a shoe-in, so do they go with Stephens or Sidbury?
Even players that have been special teams fixtures such as Spencer Adkins and Robert James appear to be on the outside looking in with Peterson, Wire, and Dent taking up the backup spots. One of the most interesting decisions will be whether the Falcons elect to go with a 5th running back like Antone Smith or Gartrell Johnson, or try and keep Brandyn Harvey on the 53 man roster. Good chances are that Harvey will be picked up if he’s put on the practice squad again. With Smith and Johnson not showing much at all and 2 of your 5 receivers having previous ACL injuries (HD, Meier), wouldn’t it be smart to keep Harvey? Can Ryan Wynterswyck make the Falcons forget about their recent signee Reggie Kelly and make the team as a 3rd TE?
A testament to Thomas Dimitroff lies in the fact that the battle for the 8 practice squad spots seems as engaging as the 53 man roster. Assuming the rules are the same, if a player has played in an NFL game for said team, than they cannot be placed back on the practice squad and there is a limit for the amount of time a player can be on the squad. For instance, Spencer Adkins and Robert James can’t be put back on the squad. Rafael Bush, Darrin Walls, Phillip Sylvester, Ryan Wynterswyck, Emmanuel Stephens, and definitely Brandyn Harvey look to be on there if they don’t make the 53 man roster. Harvey, though, will likely be snatched up by another team needing quality wide receiver depth. The other spots are anyone’s guess.