FLOWERY BRANCH — Levine Toilolo was at the front of the line of Falcons tight ends taking turns at a blocking sled Sunday.
Toilolo (6-foot-8, 265) appeared to have no difficulty as he shoved the sled a few yards.
If only it were as easy for Toilolo to push aside the big question that shadows his every step through Atlanta’s training camp: Can the second-year tight end from Stanford replace Tony Gonzalez, a certain future Hall of Famer?
The Falcons have tried to take pressure off Toilolo. Quarterback Matt Ryan said no one player can replace Gonzalez.
“Certainly he had a unique skill set really in the history of the NFL,” Ryan said of Gonzalez. “He’s one of the tight ends who really revolutionized the position to come from basketball and use that skill set to be a receiver.
“I think we’ll have a combination of guys fill in for the skill set he had and certainly schematically you’ve got to change some of the things that you do because some of the things Tony was good at don’t necessarily fit in with some of the guys that we have. We’ll make some adjustments and some new wrinkles for some of the new guys, to play to their strengths. But we need to find some production that we’re going to miss that Tony provided.”
Gonzalez caught 83 passes for 859 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns in 2013. Toilolo had 11 catches for 55 yards in his backup role as a rookie.
In a possibly promising preview of Toilolo’s potential as a red-zone target, two of his catches were for touchdowns.
The Falcons added some veteran help in the offseason including Bear Pascoe, who made six starts for the New York Giants last season.
Another newcomer is Mickey Shuler, who started two games for Miami in 2010. Rookies Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pedersen, each from Wisconsin, also are competing for spots.
Toilolo remains the favorite to start. He said he never forgets the player he’s following and acknowledged some pressure accompanies that challenge.
“I think at the back of your mind you know it’s there but at the same time everybody is doing a great job of picking up the slack,” Toilolo said. “They’re not really placing it on one person. You can’t really do that with a guy like Tony and the career he’s had and the production he’s had.”
Ryan said he sees Toilolo making an impact close to the goal line, as a receiver and a blocker with his improved strength.
“We’ve started to install some of our red zone stuff and I think that’s an area where he can be successful,” Ryan said. “He’s a big guy with long arms. I think we can use him in a matchup. I think he’s improved strength-wise a lot in the offseason. I’ve been watching him block a little bit and play the position and he’s improved from last year. I think he’s handled things the right way.”
Smith said more players than just the tight ends much help in replacing Gonzalez.
“Tony has been a very productive player his entire career and especially here in Atlanta, so there might be multiple tight ends that might get touches and also we might distribute the ball to other players,” Smith said. “So other players, not necessarily tight ends, might have more opportunities to get touches.”
NOTES: The Falcons had no immediate update on OT Terren Jones, who was carted off the practice field and taken to an area hospital with an unknown injury. Jones was placed in a neck brace. ... DE Ra’Shede Hageman left practice with an apparent hand or wrist injury following a fight with C Joe Hawley. Smith said he’ll stress ending the trend of fights in this year’s training camp. ... S Tyrell Johnson had his first practice after signing with the team earlier in the day. The team needed more depth at the position after S Dwight Lowery left Friday night’s scrimmage with a concussion. Lowery missed most of the 2013 season with Jacksonville with a concussion. Johnson, a second-round pick by Minnesota in 2008, played four seasons with the Vikings. He played four games with Detroit in 2012.