Welcome back, friends, countrymen and those from the exotic lands east of the fair land of Georgia. Today we'll be continuing our grand effort at a pre-draft roster breakdown by examining that most underrated of positions, the majestic tight end. Careful, now! Don't startle these pass-catching, run-blocking creatures.
You may recall that we last visited the land of wide receivers, assisted capably by our friend Spencer Maddox. This time around, it's FrankyWren lending his considerable talents to the process, with Dave the Falconer (me!) on the drums. It'll be a good time for everyone.
Check it all out after the jump.
Tony Gonzalez: I heart Tony Gonzalez. For serious. Man crush aside, he deserves some serious props for his 2009/2010 campaign. You have to appreciate his durability (knock on wood). He has missed all of two games since KC drafted him in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft. I remember watching the ESPN ticker last April: "Tony Gonzalez to the Falcons for a second round draft pick." My heart fluttered, and I like to think that Freddy Falcon’s did too. From that point forward, the hype was on, and he certainly did not disappoint. In his debut against the Dolphins, Gonzo became the twenty-first player in NFL history to gain 11,000 receiving yards. He pulled down five receptions for seventy-three yards and one touchdown in that game.
While he only pulled down six touchdowns all year, his numbers were fairly impressive overall. Pro Football Focus has him slotted as 2009/2010’s #6 TE, behind Dallas Clark (#5), Marcedes Lewis (#4), Kevin Boss (#3), Todd Heap (#2), and Jason Witten (#1). The only TE with more value as a receiver was Antonio Gates, who - like Tony - had negative value as run blocker. Fear not though, Tony was actually somewhat middle-of-the-pack (33rd out of 61) as a run blocker in 2009/2010 if you only compare him with other TEs who were in on at least twenty-five percent of their team’s offensive snaps (which says something about the sort of TEs that NFL teams value), far better than the likes of Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockley, and - worst of all (that really is some kind of honor) - Dustin Keller. Moreover, his run blocking became markedly better as the season went on.
Tony ranked in the top third of TE’s for pass blocking value, but he needs to work on the penalties. He ranked in the bottom ten (out of 61 eligible TEs who - like him - participated in at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps) for non-penalty value (that is what I am calling it ... not what PFF calls it, but I think "non-penalty" value just sounds better and makes more sense than "penalty value"). To be fair, however, he picked up three penalties against SF, and that really hurt his overall "non-penalty value." Individually, his poor games came in weeks one, five, and fifteen. His two best games were against Carolina, which makes Gonzo wicked awesome in my opinion. He did drop three passes in 2009/2010, which - believe it or not - was only two less DPs than Michael "Butterfingers" Jenkins. Unlike Jenkins, however, he pulled down 66.4% of what Matty Ice and Rojohombre threw at him, meaning he was a true possession receiver for the Birds in 2009/2010.
Overall Grade: A-
Keith Zinger: The team’s resident German-born Man Beast, Zinger was selected by the Birds in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. The kid knows what it feels like to win: he was at LSU in both 2003 and 2007 after all. He had negative value as a receiver for the Birds in 2009/2010, but that is because he was only thrown to once (in week ten against Carolina) and he dropped the ball. He apparently had negative value as a receiver in weeks five and thirteen as well, although no balls were thrown his way in either game. Zinger’s value comes with his blocking ability. On the year, he had positive value as a blocker, although you have to be wary of the sample size because almost all his value as a blocker came in week sixteen (when Snelling/Norwood put up a combined 100+ yards on the ground). Mind you, he was in on eighteen of the eighty offensive snaps that game, thus he really does deserve some credit for the Buffalo win.
The only other game where he played a comparable amount of the offensive snaps was the home loss versus the Eagles (insert sound of me vomiting), and he was just average as a run blocker in that game. To that effect, he was pretty much average as a run blocker in every game but Buffalo, and like I already alluded to, it is not like he played a significant portion of the offensive snaps. So yeah. He was an average run blocker and an absolute non-asset in the passing game. Enough said.
Overall Grade: C
Justin Peelle: Justin Peelle may very well be the most undervalued player on the team. He only had twelve receptions on the year (2 TDs), but when you consider the fact that he only averaged under than a yard less yards per catch than Gonzo, one has to appreciate what he brings to the table. Drafted by the Chargers in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, he is not the long-term solution (he will be 31 next month), but I would love to see him in Red and Black for the next couple of years. He played significantly more snaps than Zinger (his highest percentage of snaps played was in week sixteen when he played fifty of the eighty offensive snaps), which says something about how the team views his versus how they view Zinger, but we sort of knew that anyway. As a run blocker, he basically had four really good games (weeks 8, 9, 11, and 17), two pretty bad games (weeks 1 and 10), and eleven average games. Simply stated: he’s a slightly above average run blocker. His was a relatively average receiver for most of the season, the only exceptions being his above-average game against TB in week 17 and below-average game against Chicago in week six. He pulled down eighty percent of what was thrown to him last year and he did not have any DPs. Bottom line: he was a very slightly above average (and dependable) receiver in a limited amount of opportunities (he was only targeted 15 times all year).
Overall Grade: B
Tony Gonzalez: Gonzo was good this year. Was he up to his usual? Not quite. Most of his receptions came within the -21 and +21 yard markers on the field. 63% of those receptions were first downs. At the beginning of the season, I fully expected Tony G to be the answer to our red zone woes. For many reasons (Matt’s insistence on throwing to him/Coaches insistence on throwing to him between red zones; defenses bracketing Tony; bad throws) the great Gonz failed to meet those expectations. He did, however, account of lots of first downs, which I will never be unhappy about. Still, the clutch catching ability he presents is too tempting to squander on middle-of-the-field plays. I hope to see him more active in the red zone in 2010.
Justin Peelle: Ah, Justin Peelle, the man I once saw juggle a baby after a win. Thankfully, he didn’t juggle that 20+ yard reception in the second Tampa Bay game, or we may have not scored that drive and that monkey would still be on our backs. Considering he was forever overshadowed by Gonzo on the "throw to him" chart, he did pretty well. Two TDs and over a hundred yards. Not bad. Not great. Serviceable, and from his position, that’s better than ok. He has value and has shown the ability to catch. Hopefully he’ll be put into play more in the middle of the field so we can see Gonzo work his magic in the end zone.
Jason Rader: So uh…Jason Rader. He didn’t catch anything, didn’t start, and uh… Yeah.
The Zingster: Keith Zinger…hmm…looked good in minicamp and preseason. And by good I mean caught footballs and ran for a bit. Outside of that, I got nothing.
Dave the Falconer writes:
This was a strong suit for the Falcons in 2009, and it was largely because of the contributions of one player. That player? You guessed it, Keith Zinger!
Seriously, though, this should continue to be a position of strength in 2010, even if the personnel doesn't change. Gonzo's a future Hall of Famer and a very complete tight end, while Zinger provides low-cost blocking and Justin Peelle provides some pass-catching ability. It's a balanced set.
TE Tony Gonzalez, Starter: Simply put, Gonzo was everything we thought he'd be and then some. Put another way, he was all that and a bag of delicious salt and vinegar potato chips.
He caught 83 passes for 867 yards. He hauled in six touchdowns. He blocked well. He single-handedly saved an orphanage from a fiery tornado....while running a slant against the Bears. It was a tour de force season for the Falcons, but for Gonzo it was just business as usual. I could go on at length about how he provided a great security blanket for Matt Ryan and invaluable veteran leadership, but I think you already know that. He was pretty much our offensive MVP.
As Franky mentioned above, the only thing holding him back was penalties, but I think that's more of a fluke than anything else. He could've been more of a factor in the red zone, yes, but let's keep in mind that the team basically had no one outside of Gonzo, White and the wily Eric Weems to throw to down there. It's all enough to slightly drop his 2009 grade.
Can we expect more of the same from Gonzo in 2010? I see no reason to expect otherwise. He keeps himself in amazing shape and he seems very likely to be a top-flight TE for at least one more season, and this is the season where the Falcons are expected to put it all together and make a strong run at the playoffs. I expect he'll be there once more, catching at least 70 passes and hauling in at least five touchdowns, making defenses skittish the entire time. It's a great thing to expect greatness.
Justin Peelle, Backup: Everything you want out of a backup tight end. A few catches, a couple touchdowns and a few nice blocks thrown, particularly in the running game in the middle/late part of the season. And, most importantly, not enough snaps to indicate that Gonzo was seriously hurt during the season. Phew.
Peelle is on the wrong side of 30, and the team will undoubtedly try to replace him in the next couple of years through the draft. You could do a lot worse than a guy who does a little bit of everything reasonably well, as Peelle does, so I'm glad he'll be a part of this team at least one more year in 2010. The best insurance policies are the reliable ones.
Keith Zinger, Third-Stringer: Zinger didn't get a buttload of playing time, but the German-born tight end I like to call the Berlin Wall blocked well when he was in. As FrankyWren notes, the week the combo of Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling went off was his finest work, and he really is a guy who knows how to block. He provides some value on special teams in that role, as well.
As such, he's a valuable piece, especially for someone this low on the depth chart. The team would be wise to keep him around, continue to let him refine those blocking skills, and throw him out there when he's needed. If he could learn to catch a little, too, that could only improve his value. I expect...well, a little blocking in 2010. And that's all we really need from him.
Jason Rader, Not Making The Team: Did I say that out loud?
Bottom Line: This is a position of strength for the Falcons, and I don't expect the makeup to change much in 2010. Looking forward to great things from Gonzo, better than average things from Peelle and a whole lot of blocking from Zinger. Woot!
As always, leave us your thoughts in the comments.