The tight end position was certainly not a strength for the Falcons in 2014, but Atlanta took steps to address that, bringing in free agents Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki this offseason. Between Tamme's emergence as a legitimate receiving weapon and Levine Toilolo's apparent improvement, this position is looking much stronger than expected as the 2015 season nears.
Tight ends coach Wade Harman said he's pleased with the way his unit is adapting to the new scheme.
"I think they're doing a good job. It's a very tight end-friendly scheme in terms of they get to do a lot of things, but it also challenges them mentally, because they have to do a lot of things," Harman said. "They get to run routes, they get to be in the backfield, they get to block and they get to pass protect, so they get to do a lot of everything."
The way the tight ends have settled into the new scheme is more remarkable with some context on what's required of this position in a Kyle Shanahan offense. Shanahan uses tight ends consistently and in varied ways -- as receivers, blockers, and in different areas in the formation.
Harman believes his guys are putting in the necessary work to fully grasp and master those responsibilities.
"They have to be very sharp mentally, and they have to spend a little time — probably second only to the quarterback in things that they have to know," Harman said. "But that's what kind of makes the position fun. They get to do a lot of different things, and then they're coming around; they're learning."
Newcomer Jacob Tamme is pleased with the progress the tight ends have made, but he believes the position group has a lot to improve upon before the season begins.
"We've got a long way to go. We've just got to keep making progress, and it's all about one day at a time right now," Tamme said. "I know it's a cliche, but that's how it is. You've got to just come out here and put the work in every day, and then that stuff starts showing up."
Harman said that the tight ends have a very high percentage of the new scheme installed, although they'll obviously implement different elements each week depending upon which opponent the Falcons are facing. As far as the key elements of the offense, however -- the base offense, goal line offense, and short yardage strategy, for example -- the tight ends are ready to go.
The key for the tight ends now, according to Harman, is how they respond when facing an actual opponent.
"Can they adjust when they see different defenses and they start playing games against the other teams and at that tempo? Game speed is always different than practice," Harman said. "So we've only had one preseason game, and now we're heading into number two, and we'll kind of see if they can keep building and clean up the things they had mistakes on or errors, and keep doing well the things they do well."
Third year tight end Levine Toilolo has been doing a lot of things well during training camp. Toilolo has improved dramatically as a blocker and has become more consistent as a receiver.
Toilolo said he hasn't changed much about his approach to the game, but his improvement coupled with the way he interacts with Harman and other coaches during practice suggest that Toilolo is responding particularly well to this coaching staff's approach to instruction.
"The attitude that Coach Quinn definitely brings in, being about the team, and he tries to make it an environment where it's not stressful and you're just out here competing with the guys and pushing each other to get better," Toilolo said, "so I think that's definitely been something that's allowed me to kind of relax and just play football."
There's a real balance between the competitive environment fostered by Dan Quinn and his staff and the way that this regime values the team above all else. The emphasis on competition, rather than sowing discord, serves to help everyone get better.
Toilolo said the competition within the position group and against the defense is helping the coaching staff get the best out of their players, himself included.
"Coach Quinn...from top to bottom, he starts it off with how he wants to coach, and it's always about everyone coming in with the right mindset of trying to get better and what can I do to push the defensive guys and what can I do to make myself better," Toilolo said. "He does a great job of making sure that the coaches have that mindset, too...try to draw the best out of each of your players and get to know what works for them."
We're still a few weeks from games that count, but at present, Jacob Tamme appears to be a viable receiving option for the Falcons. He has great chemistry with Matt Ryan, his routes are clean, his hands are reliable and his timing is excellent.
Roddy White recently referred to Tamme as, "Jacob 'I catch everything' Tamme." I asked Tamme about the nickname, and he was flattered.
"That's high praise from Rod," Tamme said. "That's funny. I'll take it. That's one you want, I guess."
The team atmosphere fostered by Quinn and his staff has led to friendly relationships throughout the offense and has made the transition to a new team a little easier for Tamme.
"It's been fun. It's been fun to be out here. It's been fun to get going," Tamme said. "Every day is a new challenge and a new opportunity, and that part of it's been awesome."