2014 Season Is All About Replacing Missing Parts for the Atlanta Falcons
The 2013 Atlanta Falcons showed that the team had let too many niche pieces leave over the years. 2014's offseason was about replacing those missing parts from previous seasons that had helped lead the Falcons to success.
This season will be a success or failure based on how the potential replacements for those missing parts perform. Before 2013, the Falcons were able to mask the poor performance of certain parts of the team because of the great skill position talent on offense.
Now that Tony Gonzalez has retired and those weaknesses were exposed in 2013, the Falcons have to find replacements for what made them successful in prior years. They had to bring back the same type of players they once had, or they would see similar results to 2013 again.
A Proven Backup Quarterback
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Luke McCown in 2012
Potential Candidate: T.J. Yates
During the 2008 to 2012 seasons, the Atlanta Falcons had a veteran quarterback in the form of Chris Redman and Luke McCown who understood the offense and could deliver efficient, effective throws should Matt Ryan go down.
Then they decided to go with Dominique Davis for a homegrown backup in 2013 and let McCown go. In concept, the idea of developing a quarterback behind Ryan to be a long-term backup made a lot of sense. However, they didn’t invest any resources to get one.
That is, until 2013 when they drafted Sean Renfree. He doesn’t look like he’ll be the answer either, as he was plagued by a shoulder problem his rookie season and spent the year on injured reserve. The Falcons needed a proven quarterback to be their backup.
So, they went and traded Akeem Dent to the Texans for T.J. Yates. He is the only quarterback in Texans history who started a playoff game that they won. He’s also shown that he can make throws effectively in a short-range passing attack. Hopefully, he is the long-term answer for this role.
A Home Run-Hitting Speed Running Back Who Can Pass Block Too
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Warrick Dunn in 2007
Potential Candidate: Devonta Freeman
Warrick Dunn was the last Falcons running back who could pass block and still be a home run-hitting speed back. He was unceremoniously replaced in 2008 by Michael Turner, who was later replaced in 2013 by Steven Jackson.
The Falcons did try to find a true Dunn replacement in previous years by bringing in Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers. The problem with Rodgers is that he really isn’t the kind of running back who can take it to the house from anywhere on the field.
The problem with Smith is that he isn’t anything close to a good pass-blocker despite being that home run hitter. The Falcons need to be able to mask what their plans are on offense, and they can’t do it with Smith on the field because of his poor pass blocking.
So, they drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft. He was a great pass-blocker in college who had some issues handling bigger pass-rushers. He will have to prove that he can be a threat as both a receiver and rusher as well as a competent blocker if the Falcons want to have a versatile run game.
A Right Guard Who Is Talented and Nasty
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Harvey Dahl in 2010
Potential Candidate: Jon Asamoah
Harvey Dahl was the brute in the middle of the Falcons offensive line from 2008 to 2010. He showed that he wasn’t going to be messed with when he was on the field and regularly drew penalties for his post-play antics. Those antics included throwing defenders around after the snap.
The Falcons offensive line even got called a bunch of dirtbags by Justin Tuck leading into the 2011 playoff matchup despite not having the original dirtbag himself in Dahl. Joe Hawley was the main one playing right guard late in the year and had irked B.J. Raji during the season with his shenanigans.
However, Hawley wasn’t the most talented player for the Falcons at right guard. He was better suited for center and should be the starter at center this year. The Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz experiments at right guard failed as well due to their lack of nastiness.
So the Falcons had to go out and bring in a former Chief known for his aggressive nature in Jon Asamoah. After signing him to a five-year, $22.5 million contract, the Falcons have faith that he can be that destroyer in the middle that they have been missing for three seasons.
A Talented, Technical Right Tackle
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Tyson Clabo in 2012
Potential Candidate: Jake Matthews or Sam Baker
The Atlanta Falcons had arguably the best right tackle in the league from 2008 to 2012 when Tyson Clabo held down the position. He was regularly in Pro Football Focus’s top five right tackles by the site's grading system and always was an anchor for run blocking.
He did it as a technically sound player who had a bit of roughness to his game. The Falcons tried replacing him in 2013 with Lamar Holmes early on, but an injury to Sam Baker forced their hands into signing Jeremy Trueblood to start at right tackle.
This was by far one of the worst moves of the last six seasons. Trueblood looked inept at right tackle, and Holmes looked worse on the left side. Fast forward to today when Baker finally looks healthy and the Falcons have a top-six overall pick in Jake Matthews on the roster.
Matthews and Baker both make sense as the starting right tackle as they are both technically sound and very talented. Whether it’s Baker or Matthews playing right tackle, the Falcons should be set on the right side for this season when you combine one of them with Jon Asamoah.
A Big Fatty Nose Tackle
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Grady Jackson in 2008
Potential Candidate: Paul Soliai
Grady Jackson was a force to be reckoned with at nose tackle for the Falcons in 2008. He would eat double-teams to allow Jonathan Babineaux to attack from the 3-technique, while John Abraham destroyed the edge blocking to blow plays up in the backfield.
The Falcons haven’t had a true nose tackle since him, though. They’ve relied mainly on a second 3-technique type like Corey Peters or Peria Jerry to try and penetrate from the A-gap between the center and guard on almost every play. In some years, it worked well.
However, without a thumping middle linebacker or a nasty nose tackle, the Falcons have seen their run defense dramatically get worse over the past two seasons. That was unacceptable for head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
They went out and got Paul Soliai from the Dolphins. He was a nasty big man on the inside of the Dolphins defense who would eat double-teams and allow players around him to make plays. Atlanta is the right situation for Soliai because he won’t have to play every snap, so he should stay fresh and menacing.
A Run-Stuffing Defensive End Who Can Also Play the 5-Technique
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Jamaal Anderson in 2009
Potential Candidates: Tyson Jackson and Ra'Shede Hageman
While it may not seem like it’s a huge deal, the Falcons have been missing the contributions of Jamaal Anderson as a run-stuffing, edge-setting defensive end. The Falcons run defenses in 2008 and 2009 rarely were getting beat around the edge, and when they were, it was due to linebacker error.
In 2010, Kroy Biermann assumed the starting role and wound up looking solid in the position, but he wasn’t the same kind of run defender that Anderson was. Ray Edwards took the spot in 2011 and the early part of 2012, but he looked terrible at it.
2013 led off with Jonathan Babineaux primarily playing the role, but the Falcons needed someone a bit longer and stronger on the strong side. So they went out and got Tyson Jackson during the offseason to lock up the starting role.
It should pay off well as Jackson is a terrific run defender. If he can somehow find a pass-rushing proficiency that he never has had, the Falcons could be a scary team up front. Worst case scenario, Jackson should be able to eat some doubles and allow linebackers to loop around.
A Pro Bowl-Caliber Return Specialist
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Eric Weems in 2011
Potential Candidate: Devin Hester
From 2008 to 2011, the Falcons had a great return specialist in the form of Eric Weems. He even saw a Pro Bowl as an all-around specialist. Then he left for Chicago, and the Falcons were stuck with putting Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas and Robert McClain out there to return kicks and punts.
The poor field position was a contributing factor to the Falcons' 2013 woes. However, they look to have solved that in one of the most daring ways possible. They went out and got the best possible return specialist that they could in Devin Hester.
Yes, that Devin Hester. The one who is arguably the best return specialist in the history of the NFL. The one who has 18 touchdowns combined between his punt and kick returns. The one who makes opposing special teams units look terrible.
This will only help the Falcons in 2014, if he can look like the guy he has been in Chicago. Keith Armstrong is one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL and has had multiple coaching interviews because of his talent. Adding Hester to Armstrong could prove to be a huge stroke of genius.
The New Missing Part to Replace: Pass-Catching Tight End
Last Successful Player to Hold the Job: Tony Gonzalez in 2013
Potential Candidate: Levine Toilolo
Tony Gonzalez was the greatest tight end to ever play the game. In Atlanta, he never had a season with less than 70 catches, 650 yards or six touchdowns. He averaged 82 catches, 837 yards and seven touchdowns every season during his final five years in the NFL.
The crazy part of that is it was a drop-off from his production in Kansas City. He wasn’t the same player in Atlanta that he was in Kansas City because he lost a lot of speed as he got older. However, he was still the same guy as a route-runner and always boxed out defenders.
Levine Toilolo right now is essentially a poor-man’s version of Alge Crumpler. He’s a good blocker and will make most of his money due to that. But he’s really not like the defense-stretching Gonzalez. At least, not yet. He has shown more quickness in 2013 than Gonzalez showed all five seasons in Atlanta.
He looked like a fresh and ready player compared to the worn-down Gonzalez. Sure, Gonzalez was still highly productive, but he was a poor and unwilling blocker and ran maybe three or four different types of routes during 2012 and 2013. Toilolo should be able to run more and different routes to help open up the offense.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.