Falcons grooming Gonzalez's replacement


When Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo reached high to snare a 12-yard reception in the second quarter Sunday, a team radio announcer said Toilolo looked like a young Tony Gonzalez.

That's the whole point.

The Falcons drafted the 6-foot-8, 264-pound Stanford rookie in the fourth round with hopes of grooming him to be the tight end of the future. Gonzalez is set to retire at season's end, so the Falcons have to start preparing Toilolo to assume the primary tight end role.

"Just improvement,'' Toilolo said of his goal the rest of the season. "There are some things I saw on film [a few] weeks ago. I mean, blocking. That's something that I want to be able to be counted upon with this team: in the running game and in the passing game.

"Just becoming more consistent, too. I want to be someone whom the team can trust, regardless of the situation. That's something that is going to be big for me as the rest of the season progresses.''

The Falcons have no plans of taking away Gonzalez's touches as he finishes up his Hall of Fame career. And he has no plans of allowing a nagging toe injury to keep him off the field. But at the same time, head coach Mike Smith talked about the possibility of using more two-tight end sets to get Toilolo and Chase Coffman more involved alongside Gonzalez.

Such was the case with Toilolo's catch against the Bills. Gonzalez spread out wide left as Toilolo lined alongside left tackle Lamar Holmes. Gonzalez drew double coverage, and Toilolo had an obvious, one-on-one mismatch with 6-1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Gonzalez was the first to congratulate Toilolo after the catch. He continues to tutor both Toilolo and the veteran Coffman on a daily basis. Gonzalez was asked what he hopes to instill in his understudies.

"Hopefully it's the habits; the routine,'' Gonzalez said. "I'm a big believer in the routine. In fact, I don't think I'd be here if I didn't have that routine. It means going out there and doing the same thing every day. And it means getting like at least 100 catches a day. It's working on your footwork. It's being obsessed with the fundamentals and the small details that go into being the best football player that you can be.

"Everybody has talent at this level. And what separates you is consistency and doing it well day in and day out. And it starts every single day. I mean, you can't take one day off. Hopefully, that's something that they've figured out. It's what's worked for me. And I know it can work for them.''

Toilolo gained more recognition from the team when he dropped a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in Week 4 but came back the very next week and a hauled in a touchdown against the New York Jets. Two of his 11 catches this season have resulted in scores.

As for Coffman, he's been the forgotten man in the tight end equation primarily due to an early-season knee injury. Although his contract expires at the end of the season, he hopes to make a late-season impression. People forget Coffman set an NCAA record at Missouri for career receptions by a tight end with 247.

"It is my contract year and I would like to stay here,'' Coffman said. " But if not, they're always telling us, 'Every 31 other teams in the NFL are always looking at film.' That's what I'm trying to put out there so I can continue my career.''