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Considering Levine Toilolo’s Falcons future

The veteran tight end is still young, quality, and useful. Will he stick around?

Atlanta Falcons Media Availability Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It has never been simple to suss out Levine Toilolo’s role with his team. In 2013 and 2014, it looked like he’d be the Falcons’ tight end of the future, as he started 19 games, reeled in 42 catches and 4 touchdowns, and put together decent campaigns as a blocker.

The only problem? Toilolo showed a limited ability to get open and averaged under 7 yards per reception those two seasons, and hadn’t done anything to that point to suggest that he’d be an elite blocker. Then the Falcons signed Jacob Tamme in 2015, drafted Austin Hooper in 2016, and have continued to add to the position since.

Now Toilolo is clearly behind 2016 third-rounder Hooper when it comes to being a target in the passing game, and 2017 fifth-rounder Eric Saubert may someday cruise by him, too. Where does that leave Toilolo with the Falcons?

Contract status

On one hand, Toilolo is signed for the next three seasons, and is just 25 years old. He proved himself to be an extremely useful player a year ago when Tamme went down, averaging over 20 yards per reception on 13 grabs and picking up two touchdowns. In his four seasons in the league, he’s evolved from a halfway decent blocker into a good one, and his contract pays him accordingly.

On the other hand, this contract is structured in such a way that the Falcons can very easily get out of it after 2017, if they’d like to. The dead money goes from $3 million this year to $2 million in 2018 to $1 million in 2019, making it relatively painless to cut ties after either of the next two seasons. Whether they elect to do so will depend greatly on both cap space and the development of Hooper, Saubert, and perhaps Josh Perkins/DJ Tialavea/Alex Gray.

Outlook

Toilolo figures to once again be a quality part of the offense and useful special teamer in 2017, though he’ll cap out at 30-40 targets in a passing attack with tons of options. He should find playing time as a second tight end and perhaps even the primary tight end when the Falcons are on obvious run downs, though I expect Hooper to overtake him in that regard before season’s end.

In the short-term, then, I’d view Toilolo as a roster lock this season, with a very good chance of being back in 2018. He’s 50/50 to be here in 2019, when Saubert will have two seasons under his belt, Gray will have had a real season in the NFL, and the Falcons can easily sink another draft pick into the position if need be. They’ll save something like $3 million if they take that course, which means Toilolo needs to be very valuable and the Falcons can’t get breakouts from the likes of Saubert, Gray, Tialavea, and whoever else is kicking around at the position.

It’s worth remembering that Toilolo is neither particularly expensive or particularly old, and he could come to be one of those long-tenured Falcons who quietly contribute for a very long time, like Jason Snelling or Eric Weems. It seems likely that 2019 will be a pivotal year for him.