Without Gonzalez, Falcons must alter how tight end position is used
Jul 27, 2014 at 12:06a ET
ATLANTA -- The next Tony Gonzalez is not walking through door to play tight end for the Atlanta Falcons.
When Gonzalez called it quits after the 2013 season, he left a void in Atlanta's offense. How could he not?
Gonzalez never caught fewer than 70 passes in a season while in a Falcons uniform, and pulled down at least six touchdown passes each and every season for five years. He averaged 81.8 receptions, 837.4 receiving yards and seven touchdowns per season since he arrived in 2009.
But now he's gone, and it's easy to understand why fans want the Falcons to do their best to replace Gonzlaez with the next great pass-catching tight end.
That's not in the Falcons' plans, not even close.
The New Orleans Saints have Jimmy Graham, the closest facsimile to Gonzalez in the game today. When Rob Gronkowski's healthy, he gives the New England Patriots a Gonzalez-like feel too. After Graham and Gronkowski, Jordan Cameron catches a lot of passes. As does Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis.
The Falcons have five tight ends on their camp roster: Bear Pascoe, Jacob Pedersen, Mickey Shuler, Levine Toilolo and Brian Wozniak. Pascoe led the group last season with 12 NFL catches. Add the combined total from Pascoe, Toilolo and Shuler (Perdersen and Wozniak are rookies), and you get 23 catches last season, and 51 career grabs.
The Falcons are going to truly miss Gonzalez in 2014.
During the offseason, Atlanta didn't go out and grab a pass-catching tight end from the free-agent pool. The Falcons didn't use a draft pick on a tight end. No trades were made to find a guy that could do anything similar to what Gonzalez could do at tight end.
That means the Falcons are going to run, in 2014, with whoever separates themselves from the pack of five tight ends in camp. A group, just to reiterate, with 51 career receptions. Because there isn't an option with a ton of pass-catching prowess in the group, look for the Falcons to somewhat abandon the idea of throwing to the tight end to move the chains.
At 6-foot-8, Toilolo is an exciting option in the red zone. He caught two touchdown passes as a rookie from Matt Ryan, both on plays when the line of scrimmage was set inside an opponent's 20-yard line. His role should expand in Atlanta's offense when the Falcons get into scoring situations.
But when the Falcons are moving the ball down the field between the 20s, don't look for Toilolo, or any other Atlanta tight end, to be a huge factor.
Gonzalez was targeted 121 times in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. He caught 83 of those passes. Those targets, and more important, those receptions are going to have to be spread out to others in this Atlanta offense this season.
Atlanta will run the ball a little more this season, at least that's the hope. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has never been a guy who strives for a balance on offense between running the football and passing it. But, the Falcons led the league last season by throwing the ball 68.65 percent of the time. A few more running plays could help scramble defenses up a bit.
The Falcons added pieces along the offensive line so they could run more, and drafted running back Devonta Freeman to help add an explosive aspect to the rushing attack.
But running the football isn't going to completely make up for those 83 receptions Gonzalez pulled down. The Falcons are going to have to spread those catches around.
Expect Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas to get a few extra targets per game in divying up Gonzalez' numbers. With three quality pass-catching running backs in Freeman, Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan will be throwing to his running backs a lot more in 2014.
Where does that leave Toilolo, and likely Pascoe and Shuler, when Atlanta is trying to churn yardage to get set up for scoring chances?
Even though the Falcons didn't draft a tight end, general manager Thomas Dimitroff was asked after the first round of the 2014 draft, if the team was planning to look at one on Day 2 or 3. His response was evasive, yet revealing.
Dimitroff said that if, and that was a big "if" indeed, the Falcons targeted a tight end late in the draft, it would be a Y-type (blocking), not an F-type (pass-catching).
The Falcons are going to lean on their tight ends--Pascoe and Shuler especially, but to a certain extent Toilolo--to block a considerable amount of the time in 2014. Let's face it, the offensive line, although improved, could use the extra help. And since none of the tight ends seem likely to be more than light pass-catching options, the better idea is to build an offense around a blocking tight end.
The tight end position for the Falcons in 2014, is indeed going to look markedly different.