Training camp is less than a week away and we're grinding our way through the roster. We come now to a crucial position, albeit one that has diminished in importance after the departure of one Tony Gonzalez. This is your camp preview for tight end.
What's changed this year? Barring a surprise acquisition, the Falcons won't really utilize the "move" tight end, i.e. the player that jumps around the formation and tends to be a pass catcher par excellence. The team will instead roll forward with three players who can catch at least a little, but serve as a traditional in-line players who can also block at a reasonably high level. Whether the offense will function as smoothly without a similar player to Gonzalez is an open question, but I'm optimistic.
All players have 2013 stats listed, if applicable.
#1: Levine Toilolo - 11 catches, 55 yards, 5 YPC, 2 touchdowns
I firmly believed Toilolo would enter the 2014 season with the starting job since the 2013 season ended, and nothing has happened since that changed my mind.
What you have with Toilolo is a massive red zone threat with 6'8" height and at least average leaping ability, which allows him to get way over the heads of opposing linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. He needs to work on his hands and route-running, and he's not a finished product as a blocker, but in his second year Toilolo should have no problem putting together a solid season and being a helpful blocker and pass catcher.
#2: Bear Pascoe - 12 receptions, 81 yards, 6.8 YPC
Known primarily as a blocker, the 28-year-old Pascoe has soft enough hands to occasionally surprise defenses, but struggles to get open. He'll be used in two tight end sets and those situations where the Falcons need an extra blocker, and he should excel in that role.
#3: Mickey Shuler Jr.
A favored punching bag of the Falcoholic community, Shuler is almost as old as Pascoe and has bounced around to many different practice squads over the years. He appears to have a leg up for the third tight end competition and, judging by what coaches have said, seems to have decent hands.
#4: Jacob Pedersen
Young UDFA likely ticketed for the practice squad, though there's still time for him to win the third tight end job. About 20 pounds lighter than Pascoe but not really quick, he does have sure hands and is a very willing blocker. Should be worth keeping an eye on going forward.
#5: Brian Wozniak
Pedersen's college teammate is a big dude who blocks well and served as a red zone threat for the Badgers. Likely on the outside looking in.
Tony Gonzalez is gone, which means Matt Ryan's typical #2 to #3 read in the passing game has been excised from the offense. The team will roll with Toilolo as the top option, but he should be at best the 4th option for Ryan, and will be more valuable as a gigantic red zone threat and competent blocker. Toilolo's the only real holdover from a year ago, with Pascoe the new designated blocking tight end and a bunch of youngish guys with some upside competing to hold down the third tight end role.
The position will generally be more focused on blocking than catching passes unless Toilolo really blossoms in year two, which means the Falcons are looking at tight end more like they did in 2008 than during Gonzo's five seasons with the team.
The Big Question
Can Toilolo grow...lo? There's little question that his size and talent make him a deeply intriguing player for these Falcons, and if he becomes the kind of guy you can count on for 40-50 receptions, the occasional jump ball in the end zone and competent blocking, the Falcons will be in good shape here. If he's passable or worse as the starter, tight end becomes a weakness on an otherwise strong offense.
Best Case Scenario
Toilolo surprises, catches about 40-50 passes and six-to-eight touchdowns, endearing him to coaches, his teammates and the fanbase alike. Pascoe throws more blocks like whoever's in charge of dumping the Tetris blocks from the top of the screen. Shuler or Pedersen takes the third job and comes up with one or two memorable plays.
Worst Case Scenario
Toilolo struggles mightily, failing to emerge as a pass catching threat or major red zone target. The team turns to Pascoe as the nominal starter, making tight end one less position the defense has to account for, placing more pressure on the passing game even as Pascoe throws nice blocks. Shuler/Pedersen are useless.
The success of the position largely hinges on Toilolo. If he shines, this position should be a mild strength for the Falcons, one that helps improve a dreadful running game and polishes up some awful pass protection while giving Matt Ryan another reliable target. If not, it could be a weakness. All eyes will be on Toilolo, but if nothing else, we've got Bear Pascoe.