The retirement of former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez leaves Atlanta wondering who will be able to take the place of the future Hall of Famer. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — With the retirement of prolific tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons have a major hole to fill in the team’s vaunted passing attack. The future Hall of Famer hauled in an average of 81.5 passes over the past five seasons.
There’s no one on the roster capable of reaching that high level of productivity
“Obviously, our tight end is probably not going to have 90 catches anymore,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter conceded after a recent OTA session.
While the Falcons are refurbishing the offensive line and hope for a return to good health by wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, replacing Gonzalez’s production is vital to the future of the offense.
While the rushing attack ranked last in the NFL at 77.9 yards per game last season, the pass was the Falcons’ primary mode of travel. The Falcons average 265.2 yards passing per game, which ranked seventh in the league. They averaged 6.4 yards passing per play, which ranked 16th.
In the two seasons with Koetter as the offensive coordinator, Gonzalez caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 and 83 passes for 859 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
The Falcons are considering a committee approach to replace Gonzalez.
The Falcons signed Bear Pascoe in free agency, and Levine Toilolo returns for his second season. Also, Mickey Shuler, Andrew Szczerba, Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak are tight ends on the roster.
“It will be spread through the tight ends and then throughout the wide receivers,” Koetter said. “There will be some more runs in there and then more (passes) to the running backs. But it will be a combination of all of the rest of the guys. We just won’t target the true tight end as much as we have in the past.”
Pascoe, 28, played five seasons with the New York Giants. He’s started 31 NFL games and played in 66. He has 38 career catches.
“They are asking me to block, and I’m going to do the best that I can at that position,” Pascoe said. “With New York, I was that hybrid guy, that move guy. I was going into the backfield. I was always moving, and I could never really settle in at the (blocking) tight end position.”
Pascoe believes his role could expand.
“I’ll be moving into the offense more as I get more familiar with it, but that’s something kind of down the road,” Pascoe said.
Last season, Toilolo backed Gonzalez and served as his understudy. Toilolo receive a lot of extra practice time with the first-team offense because Gonzalez missed training camp and didn’t practice fully over the season.
A fourth-round draft pick out of Stanford, Toilolo played in 15 games and made two starts. He caught 11 passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
“Levine learned a lot from Tony last year,” Koetter said. “Nobody is going to replace Tony Gonzalez, but we’re excited for Levine to step into more of featured role than what he had last year. But, again, we don’t have a guy that’s going to replace Tony Gonzalez.”
Toliolo paid attention in class last season, taking notes on how Gonzalez went about his business.
“I think just the work ethic that he showed with the routine that he had,” Toilolo said when asked what’s the most important thing he learned from Gonzalez.
He marveled at how much time Gonzalez put into his preparation to play.
“For someone who’s done it so well for that long, just to see him come out every day and work,” Toilolo said. “He’d be in the weight room before practice stretching, getting his body ready. He would be out there after practice. When everybody else was heading in, he was getting in extra work catching passes.
“For someone that had been to that many Pro Bowls and he was still working so hard, I think that definitely left an impression on me.”
Toilolo’s ready to try to fill as much of Gonzalez’s role as he can handle.
“I’m definitely excited,” Toilolo said. “Tony’s role on our team last year was huge. He did a lot for us. Whatever I’m able to bring to the table. Whatever they ask of the tight end position, I think the whole room is excited, and we look forward to opportunity.”
While Pascoe and Toilolo appear headed to take most of the snaps, the running backs will play a major role in replacing the production.
“Steven (Jackson), Jacquizz (Rodgers), Davonta (Freeman) and Antone (Smith), all of our running backs, are good out of the backfield,” Koetter said. “Some of that will be in check-downs to the backs. Some of it will designed passes. Some of it will be in the screen game.”
Of course, White and Jones, will be expected to do more, too.
“That’s no different than any other team,” Koetter said. “You’re going to design your reads to go toward your best players. We lost an elite tight end, and now we’re going to have to figure out where we are going to go next.”