The dead zone of Falcons and football has almost come to its merciful end, as the Falcons get ready to start training camp on Wednesday. It seems like decades ago since the Falcons hauled in their draft class and eons ago since the Falcons played their last snap. Expectations are obviously high as Roddy White has come out and said that it’s Super Bowl or Bust for the 2013 Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez recently mentioned that they’re looking to have the “perfect offense.”
While most of the roster is set with veterans, stability, and good quality, there are a few areas that are concerning. And just like every year, some players are looking at a year full of pressure to perform. Some are facing a “make or break year,” either in terms of finally grabbing a starting spot, living up to their potential, and perhaps even remaining an Atlanta Falcon going forward. A look at the Falcons under the most pressure heading into 2013:
Thanks to JJ and ProFootballFocus Stats (subscription required):
PFF Stats: 2012 (+1.7 grade, 50 snaps)
The former Alabama man and 3rd round draft pick is in no danger of losing a roster spot, as he’s extremely versatile and valuable to the Falcons OL. His ability to play pretty much any spot on the offensive line guarantees he’ll be with Atlanta for a good while.
That being said, however, Johnson has been unable to win a starting spot anywhere on the OL since being highly regarded coming out of a Nick Saban led team. Specifically, the vacancy at right guard has been a chink in Johnson’s armour. After Harvey Dahl went to St. Louis, Johnson has lost the battle for right guard not once, but twice to Garrett Reynolds, who only played right tackle his entire career.
Normal logic would see Johnson competing for the RG spot again, where he was an All-American for the Crimson Tide and having Reynolds compete with Lamar Holmes for the RT spot, his more natural position. But Smith’s fetish for cross-training says otherwise. As mentioned earlier, Johnson will be a part of the Falcons offensive line one way or another, but this truly seems like Johnson’s best, and perhaps last, chance to earn a starting spot.
PFF Stats: 2008 (-0.2 grade, 53rd out of 111); 2010 (-7.4 grade, 104th out of 111); 2011 (-6.9 grade, 100th out of 115); 2012 (-6.8 grade, 95th out of 105)
Not many Falcons have been more beloved than local-kid-does-good than receiver Harry Douglas. The former Jonesboro High School and Clayton County product was taken in 2008 and had a fantastic rookie year that saw him flourish not only in the slot for passing, but also saw him as a jack-of-all trades type of player. He was involved in reverses and turned out to be a dynamic return man. That was a long time ago.
Make no mistake, HD hasn’t been terrible, but he surely hasn’t transformed into what many fans expected either. He did sustain a season-ending ACL injury in 2009 and most fans have been understanding that it takes time to fully recover. He’s had flashes here and there, but certainly nothing consistent. In fact, ProFootballFocus has had him ranked near the dead bottom every year he’s played, always grading out to a negative, even his rookie year.
To be fair, maybe it’s simply a case of unrealistic expectations that fans have for the former Louisville WR. He is, after all, the 4th option in the offense and will likely slide to the 5th option with the arrival of Steven Jackson. How many yards and TDs can be expected when those ahead of him are so prolific.
The number of catches and yards aren’t necessarily the issue. The problem is that when he does get touches and looks, he’s anything but dynamic. Even though the downside of being a lower option in a highly effective offense means less touches, the upside is that you should have a bunch of space to work with when you do get the ball. Also, many fans see Douglas as completely immune to any competition for his slot receiver spot. A few more items: there’s the issue of needing to replace Roddy White sooner than later and mostly no one feels that HD is a legit #2 receiver. And finally, there’s that infamous “slip” that continues to give fans nightmares. Everyone makes mistakes, but that one will haunt for a long, long time. If that slip doesn’t happen, who knows what we’d be talking about now. Coaches may not feel like #83 is in a make or break year, but most Atlanta fans certainly do.
PFF stats: 2009 (-2.3 grade, 71 snaps); 2010 (+1.8 grade, 213 snaps); 2011 (-9.4 grade, 145th out of 156); 2012 (-4.6 grade, 127th out of 148)
There’s really no sense in beating a dead horse here. Falcons fans hve debated, argued, and had a ton of anguish over this pick for some time. After knocking out a stellar draft in 2008 (one that still holds up pretty darn well), Dimitroff followed with perhaps his worst clunker. Starting first and foremost with one Peria Jerry. He was one of the higher rated DTs in the draft class, but was markedly injury-prone. Most experts expected him to be long gone by the Falcons pick. He slid to the Falcons and the rest is history.
The former Ole Miss Rebel looked pretty good before his season-ending injury and its never been the same since. He’s had a few occasional flashes, but assuming Jerry doesn’t turn into Geno Atkins in one year, its a safe bet to say that he is by far and away TD’s worst draft pick. Even though pretty much all fans have given up hope, there’s always a chance he could follow the same path that Sam Baker blazed in 2012. Many chalked Baker up to be a 1st round bust until he turned in his best year as a Falcon. Funny how contract years do that. On one level, the comparison makes sense due to them both being very underwhelming 1st round picks. However, the difference is that Baker actually had two solid years of starts and production in 2009 and 2010, one of which the Falcons secured the #1 seed in the NFC. Jerry hasn’t really done anything in his 4 seasons (excluding his rookie year lost to injury).
Most wish that the Falcons had kept Vance Walker and sent Jerry packing along with the other cuts. There’s always a chance he could make a miracle turnaround, but the majority of fans aren’t holding their breath.
PFF Stats: 2008 (+3.9 grade, 24th out of 82); 2009 (+7.9 grade, 12th out of 73); 2010 (+8.4 grade, 21st out of 65); 2011 (-11.9 grade, 60th out of 67); 2012 (+0.3 grade, 33rd out of 62)
He’s a fan favorite and for good reason. Kroy Biermann is the epitome of effort, hustle, and selflessness. The former Montana product has done anything the coaching has asked of him. The “swiss army knife” gained 20 lbs and made a permanent move to defensive end (even when most draftniks slotted him as a linebacker), has played special teams constantly and at a high level even after earning a starting spot, subbing in for placekicker, and played more of a DE/LB hybrid role in Nolan’s defense. While Biermann has been very solid since being a Falcon, he hasn’t turned that mythical corner that so many have expected. He’s likely suffered from an ideal position fit.
The former Grizzly was able to pull down 2 sacks while only playing barely 300 snaps. His best year came as a rotational defensive end, where he had his highest overall productivity collaring 5 sacks in about 500 snaps. Most believed he was primed for a huge year with a full-time role. He seemed to have an overall decent year, but only managed 3 sacks. 2011 was by far his worst year, with him seeing over 500 snaps at DE, but only getting 2.5 sacks and an overall really poor productivity grade. Last season saw a respectable uptick, getting back to 4 sacks and grading out as an overall average defensive player. However, the inclusion of Biermann’s specific role seems to have really helped in his game.
The final issue when analyzing Biermann is his contract. He signed a 3 year, $9 million dollar contract a in the 2012 off-season. That’s not huge money, but it’s certainly starting money, considering Steven Jackson is due about that much with the new contract he just signed and his amazing past production. Almost all fans are pulling for Biermann to finally turn that corner, and it appears in year 2 of Mike Nolan’s defense, he just might.
PFF Stats: 2008 (-0.3 grade, 62 snaps); 2009 (+2.2 grade, 24th out of 54); 2010 (+5.9 grade, 12th out of 41); 2011 (+5.3, 16h out of 45); 2012 (-4.8 grade, 30th out of 43)
This one’s a little bit different than the others in that Nicholas is likely past the point of having his “breakout” year since he just turned 30 years old this past May. It’s certainly not impossible for the former South Florida product to have a fantastic year, but it seems to be a possibility of diminishing returns. He had a pretty decent year in 2012, leading the Falcons in tackles with 97, notching 2 sacks, with a forced fumble, 4 passes defensed, and an interception. But he was ranked as one of the lower 4-3 OLB’s, coming in at 30 out of 43 with an overall poor grade. He was solid against the run, but extremely poor in pass coverage (next to dead last per PFF / his playoff performances).
Nicholas has been OK since he’s been here, but anything but spectacular. He’s fluctuated anywhere from 35 tackles in a year all the way up to 97. He pulled down 3 sacks in 2009, but couldn’t muster one in back-to-back years of 2010 and 2011. The OLB has benefitted from a lack of investment at the position since the arrival of Smith and Dimitroff. Specifically looking at OLB, Sean Weatherspoon is the only high draft pick (or much of any pick at all) the Falcons have committed to the team. They took Robert James with a 5th round pick in 2008, Spencer Adkins in 2009, and a ton of undrafted free agents, none of which have latched on permanently. They did sign Mike Peterson as a free agent, but he was already on the decline. In defense of Nicholas, though, he’s been one of the best and most consistent linebackers for the Falcons the last 4 years, according to ProFootballFocus.
When looking at Stephen Nicholas, the contract is really the issue. He is signed through 2015, and his cap hits will only increase. He’s due $3.5 million in 2013, $4 million in 2014, and a whopping $5.5 million in his final year of 2015. Unless he has a huge season in his waning seasons, you have to think that Nicholas will top the potential veteran cut list in the 2014 off-season, the same way it snagged Michael Turner, John Abraham, and Dunta Robinson. There’s also the Biermann factor. Perhaps they didn’t sign or draft any LB’s because they know that Biermann will be moving mostly to an LB role. Stephen Nicholas will need a big year to keep his spot on the Falcons safe for the 2 years remaining after his contract.
PFF Special Teams Stats: 2010 (-1.5 grade), 2011 (+0.5 grade); 2012 (+0.5 grade)
This one is obviously a lesser known candidate for a crucial year, but it’s worth taking a look. Smith has been known as a speedster, but he’s never gotten any chances whatsoever, even when fans have cried out for any kind of speed in recent years. Common knowledge had him get one look in 2012, a failed screen pass, and that was it. Hard to think the coaching staff couldn’t work him in when he’s looked pretty good in preseason. He is known simply as a special teams maven and even signed a new contract in the off-season.
However, thinking that Smith is completely safe on the roster might be the wrong view. He signed a pretty low 2 year, $1.425 contract with a $65,000 signing bonus (guaranteed money). That’s pretty standard for a pure special teams player, and if they decided to part with Smith they would only incur $65,000 in dead money. Smith has a ton of competition for that spot this training camp. Josh Vaughn (practice squad) and two undrafted free agents (Ronnie Wingo, Donald Russell) will make a bid to replace Smith on the roster. They will have their work cut out for them, but if they can get close to replicating Smith’s special teams prowess with more offensive upside, they may have a shot. Wingo, in particular, is one to keep an eye on. He is 6’3, 230 lbs and ran a sub 4.5 forty. But when it’s all said and done, the Falcons put a premium on special teams, which saw them as the 4th best in the NFL in 2012, and Smith is an essential part of it.
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Episode #4 – Tomorrow night @ 6:30 pm