FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — With Tony Gonzalez gone to retirement, so are the days of a single Falcons tight end playing 95 percent or more of the plays in a game.
In many ways, the Falcons are turning back to what made them successful in head coach Mike Smith’s first season. In 2008, they pulled off a miracle turnaround (11-5), ranked among the NFL’s best teams in rushing yards, time of possession — all without Gonzalez, then a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
While the Falcons drafted tight end Levine Toilolo in the fourth round last year (Stanford), he could represent just one part of a three-headed effort to fill the position. Think Ben Hartsock, Justin Peelle and Jason Rader — the 2008 position group — more than the way Atlanta filled the position with Gonzalez from 2009-13.
Along with Toilolo, the other suspects are Bear Pascoe and Mickey Shuler.
"I think what you’re seeing in the NFL right now is you’ve got your true pass-catching tight end in Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham. Then you’ve got a group of others that are kind of a Jack-of-all-trades: part blockers, part receivers, part offensive linemen, part running back, part pass-protectors," said Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
"And all three of those guys I think will play more into that role."
The 28-year-old Pascoe, at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, spent his first five seasons with the New York Giants, winning a Super Bowl during the 2011 campaign. Incidentally, that was Pascoe’s most productive as a pro as a pass-catcher, starting 11 games and catching 12 passes for 136 yards.
Pascoe has one career touchdown reception.
Shuler, 27, enters his fifth year as a pro. The 6-4, 247-pounder was previously on the Falcons’ practice squad. At times on Wednesday during Organized Team Activities, Shuler was working with the first unit.
Of the group, the organization has the most invested in Toilolo. At 6-8, 265, he is the biggest target and, seemingly, the one most apt to fill the role of pass-catcher. Koetter said Toilolo is likely to have a featured role.
In a very limited role last year, owing to Gonzalez’s presence, Toilolo caught 11 passes for 55 yards. Significantly, Toilolo caught two touchdown passes. Being a target that big certainly can’t hurt in the red zone.
"I think coach talked about being able to do everything," Toilolo said of the offense’s continuing evolution. "This year, they might ask the tight ends to do some different stuff, whether it’s blocking or in the passing game. Whatever they call, you have to be ready."
As Koetter hinted, the different stuff might be more of a traditional role for the tight end in the Falcons’ offense. In the past, when the Falcons would split out five receivers wide on the line of scrimmage, Gonzalez almost always was part of the quintet.
That might be a thing of the past.
Toiolo seems somewhat uncomfortable with the mantle of being the player who replaces Gonzalez.
"I mean, I guess you could say that," he said. "For me, I think the mindset is for myself, coaches and guys here — I think (quarterback Matt Ryan) even touched on it — he’s talked to me a little bit. Obviously, the position might change a little bit, as far as what we’re doing."
Much has been made of Toilolo learning from Gonzalez in the future Hall of Famer’s final NFL season. But in light of the national magazine article about Gonzalez (last February), portraying him as fairly self-interested, it’s possible that storyline was more fiction than reality.
The Falcons are not asking Toilolo to be the next Gonzalez, and he is aware of that. Gonzalez caught 93 passes for 930 yards in 2012. Very few NFL players — regardless of position — accomplish that.
"Obviously, we have a little bit different skill sets," Toilolo said. "I think coaches are great at that, putting not just myself but the weapons that we have on offense, in the right situation to be successful."