Falcons Looking to Evolve at Tight End

As Dan Quinn’s staff continues its evaluation process, details about the Falcons’ roster composition are beginning to emerge. Charles Godfrey is the early front-runner for the free safety job. A heated battle at running back has commenced between Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Ra’Shede Hageman — slimmed-down, focused, matured — looks poised for a breakout season.  

And yet, the tight end situation remains entirely unclear.

Kyle Shanahan has, historically, kept TEs heavily involved in his system. Now the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, he has a number of intriguing players to work with — question is, who can separate himself from the pack?

It may be a while before we have an answer. After all, there’s only so much one can learn from padless practices. Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo, Tony Moeaki and Mickey Shuler all have strengths; however, none are bona-fide starters. At least not yet.

Based on stats alone, Tamme is the best pass-catcher of the group. Yes, he’s mostly been a backup in the NFL, but he’s quietly authored a few good campaigns here and there. In 2010, for instance, he racked up 631 receiving yards and four touchdowns with the Colts. Dallas Clark’s wrist surgery opened the door for him to become a productive asset, and he didn’t disappoint.

It wasn’t a fluke, either: In 2012, he notched 555 yards through the air and two scores as a Denver Bronco. Then Julius Thomas evolved into one of the better young TEs in the league, and Tamme was, once again, relegated to a diminished role.

So the issue hasn’t been talent — it’s been opportunities, or lack thereof. No longer competing against Clark- or Thomas-esque teammates, Tamme could soon establish himself as a legitimate No. 1 option.

“Jacob is a savvy receiver,” tight ends coach Wade Harman said. “He’s got good hands, knows how to run routes, knows how to set guys up, how to set zones. He understands what we’re trying to get done with certain pass concepts. He knows where to be in the right place.

“He fits in with what we’re trying to do real well. He’s a smart guy, asks great questions and is catching the heck out of the ball. He’s a very reliable, quarterback-friendly guy. When you throw the ball anywhere around him, QBs feel confident he’s going to come down with it.”

Moeaki has also flown under the radar despite some impressive results. As a rookie, he tallied 556 receiving yards and three touchdowns, which propelled him to the fifth-best Pro Football Focus grade among qualifying tight ends. He was solid in 2012 as well, finishing with 453 yards and a TD.

The former Chief and Seahawk has been plagued by injuries — he dressed in only eight games during the last two seasons and missed all of 2011 — but, when healthy, can provide a lot of value.

“I want to come in here and help the team win,” he said. “Just make plays, do my job. That’s really what it all comes down to.”

Even if Tamme and Moeaki prove to be good additions, the other tight ends should have chances to contribute — especially in the running game. Toilolo, still only 23, was a good blocker in college; Shuler has shown promise, according to Harman.

Shanahan has frequently run two-tight end sets on first and second downs, and based on recent comments, that isn’t bound to change here in Atlanta. The team has even discussed putting three on the field at once.

Such formations are important to the success of the zone blocking scheme. If the Falcons utilize multiple tight ends who can get off the ball quickly and block well, it’ll go a long way toward controlling the middle of the field and establishing a prolific ground attack.

“I think tight end is always important because it's hard to have the threat of many runs if a tight end's not out there," Shanahan said. "You'd love to go four receivers every single play, maybe five receivers, but it makes it a lot easier for the defense when they know you have to throw it. The more times fullbacks go off the field or tight ends go off the field, it limits your run options which makes you not as balanced"

Additionally, if one of the aforementioned TEs can develop into a trustworthy receiver, it’ll make Atlanta’s offense all the more dynamic.

“(I)t makes it a lot easier for a play caller,” Shanahan said. “It makes it easier for the O-linemen, for everybody, because it's hard in this league if you become one-dimensional."

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