Going into the 9th game of the season, this Falcons team is sitting in a pretty good position with a 6-2 record and an upcoming bye week. Very few fans would have predicted the start this team is having and as a whole, it's been a fun season so far. But how is the team looking at the halfway point of the season? Well, we're taking a stab at grading these Falcons after 8 games, starting with the offense.
Honestly, this is a tough grade to figure out. On the one hand, Ryan has put up respectable numbers again this season - with almost 2400 yards passing and 11 TDs. He's on track for another big yardage season - but there are other numbers that are concerning. His 7 INTs gives him a less than 2:1 TD-INT ratio on the year, and at times he's just made some confounding mistakes - ones we're not used to seeing out of him. These mistakes have been a factor in the team almost losing a couple of games, and in the 2 losses suffered.
Then again, Ryan has been as clutch as ever, with 4 fourth quarter comebacks on the year. Even when he has started slow, he's often finished very strong - including an impressive second half performance against Dallas several weeks back. It's reasonable to think that the inconsistency is due to a new offense and several new offensive weapons, so the hope is that he will continue to improve as the season progresses.
While I'm absolutely positive that Ryan will bounce back in the second half of this season, his early season inconsistency makes it hard to give him a good grade.
Consider this: There are three new starters on this offensive line, one of whom joined the team AFTER the preseason ended. Going into the season, this was a unit that many people were concerned about, and rightfully so. Thankfully, they have been a pleasant surprise - to say the least.
Left tackle Jake Matthews has bounced back from a dismal rookie year to look like the solid player we expected him to be. His pass blocking has improved, but his run blocking has been phenomenal. Left Guard Andy Levitre - who only joined the team after the preseason - has been a stabilizing force in the middle. While his pass blocking has been ok, he's also been a natural fit in the zone blocking scheme. Center Mike Person has played well also, though his tendency to snap the ball low 2 to 3 times per game is very frustrating. Veteran right guard Chris Chester has been one of our most consistent lineman and one of our best run blockers. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder has played very well despite facing some very tough match-ups early on.
When you consider how good the running game has looked, it's hard not to marvel at the immediate turn around from last season. Though the pass blocking hasn't been as good in recent weeks, it's still an improvement from where it was last year. As this line continues to get time together, they should only get better.
Without a doubt, Julio Jones is having a monstrous season. He leads the league in yards and his 70 receptions is a record pace through 8 games. While he has struggled with injury some this year, he's been healthier in recent weeks and his production has shown that. He's a game-changing receiver, and the team is better with him. If we were just grading Julio, the grade would be obvious. The problem is when we get to the other receivers on the team.
Leonard Hankerson impressed during training camp and has shown flashes during the season as well. However, injuries have held him back lately and his propensity for drops is frustrating. Roddy White has been a near non-factor in this offense, and one has to wonder how much longer he's going to be able to play in the league. Nick Williams has been good for about one catch per game, albeit it's usually a third down conversion. Justin Hardy has needed time to adjust to the NFL game and has mostly spent time on the bench. He did show promise in his first game action, so there's hope he can contribute more as the season progresses.
Given the sharp drop-off in production after Julio, this is not the impressive group many fans thought it would be prior to the season. While there's hope that Justin Hardy can contribute more, it just hasn't happened so far. If Hankerson can get healthy again and improve his issue with drops, then this overall score will improve dramatically. While the group as a whole is getting a positive grade, it's mostly bolstered by the nearly uncoverable Julio Jones.
Had I told you before the season that the Falcons would have the league leader in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, you'd likely have laughed in my face. But after 8 games, that's exactly what the Falcons have in second year running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman has been a revelation, showing patience, burst and incredible vision running in the new zone blocking scheme. His 10 TDs is impressive, but doubly so when you consider that he wasn't the starter until game 3. He's had an incredibly impressive season so far, and there's no reason to think he can't continue to thrive.
Rookie Tevin Coleman started the season as the starter due to Freeman's hamstring injuries in the preseason. It became immediately obvious that Coleman has the burst and speed to be a home run hitter in the league, even if he doesn't have the same patience or vision that Freeman has. While injuries have hampered him this year, he still figures to be a factor in the back half of the season as the Falcons will likely try to keep from running Freeman into the ground.
Lastly, fullback Patrick DiMarco has single-handedly made the position sexy again. In a position that has been eliminated from most teams, DiMarco has shown how valuable a good lead fullback can be. His play this year goes largely unnoticed by boxscore scouts, but fans who have seen him on the field know how much of a difference he makes.
In 2014, the Falcons plan to replace Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez with Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe did not go really well (it was a disaster). This year, the Falcons tried to improve the position by signing veterans Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki. While Moeaki has been a non-factor (having also been cut/re-signed after the preseason), Tamme has been a pleasant surprise. His chemistry with Ryan is improving every week, and he's shown himself to be a decent route runner with reliable hands. He's quickly becoming one of Ryan's favorite targets on third down and in the red zone, so I suspect his production will continue to increase as the season moves on. Toilolo has been relegated to TE2 status, where he has played fairly well, but is largely uninvolved with the passing game from week to week. The unit has been improved overall, but it is still one in need of some long-term talent.
What are your thoughts on these grades, and what grades would you give?