Death Leads to Depth: Why Bad Atlanta Falcons' 2013 Season Will Create 2014 Hope

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Death Leads to Depth: Why Bad Atlanta Falcons' 2013 Season Will Create 2014 Hope
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Death leads to depth. 

The death of playoff hopes will lead to depth for an Atlanta Falcons roster that had been struggling for it before the 2013 season. 2014 should see great results because the team will be deeper, stronger and better for taking its lumps in what looks to be a lost year, as the Falcons are 2-6 after eight games.

Very few teams are able to give rookies starting experience that's needed. And as former Falcons great Alge Crumpler stated when talking about a potential Tony Gonzalez trade before the deadline passed, nothing can replace actually being on the field:

The snaps that these talented younger players are receiving are invaluable. They're allowing these young players to see situations they would only ever see on the field. Linebacker Paul Worrilow was quoted by ESPN's Vaughn McClure about the situation this year:

"I just keep looking at each game as a chance for me to grow," Worrilow said. "And I feel like I am. I'm confident going into every game.

"I'm seeing new things that I'm learning from. That's a big thing for me, as an undrafted guy. Since I'm getting time right now, I'm going to take full advantage and have my game grow."

And the amazing thing is that he was simply stating the obvious. These guys couldn't get better without the snaps they have been seeing this year—many meaningful snaps in a variety of game situations.

That's what is needed for guys to become the best in the NFL. So, let's take a look at who is getting these meaningful snaps and how it matters for the Falcons' long-term plans.

 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Running Backs

Before the season, Atlanta needed to make sure it had quality depth at running back and fullback. And with Jacquizz Rodgers and Patrick DiMarco, the Falcons have found a pair of guys who provide quality depth. 

Rodgers was a 2011 fifth-round pick in the NFL draft who has proved to be more than worth his selection this year. He's already set career marks in touchdowns as both a rusher and receiver with two in each facet of his game.

He's also shown that he is a quality pass protector and blitz jammer in the backfield. If his role continues to expand—even with Steven Jackson coming back from injury—the diminutive Rodgers should see his touches and yards also exceed the best marks of his career.

At fullback, DiMarco has shown that he can be a legitimately talented run-blocker. He paved big holes for Jackson against the Carolina Panthers, and combined with better offensive-line play, he helped the offense to achieve the team's best rushing day of the season.

So while the backs aren't going to be long-term starters, both DiMarco and Rodgers have been taking full advantage of their snaps to be at least quality NFL-level backups.

 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Wide Receivers

One of the biggest areas that the Falcons have been able to gain experience in the wake of injury is at wide receiver. Sure, Harry Douglas—with his 172 snaps in the offense in the past three weeks—has seen the most snaps at the position since the dynamic duo has been out, but others have seen playing time as well. In doing so, they've shown the Falcons their unique skill sets.

Young guys like Drew Davis and Darius Johnson have seen much more action the past three weeks than they did in the first five games of the season. Before the bye, the pair saw just 67 snaps on offense. Since it, they have combined for 301. They've also shown that the Falcons have depth beyond just Douglas, Roddy White and Julio Jones at receiver.

Norm Hall/Getty Images
Davis has been a pleasant surprise for Atlanta as a gunner his entire career. That's how he's made his bones. But the third-year pro is coming into his own as a receiver. He's been able to create separation and just needs to be targeted more in the passing attack.

His circus catch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the touchdown catch against the Arizona Cardinals are just two examples of his massive potential. The 6'1", 205-pound receiver can draw comparisons to Miles Austin—another receiver who worked his way up from the practice squad to a legitimate option through three seasons.

On the flip side, Johnson is a rookie who should have been taken in the draft for his quickness, great field vision with the ball in his hand and ability to make people miss. He has seen 14 targets as the slot receiver with the Falcons' top two receivers out.

Most of those targets and even receptions have come by the way of screens and stop routes, which is the bread and butter of what White tends to do in the Falcons offense. With White coming back in the next few weeks, it wouldn't be surprising to see Johnson get his role reduced.

Either way, Davis and Johnson have shown that they are more than worth the time. The experience they have gained as a No. 2 and No. 3 receiver in the offense will prove to be invaluable in future seasons. The Falcons needed some depth at wide receiver, and now they have it.

 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Slowly but surely, the offensive line is jelling.

Offensive Line

The biggest youth movement in the 2013 season has been on the offensive line. While the unit has been struggling, it is starting to pull it together and get healthy. The line overhaul starts from the center and extends all the way to the right tackle.

Peter Konz was the 2012 second-round pick for Atlanta and has been very effective as a pass-blocker early in the season. However, he doesn't have the same kind of road-grading prowess that he used to have in Wisconsin. 

This could be a scheme question or an experience one. Nonetheless, the extra snaps are helping him work through his issues, and he has started to improve dramatically as the Falcons starting center in what is essentially a reboot of his rookie year.

Lamar Holmes is essentially a rookie offensive tackle after not seeing many snaps in 2012. The former third-round pick has been poor in his first season as a run-blocker for the Falcons and has needed to improve as a pass-blocker. 

That being said, when taking out the first game he ever started at right tackle and the first game he ever started at left tackle, he looks like someone who deserves to start in the NFL, especially when he is pass blocking. With more reps, his run-blocking should improve, and with that, the entire run offense will.

Garrett Reynolds is just beginning to get his first real starting experience in 2013. Despite winning the job in training camp in 2011 and 2012, this is the first time he has started more than six games at right guard.

And surprisingly, he's been grading out as the seventh-best right guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. While the Falcons could look to upgrade over the 26-year-old starter in the 2014 draft, he has shown that he's at least quality depth long term if the team thinks he's not a good starter.

All in all, the Falcons offensive line still has a long way to go. But the youth on the right side is finally starting to jell, and by the end of 2013, Atlanta will have a better group starting than it did in 2012.

 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Malliciah Goodman has been what Ray Edwards was supposed to be.

Defensive Line

Another unit that has been steadily improving with its young talent is the defensive line. Highlighted by a 2013 fifth-round pick and a 2012 fourth-round pick, the defensive end group has needed to get as much experience as possible.

Malliciah Goodman is the 2013 fourth-round pick who has been a great run-stopper early on. He's starting to see more and more snaps in the rotation, as the Falcons are trying not to use defensive tackles lined up as defensive ends as much.

It also helps that he can play an effective 5-technique for when the Falcons want to move to their 3-4 alignments. With him playing the strong-side 5-technique, he's allowed Jonathan Babineaux to play a weak-side 3-technique and Corey Peters to play the strong-side 1-technique.

Even if the Falcons get a breakout year from Goodman or Massaquoi, should they take a pass-rusher in the 2014 draft?

Submit Vote vote to see results
This has allowed Atlanta to give an effective one-gap look for their 3-4 looks. Part of that includes having Osi Umenyiora stand up on the weak side and blitz from that position much like John Abraham did in the 2012 season.

Speaking of defensive ends from Troy, Jonathan Massaquoi has been coming into his own as a pass-rusher. Despite taking over primarily due to injuries, he has excelled when asked to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.

His involvement on two sacks, four hits and 12 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, comes on just 135 pass-rushing snaps. He ranks ninth in the NFL when it comes to getting after a quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus' Pass Rush Productivity statistic.

He's showing why the Falcons could have a legitimately good rotational pass-rusher if they just continue to give him the experience needed. One thing to note is that he is equally as effective on either side; he ranks 18th from the left with a 10.7 and ninth from the right with a 12.5.

The pairing of Goodman with Massaquoi on the left side in a rotation has been brilliant for Atlanta. It gives the team a bull rusher who can play in the 3-4 or 4-3 at end in Goodman and a speed rusher in the undersized Massaquoi.

 

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Linebackers

If you would have asked any Falcons player, coach, analyst or fan before the season if he thought that Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu would be the Falcons linebackers who would play for the most snaps in the game against Carolina this past week, no one would have said that it made sense.

Yet, they played every snap and were integral to a defense that had the Falcons still competing five minutes into the fourth quarter, after allowing just 17 points up until that point. Worrilow and Bartu have proved their worth as at least depth for the future, but one or both of them may turn out to be starters.

Worrilow has earned his way into the starting lineup permanently based on his play on the field. His talent is ridiculous, and the fact he went undrafted is a testament to the amount of talent that was available at linebacker in 2013.

Bartu has shown that he's an athletic player who understands his role within a defense. However, despite playing the most snaps this season for the Falcons at linebacker, it's obvious that he needs to be on the bench as a role player long term. 

Both of these guys have been making their mistakes. Worrilow has missed a pair of sacks this season, and Bartu has missed a few plays in coverage. The development that they have undergone has been tremendous, though.

And while the Falcons probably do need to look into a linebacker for the 2014 season or think about moving Kroy Biermann to strong side in the base packages, there's a ton of talent in the small-school pair. That includes a guy who should be a longtime starting middle linebacker in Worrilow.

 

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Defensive Backs

Coming into this season, the defensive backs looked like the group with the most potential. And they have carried the defense in games that the Falcons have kept close. The big plays haven't come in bunches until the Carolina game, but they should continue throughout the next few years.

Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant have both been better than expected as rookies. While the move to take a pair of cornerbacks looked weird from the beginning, the Falcons have been reaping the rewards of it in their nickel package since the bye. 

They keep the best 11 men on the field when they do that. The fact that two rookies at cornerback are considered part of the best 11 men whom the Falcons could put on the field says a lot about their abilities as coverage players.

While Alford and Trufant are just average as run defenders, they have shown that they are solid tacklers. Trufant has only missed two tackles all season, while Alford has only missed one. They both have Pro Football Focus run-defense grades that are league average. As rookies, that's amazing.

Falcons Defensive Backs in Coverage 2013
Player Targets Catches Comp % Yards YPA Long TD INT Rating Allowed
Desmond Trufant 50 27 54.0 272 5.44 21 1 1 68.1
Robert Alford 28 16 57.1 195 6.96 21 1 2 60.9
Asante Samuel 21 14 66.7 225 10.71 59 1 1 98.3
Robert McClain 33 25 75.8 390 11.81 67 3 0 144.8

Pro Football Focus

In coverage, that's a completely different—but better—story. Through eight games, Trufant has allowed 27 catches on 50 targets (54.0 percent completion percentage) for 272 yards and one touchdown while intercepting a pass, deflecting away seven and allowing a passer rating of 68.1.

On the other side, Alford has allowed 16 catches on 28 targets (57.1 percent completion percentage) for 195 yards and one touchdown while intercepting two passes, deflecting away three and allowing a passer rating of 60.9. And the most amazing part of it all? 

The longest pass either one of them has allowed has been just 21 yards. And they each have allowed just one of them. These rookies, who were expected to get picked on and burned, have looked like above-average NFL professionals. 

Imagine just how good this pairing will be when they are the unquestioned starting corners in 2014 or 2015. What looked like a weakness coming into the season has become a tremendous strength—both now and in the future.

 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Hope for 2014

While this depth is all well and good for the future, it breeds new hope into 2014. The Falcons would have the fifth pick in the draft if it were to be held now, according to Draft Falcons. While that isn't what they were expecting, they could wind up with a consolation prize to the disastrous season.

How would South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney look on the Falcons line?

How would UCLA's Anthony Barr look in a role similar to what Biermann plays?

How would the offensive line look with a new starting right guard and Reynolds on the bench?

Could the Falcons land a steal that would take Babineaux's roster spot?

If the Falcons finish with a top-five selection, whom should they take?

Submit Vote vote to see results
All of these scenarios could play out this offseason. And while re-signing every starter looks possible, it wouldn't be wise to bring back Babineaux when Peters should be cheaper. That being said, the Falcons have time to worry about this. 

The biggest point is that Atlanta can bring the talent in. A ton of it. And when a team already has a group of guys who have starting experience on a roster, it only makes it easier to go into a draft and pick the best players available over the needs.

Add in a key free-agent signing here and there, and Atlanta could be back in the running based on their starters. But the depth is what really matters. And the Falcons are finally starting to cultivate depth. With this, they could earn their way back into the playoffs even this season.

So with how deep and talented this young Falcons roster looks for 2014, adding a good draft and using the experience that the rookies have now seen will only yield benefits. If the Falcons continue their improvement, a bounce-back campaign where they start 6-2 in 2014 isn't out of the question.

 

All stats used are either from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN, CFBStats or the NFL. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.

Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.

Follow @ScottCarasik

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