While fans and pundits often look toward free agents and draft selections to be difference-makers, the answer may very well already be on the NFL roster.
For the 4-12 (can't wait until I don't have to type that anymore) Atlanta Falcons, the jettisoning of a host of veterans, as is widely expected, may bring about opportunity in the form of playing time for talented players.
Some of these players may turn out to be better options than whichever new additions come about. The ability to develop players is a lost art in the NFL, with the exception of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—who draft and develop at an inordinate clip.
Teams that manage the salary cap effectively do so by getting the most out of their own roster, which in turn allows for more cost-effective contracts to be spread among the production. The Falcons have a bevy of players who fit that description.
Let's take a look at a few who are bound to make a name for themselves in the 2014-15 season.
It may be stated that defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi broke out last season. After all, his 46-tackle, four-sack performance was nothing to sneeze at. But if you ask the average fan who he is, most wouldn't have the slightest clue.
All that should change next season.
At 6'2", 264 pounds, he is stout enough to set the edge in the run game, and he's also explosive enough to cause chaos in the backfield. He's a very athletic player who can play myriad positions. He's a natural defensive end, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he can be a good outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Additionally, he has the ability to fill in at the 5-technique in an even-front alignment due to his strength. Massaquoi is the type of versatile player that a multi-faceted defense covets. And considering he's a native Atlantan (from Lawrenceville—the best city in the state), he's definitely someone the fans could get behind.
So get used to saying the name Massaquoi—which is much easier to say, than type.
Lost in the throwaway seasons of star receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones (due to injury) was the emergence of other pass-catchers—most notably Harry Douglas. But it was rookie Darius Johnson who showed he might be a viable option as a third receiver in the future.
He is as quick as a hiccup and appears to have reliable hands. For someone who was just hoping to make the practice squad as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Methodist University, catching 22 passes and one touchdown shouldn't be overlooked.
When you factor in that lone touchdown was against the Seattle Seahawks, your ears really perk up. At 5'10", 174 pounds, it's hard to imagine Johnson being a consistent outside threat, but he has all the tools to grow into a monster at the slot receiver.
With no proven threat at tight end (at least currently), expect Atlanta to use Johnson in its "10-personnel" sets.
Running back Antone Smith is an interesting player. Most fans are under the impression that he's a rookie, but in reality he will be 29 years old at the start of next season. He's been on the roster since 2010, making his hay by covering kicks on special teams.
But his electrifying five carries (yes, five—that's not a typo) have driven the fanbase into a tizzy. Those carries went for an astonishing 145 yards (with two touchdowns), highlighted by a 50-yard TD against the rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
At 5'9", 192 pounds, Smith is built like a fire hydrant, yet he has the jets (4.37 40-yard dash time, according to NFLDraftCcout.com) to break those aforementioned long runs. Now while it's unlikely he would ever be the featured back, his production last season warrants him a closer look.
When you factor in fellow backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling are J.A.G.'s (just another guy), Smith could warrant being the primary change-of-pace back to Steven Jackson. At the very least, he should get a chance to battle it out with Rodgers in camp.
Smith may be twice as explosive as Rodgers, and that's exactly what the Falcons' run game could use. Don't rule out a changing of the guard in the backfield.
Tight end Levine Toilolo has some big shoes to fill. With the recent retirement (and I use that term loosely) of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, fans will expect big things from the second-year player.
After all, when you're 6'8", 265 pounds, you have no choice but to accomplish big things. Toilolo had a few splash moments as a rookie, but his teachings were mainly through osmosis as he watched Gonzalez be the primary target on a snap-by-snap basis.
Toilolo generated 11 catches for 55 yards with two TDs—which would be a half's worth of production for Gonzalez in certain instances. Projecting Toilolo to break out next season is due to the fact he may be the best option in the middle of the formation.
At the very least, he is a supreme red-zone threat. Let's just hope he learned enough from his predecessor to make it happen between the 20s as well.
With an 85-tackle, 3.5-sack performance, linebacker Joplo Bartu should be household name to the Red and Black faithful. When you factor in that he generated that production as an undrafted free agent out of Texas State University, he should be well on his way to being a star.
But somehow his output was overshadowed by fellow rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, whose 127-tackle, two-sack season was well-documented by the media—and rightfully so. But Bartu's versatility will keep his name sizzling for years to come.
He can play outside linebacker in even- and odd-front schemes. He can also play the strong-side inside linebacker in a 3-4-based alignment. With the Falcons' multi-schemed outfit, having a player like Bartu—who can fill in multiple positions along the formation—is worth its weight in gold.
We must send kudos to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and the rest of the scouting department, for his foresight with undrafted free agents.
As versatile as Bartu is, I'd like to see him eventually push the injury-prone, and sometimes disappointing, Sean Weatherspoon off the roster. If the Falcons can find two edge-rushers this offseason, Bartu would best be served playing as the strong-side inside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
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