Can Tony Gonzalez Be Replaced in Atlanta?

With Tony Gonzalez now retired, is there anyone on the Falcons roster that can fill his shoes?

If it weren't for the nuclear meltdown that took place in Houston last season, the Atlanta Falcons’ disastrous campaign would have garnered a lot more publicity. In truth, the only difference between the two teams is that the Texans lost 13 consecutive games, while the Falcons’ 12 losses were spread out evenly over the length of the season.

No matter how you spin it, Atlanta fell far short of reaching the high expectations placed upon them before the season started.

The Falcons were largely doomed by a porous defense that surrendered 27 or more points 9 different times last season. Injuries also played a huge role, as Julio Jones, arguably their best offensive weapon, missed 11 games. Although Roddy White played in 13 games, he was hampered by an ankle injury that limited his effectiveness.

While the Falcons' ship was essentially sinking, tight end Tony Gonzalez was a rare bright spot, as he provided quarterback Matt Ryan a reliable receiving option, especially in the red zone. At age 37, he finished second on the team in receptions (83) and receiving yardage (859), and led the Falcons in touchdowns (8).

The future first ballot Hall of Famer is now retired, and his absence leaves a large void in the Falcons offense. Julio Jones has promised to be ready for Week 1, but there are still lingering questions about his recovery from foot surgery. Roddy White appears to have recovered from his high-ankle sprain, but will turn 33 this November.

If both Jones and White do start the season healthy, it’s safe to assume they'll both see an increase in targets. But for the Falcons offense to remain productive, it would be wise for them to find a third option to help alleviate the pressure on the top two.

Is there a tight end on the Falcons roster capable of becoming this third option? Or is a third wide receiver the answer?

The Remaining Tight Ends

The names found on the Falcons projected 2014 depth chart at tight end look more like a list of professional wrestlers than professional football players.

Levine Toilolo, Bear Pascoe, and Mickey Shuler have 51 career receptions...combined. Shuler only has two career catches. In comparison, Tony Gonzalez only had only one season in which he caught less than 59 passes in his 17-year career.

By taking a look at numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, a measure of a player’s ability to add or subtract points from his team’s final score adjusted for down and distance, you can see that neither Toilolo or Pascoe necessarily jump off the page as viable answers to the Gonzalez-replacement question.

Reception NEPReception NEP per TargetSuccess Rate
Levine Toilolo (2013)5.48 (12th)0.37 (12th)72.73% (10th)
Bear Pascoe (2013)1.32 (14th)0.07 (14th)50.00% (14th)

In parenthesis are each player's ranks among the 14 tight ends that had between 10 and 20 catches in 2013. As you can see, Pascoe was dead last in every category among that cohort. Toilolo, while slightly better, was still in the bottom third.

While the receiving volume sample-size is admittedly small for both players, neither have done much at the NFL level to inspire a promising outlook if given more opportunity.

At 6’8” Toilolo does pose as a threat inside the red zone, an area where Gonzalez thrived. He also posted an impressive 5-to-1 reception-to-touchdown ratio during his three years at Stanford. And while these factors are promising, it doesn’t mean much until he proves he can produce at the NFL level.

The Falcons were forced to throw early and often in 2013 due to poor game flow which resulted in the second-most pass attempts in the league. Things likely won't change much this year, either, as we project Matt Ryan to throw about 684 times this year.

Tony Gonzlalez’s 120 targets from 2013 now must go somewhere else. Could a wide receiver not named Roddy or Julio be the solution?

Enter Harry Douglas

The only reason Gonzalez didn’t lead the team in every receiving category last season was because of a 5’11”, 170 pound former third-round pick from Louisville.

Before last season, Harry Douglas’s season high in catches was 39 (in 2011). This makes his jump to 85 catches last season even more noteworthy. While Douglas was never a volume receiver up until last year, he did manage to post very consistent production.

Not only does his 2103 stat line appeal to box-score watchers, but our advanced metrics placed him among some of the top NFL receivers. In parenthesis below are Douglas’s ranks among the 22 receivers who had at least 75 receptions in 2013.

Reception NEPReception NEP per TargetSuccess RateCatch Rate
Harry Douglas (2013)80.68 (20th)0.61 (18th)84.71% (16th)64.39% (9th)

While Douglas ranks in the bottom-third of nearly every category, his 64.39% catch rate did rank ninth, ahead of Larry Fitzgerald and Pierre Garcon, both of whom received similar target volume.

Life After Tony G

The truth of the matter is that no one single player is going to “replace” Tony Gonzalez. It’s going to take a concerted effort by the Falcons’ coaching staff and players to find a way to compensate for the loss of one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game.

While Levine Toilolo is an intriguing combination of size and athleticism, it’s yet to be determined if he can put all of it together and be a consistent tight end.

When running back Steven Jackson is healthy, he has shown the ability to catch the football out of the backfield over his 10-year career. And if rookie running back Devonta Freeman proves to be a capable pass protector, he should see his fair share of targets as well.

But if the Falcons do run three-receiver sets more consistently, as they have been discussing this off-season, look for Harry Douglas to thrive in Gonzalez's absence and find open space underneath the deep coverage afforded to both Jones and White.

While he’s not guaranteed to match his 85 catches from last season, and although he wasn't terribly efficient with his given volume last season, Douglas should see around the same amount of targets in an offense that will throw the ball a ton.

Is Douglas the “replacement” for Tony Gonzalez? No. But can he be a big piece of the puzzle? Absolutely.