Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was pretty sure 2012 was his final NFL season. With the Falcons finishing a game away from his first Super Bowl, though, Gonzalez’s would-be final ride was quickly swept away, as the veteran tight end returned for one more go of it in 2013.
Now it’s official.
The end had to come sometime, and Tony Gonzalez is reportedly “at peace” with his decision to retire. It comes as no surprise, as the Falcons went down in a whirl wind of trades and losses in a hugely disappointing 2013 season. Gonzalez was the consummate professional as always, though, denying trade rumors and publicly expressing his desire to ride it out with his teammates.
Gonzo’s steadfast loyalty was just one of his best attributes, but his red-zone presence, pristine rout-running and sure hands were also once again on full display this past season, as he hauled in 83 receptions for 859 yards and eight touchdowns. Last season marked Gonzalez’s third straight season with at least 80 grabs and 800+ receiving yards, while he put up eight scores for the second year in a row.
With his final season under wraps, Gonzo concludes a remarkable career, sitting only second on the reception list behind Jerry Rice, while residing sixth on the touchdown list. Gonzalez didn’t go out on top in terms of winning a Super Bowl, but he did appear to go out on top as an impact player, still playing elite football at the age of 38.
While it won’t be easy to fill Gonzalez’s shoes, the Falcons are going to have to try. Atlanta’s leaky offensive line and shaky pass-rush will be on trial this off-season and those are surely going to be seen as more pressing priorities. But either way, Atlanta needs to find a long-term replacement.
Matt Ryan will still have a nice trio of weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas in the passing game, but Gonzalez leaves behind 36 touchdowns from his days in Atlanta (16 over the past two seasons). And beyond his ability to convert red-zone opportunities, his reliability as a possession receiver and chain mover also cannot go unnoticed. More importantly, it needs to be addressed if the Falcons are serious about turning right back around and competing at a high level again in 2014.
Atlanta will have three options heading into the new season. They can stand pat with Levine Toilolo, bring in a veteran free agent, or draft a talented rookie tight end.
Let’s break down their options:
Roll With Toilolo
Per in-house draft guru Keet Bailey, Toilolo “is a limited blocker” and is more of a “red-zone guy”. I couldn’t agree more. While Toilolo has outstanding size (6’8”), he hasn’t dispalyed the most reliable hands and is simply an average athlete. He could quickly develop into an asset in the red-zone, but if the Falcons are relying on him as a complete tight end like Gonzo, they have another thing coming.
Sign Someone New
With Toilolo for now seemingly nothing more than a one-dimensional role player on offense, the Falcons would have to trust in three-wide sets a lot in 2014 for offensive success. That might work with the speed and play-making they have at wideout, but it’s not the safe route.
If the Falcons want to play it a little safer, but don’t want to spend a draft pick on a tight end for the second year in a row, they could try to sign someone, instead.
We broke down the top free agent tight ends earlier this year, and given that the Falcons are close to being a winning team and their need for a solid player at the position, I think Dennis Pitta, Jermichael Finley and Fred Davis are their best bets.
None of these guys are the red-zone presence Gonzo was, and only Pitta could rival his hands and route-running, but all three would fit in Atlanta’s system and could potentially thrive.
Davis would be on the lower end of the three thanks to a shaky injury history and inconsistency in general, while Pitta is either going to land a long-term deal or get franchised by the Ravens. That leaves Finley, who will want to prove he can make it back from a serious spinal injury. That should mean a fairly priced contract and a player who will go hard and aim for the best numbers he can get.
Finley has drop issues, but he’s an elite athlete for the position and still has some untapped potential.
Look to the Draft
Landing a solid veteran to take over right away would probably be ideal, but most of the guys out there are going to come with some type of question mark. Besides, what if there is a guy in this year’s draft that can be the future and has a chance at making an immediate impact, as well?
I think there are at least three guys like that, while there are definitely more than would be worth taking a chance on.
The three the Falcons should at least have their eye on, though, are Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. All three of these guys are special talents and at least above average athletes. Ebron is arguably the most complete package when it comes to size, strength and athleticism, while Seferian-Jenkins has the most pure talent and upside. Amaro, however, is the more polished route-runner and has put up the best numbers.
For what Atlanta needs, I think Amaro is probably the ideal fit. His style of play matches up with the guy Gonzo was, and he’s used to having a huge role and being relied on. He’s also more put together than the other two and would be the better bet to have an instant impact.