We've heard it before: Tony Gonzalez says this year might be his final season in the NFL.
But the word is that this time around, it's his WIFE that is telling him to hang 'em up when the season is done. The boss has spoken, and I believe her. This is it for the greatest tight end in NFL history.
The Falcons should count their blessings that he returned even for this season. Justin Peelle got banged up in preseason last year and was released on an injury settlement. The Falcons signed Reggie Kelly as his replacement, bringing back some bad memories for long-time fans. (Dan Reeves traded away a future first rounder for the second round pick he used to get Kelly in 1999. It proved to be a top five overall selection, which the Ravens used to grab Jamal Lewis.) Kelly is now an unsigned free agent and likely to retire.
So if Gonzalez had decided to call it a career, Atlanta would have been without either of its top TEs.
Michael Palmer is an emerging player to consider, though he didn't get many pass-catching opportunities as the #3 in Mike Mularkey's system. At 6-5, 252, he presents a good target for Matt Ryan, and he got a lot of opportunity to work with the quarterbacks as the main TE during the unofficial OTAs during the lockout.
He doesn't have blazing speed, but he has good hands to go along with his blocking skills. I don't know if he'd be the answer as the future starter, but he's certainly capable of holding down the #2 spot.
After that, we're down to a trio of practice squad prospects - Marquez Branson, Tommy Gallarda, and Ryan Winterswyk. Branson is quick but only has small school experience and limited blocking skills. Winterswyk is a converted defensive end, but he showed real promise in preseason last year before getting banged up in the final exhibition game. Gallarda is a big, strong guy who can catch a few passes as well. He'd mainly be a blocking TE but could also be valuable in the red zone.
The big question: should we go after a TE in this year's draft?
The Falcons have obviously known for years that the clock was ticking on Gonzalez. That was a big part of the decision to trade up last year for Julio Jones. The idea was that the coaching staff knew the next starter probably wouldn't be able to match TG's production. So they went for a massive upgrade at WR instead. That way, it's okay if the next tight end proves to be a mere mortal.
Tight end may be the weakest position in this year's draft class. The general consensus is that there are three top tier prospects: Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and Orson Charles. Ladarius Green is the most intriguing of the rest of the bunch, with his speed and receiving ability (though his size and experience make him questionable for in-line blocking, essentially giving him the same function as a WR).
After that, most scouting reports say there's a pretty big dropoff to the rest of the pack, and there are mixed opinions on how far Green is from the top three.
My take: this could easily be viewed as the top draft priority. If one of the top three is still available at the #55 spot, the team should strongly consider taking him.
If that happens, that prospect would have a year to work with Gonzalez and learn from the best before moving into the starting role in 2013. Michael Palmer would remain the #3 this year before stepping up to the #2 role, giving the team a pretty solid duo. If any of the other prospects distinguish themselves in camp and on the practice squad, they'd be strong contenders for the #3 spot.
I'd also consider this year's TE class a case of top three or bust. If none of the big three are available, I'd prefer to see the team trade down, use their picks at other positions, let Michael Palmer play as the #2, and find a new starter next year.
For that matter, if new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter really does migrate towards a vertical passing attack, the tight end position might not be all that important outside of the red zone. The plan for 2013 might end up being an in-line TE for blocking duty (Palmer or even prospect Tommy Gallarda would suffice) and an h-back type. In that case, a very late pick might do the trick. One name I like for that type of role is Massachusetts h-back Emil Igwenagu, who has also played tailback, fullback, and traditional tight end.
But I'd rather try to draft a new starter if we could, and I'd prefer to go ahead and get him now, letting him work his rookie year as the #2 behind Gonzalez.
Bottom line: if I were in the war room, I'd be fighting hard for a top-three TE at #55.