Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo is facing an uphill battle. The 2013 draft pick is now entering his fourth season as a professional. He's not exactly a "bust," because to be fair, expectations should never be too high for a fourth round draft pick. But he's got to establish himself and make his value known. Soon.
There are plenty of reasons to wonder where Toilolo fits in going forward. First, he was basically a non-factor in the passing game in 2015. Jacob Tamme assumed the role of pass catching tight end for the Falcons and Toilolo earned his keep as a blocker. Second, the Falcons just went out and drafted a "tight end of the future." Third, with three years of professional football under his belt, you'd think Toilolo would've turned the corner if he's going to turn it at all. But pump the breaks, Falcons fans, because there's also reason to believe in Toilolo going forward.
While I like Austin Hooper just as much as the next Falcons fan, he still needs to play at the next level. In other words, he hasn't played professionally yet. We think he will play competently as a rookie and we hope he will develop into an elite tight end. But all that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Tamme isn't getting any younger. At 31 years old, the perennially sure-handed receiver may start to regress in the immediate future. I'd like to think he won't, but it's definitely a possibility. All that said, let's talk about Toilolo specifically.
Toilolo is still a valuable asset on this team. At 6'8, he's a monster on the football field. (Heck, he's so big, the Falcons once used him as a right tackle in a pinch.) He's an above-average blocker with untapped potential as a red zone threat. To be frank, his technique and size-related awkwardness have hindered his ability to contribute in the passing game. But I'm simply unwilling to accept the premise that he's peaked.
In college, Toilolo used his size advantage to overwhelm defenses in the red zone. Jumping to the NFL is only easy for truly elite players, and it was particularly difficult for Toilolo. That said, he's now held a roster spot on this team for three years. He's had the benefit of a professional coaching staff and professional facilities. He's benefited from professionally-guided strength training. In short, he's poised for his version of a breakout. I know what you're thinking: "But what does that even mean, James?"
Assuming Hooper is the tight end of the future, the Falcons don't need their backup tight end to be elite. They need a replacement level tight end who can block well and score 2-3 touchdowns a year. Backups who perform at a higher level don't stick around, they explore free agency. Toilolo is in his "contract year." He won't be too expensive if the Falcons choose to keep him. And if they're smart, they'll do just that.