I've heard a lot of talk about the Falcons roster this off-season. Some fans believe this roster is complete garbage minus a few key players, while others think we're only a few pieces away from being a playoff team again. Even though the team finished 6-10 last year, a strong argument can be made that they could easily have been 8-8 with better coaching, and maybe even better had they not experienced meltdowns in some games (Vikings anyone?) during the season. But the team did finish 6-10 with some ugly losses sprinkled in. With that said, I've decided to look at the roster to try and gauge what kind of quality we really have with our starters.
For this purpose, I'm going to use a simple scoring system as follows:
1 - Player is not starter material, should be replaced
2 - Player is a mediocre starter or has big question marks, replacement would be ideal
3 - Player is an average starter or has upside, replacement isn't necessary
4 - Player is a good starter or has great upside
5 - Player is a great starter, has Pro-Bowl potential
With that scoring system set, here's a breakdown of how I perceive the Falcons offense:
Matt Ryan, Score: 5
This one seems obvious, though some fans will still decry the playoff record as an argument against Ryan. But there are few people who believe that Ryan is anything but a great QB. Is he elite? I think he is, but everyone has different opinions on what constitutes that. What I do know is that Ryan consistently puts the team in positions to win, and has played at a high-level from day one. This one is a no-brainer to me.
Julio Jones, Score: 5
There are some concerns about whether Julio can stay healthy for a full season, but when he's healthy he's easily one of the top wide receivers in the league. There are few corners in the league that can cover him alone, and he often beats double coverage. He has the size and speed that makes him a nightmare for defenses, and the trust Ryan has in him now makes him a nearly unstoppable weapon.
Roddy White, Score: 3
Hot Rod is clearly on the back end of his career, but he is still a quality starter. He may not have the speed, but Roddy can still win many one-on-one matchups and his timing with Ryan makes him a great third down option. As he gets older, Roddy's role will need to be reduced, but going into 2015, there's no need to worry about him - though the Falcons may want to look for a long-term WR2 in this year's draft.
Leonard Hankerson, Score: 2/3
This one is hard to gauge, since Hankerson has spent a good bit of his career on the sidelines while injured. There's reason to believe Hankerson could become a decent WR3 - and at least be a slightly better option than Harry Douglas. However, Hankerson is a question mark going into the season - hence the split score. I think there's some potential upside there, but the Falcons may need to look for long-term options at WR3 - especially since Hankerson is on a one year contract.
Devonta Freeman, Score: 3
Sitting behind Steven Jackson and Jaquizz Rodgers last year, Freeman didn't get many opportunities to shine. But he did show on several instances that he has the ability to have an impact on the offense. He's a good runner with exceptional vision and surprising power. He's also a capable receiver. His pass blocking is a question mark, but will hopefully improve with more playing time. The only real knock on Freeman is whether he can be a "bellcow" back. I don't think he's a 30 carry/game type of back, so finding a good compliment to play alongside him will be important this year. But he's a young player with upside, so replacing him isn't a consideration at this point.
Levine Toilolo, Score: 2
I'll be honest: I was close to making this score a 1. But I have a philosophy that evaluations of players shouldn't be "complete" until year 3 - which is this year for Toilolo. However, based on what we've seen, Levine is not currently starter material. Perhaps he makes a leap this year and can be a 3, but that's not a bet I'd be willing to make.
Jacob Tamme, Score: 2
Don't get me wrong, I liked the Tamme signing for the Falcons. We didn't need to spend 7M per year on a TE that would be our third receiving option. Tamme is a decent receiving option with veteran experience - but he's not starting material either. As a TE2, he's a good stop-gap solution, but fans shouldn't fool themselves into believing he's going to make any kind of leap in performance. He's a veteran backup, nothing more.
Jake Matthews, Score: 3/4
Our first round pick from last year had a rough year due to injuries, but when he was healthy Matthews showed the kind of play that warranted taking him in the top 10. I believe he'll give us average quality play at LT this year, but his upside is much higher than that. He's a player with fantastic technique and a strong work ethic. He should be a starter on this line for 10+ years.
Sam Baker, Score: 2
I'm listing Baker here presuming he may be our potential starter at LG to start the year. But I've got reservations about that. First, Baker is clearly injury prone, so relying on him is already a risky proposition. He's also got no experience at Guard, so that's another big question mark. Given this, I can't rank Baker any higher than a 2. I believe the Falcons need to find a long-term solution at LG in this upcoming draft.
Joe Hawley, Score: 3
Though he's coming off an ACL injury, I believe Hawley will resume being our starter at C in 2015. He was having a decent season before going down and his understanding of protection calls made him the best option at center for the Falcons last year. He's not overly powerful, but in the ZBS he could really shine. He's on the last year of his contract, so there may be some thought to replacing him in the long-term, but for 2015, he's a decent starter.
Jon Asamoah, Score: 4
Asamoah was one of the best free agent signings from 2014. He's a quality Guard in the NFL and if anything, his play should only improve as the Falcons move to the ZBS - which Asamoah excelled in while in Kansas City. For evidence of his high-level of play, you need only google "Asamoah vs JJ Watt" to see that this guy can play. He should be a solid contributor for several years.
Ryan Schraeder, Score: 3
I've seen some people posit that the Falcons need another starter at Tackle. I disagree. When he took over at RT mid-year in 2015 (after Carimi continued to struggle), Schraeder settled down the position. He's also another starter who could excel in the ZBS, as he moves well and proved to be a fierce downfield blocker in the running game. After a solid stretch to close out the 2014 season, Schraeder deserves the opportunity to start. While he's not likely a pro-bowl talent, he can be a sufficient starter going into the season.
Many fans may agree that the Falcons offense is in relatively good shape. There are two critical holes at Left Guard and Tight End, and there's a high likelihood that both positions are addressed somewhere in the draft. Don't be surprised if one of these positions is addressed with our second round pick. The team may also look to find some depth at WR, particularly to try and groom a long-term replacement for Roddy. We also need some additional help at RB, but this draft is a good one to find someone in the mid to late rounds. Overall, the Falcons have an offense that should perform at a high-level in 2015 if those critical holes can be addressed.