here’s what I would do to try to get the Atlanta Falcons over the hump and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next year:
Big Picture Overview - on offense, the Falcons need to upgrade their running game and probably replace Tony Gonzalez, who is most likely going to retire, at TE. Typically one of the best running teams in the NFL under Mike Smith, Atlanta dropped to 29th in rushing yards per game and 28th in yards per carry. A small part of this was due to a change in offensive philosophy, as Dirk Koetter clearly emphasizes the run less than his predecessor, Mike Mularkey. Most of the problem, however, was due to an obvious fall-off in talent from RB Michael Turner and an offensive line that was better in pass protection (7th in sacks allowed – though only 24th in QB hits allowed) than run blocking.
Defensively, even though they weren’t very good against the run (21st in yards allowed per game and 29th in yards allowed per carry), in today’s NFL the Falcons’ flaws against the pass are more glaring. They need to generate more of a pass rush from their front four (28th in sacks) and get much better in coverage from their LB corps.
In their attempt to improve this offseason, Atlanta is helped by having a first round pick and a fourth round pick in the upcoming draft, selections they didn’t have last year because of the 2011 Draft Day trade with Cleveland to move up to select WR Julio Jones. However, the Falcons are very tight up against the cap (somewhere between $1.3 – $1.7 million in cap space at this writing), so unless moves are made to free up money, being active in free agency will be difficult.
QB – sign Matt Ryan to a contract extension. Structure the deal such that not only does it keep Ryan in Atlanta for the forseeable future, but that it also frees up some cap space.
Re-sign backup Luke McCown. He knows the offense and is familiar with his teammates.
RB - cut Michael Turner. As mentioned above, he has obviously hit the wall. He no longer has the power, the size-speed ratio, nor the burst to the hole he once had. Also, he is a poor fit in this offense due to his limitations as a pass-catcher. Releasing Turner would free up about $5.5 million in cap space, as well. I would most likely turn to the draft to try to replace Turner. Somebody like Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor would be a good choice. He would likely be available by the time Atlanta’s second-rounder came up. Whoever they select, they should be looking for a back who can catch the ball, pick up the blitz, and whose best quality as a runner is acceleration to the hole (for example, when the backs run the forty at the Combine, I’m willing to bet Dimitroff will pay more attention to the 10-yard split times than the actual 40 times).
Re-sign Antone Smith. He’s a virtual non-factor in the running game, but he’s a valuable special-teamer (the Falcons were 15th in opponent’s punt return average and 8th in opponent’s kick return average).
Expect a change in philosophy in the Falcons’ running game next year. Dirk Koetter’s offense does not require a feature back who totes the rock 20 to 25 to 30 times a game. Expect an RB-by-committee approach next season, with a lot of Jason Snelling, Jacquizz Rodgers and whoever Turner’s replacement is.
FB – not an important position. In this offense, a fullback might see 20% of the offensive snaps. As such, I expect to see last year’s fifth round pick, Bradie Ewing (who missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury), given every opportunity to win the job. If not, somebody like incumbent Mike Cox could be re-signed / signed to fill the spot.
WR – Atlanta looks very good here. The top three targets, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas, all are healthy, productive, and under contract. Fourth receiver Drew Davis showed well in limited action (the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports Davis is a free agent. If he is, he should be re-signed). The fifth and likely final receiver slot could filled by Kevin Cone, Kerry Meier, or Tim Toone (also a free agent, according to the AJC. If he is, I’d let him go and let Cone and Meier battle it out).
TE - by now everybody has heard that Gonzalez is “95%” likely to retire. In a way, if he does, it works to the Falcons’ benefit, as it clears over $9 million in salary cap space. However, #2 and #3 tight ends Michael Palmer and Chase Coffman are both free agents, as well. I would bring both back, though I wouldn’t bank on either stepping up to take Gonzalez’s place. In free agency, Atlanta could look to sign Fred Davis (Washington), Martellus Bennett (New York Giants), or Jared Cook (Tennessee). A rumor has been floated around in the past that the Packers might cut Jermichael Finley. Any of those players would be at least adequate replacements for Gonzalez, though they would be expensive. A less costly option would be to draft a TE. Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) and Zach Ertz (Stanford) could well be there when Atlanta’s first-rounder comes up, and I am intrigued by some other mid-round possibilities like Travis Kelce (Cincinnati), Gavin Escobar (San Diego St.), Dion Sims (Michigan St.), and Nick Kasa (Colorado).
OL - this position group could see significant changes. Three-fifths of the Opening Day starting offensive line – LT Sam Baker, C Todd McClure, and RG Garrett Reynolds – is set to hit free agency, as is backup swing tackle Will Svitek (who missed this past season with an upper arm injury, but had replaced Baker as the starting LT for part of the 2011 season). I would bring back Svitek, but the other three are no guarantees.
Baker has underachieved since being drafted in the first round (21st overall) in 2008. This past season was arguably his best, but a good part of the reason behind that is likely because he finally stayed healthy for a full season. He has been plagued by back and elbow injuries in the past. So, do you really want to invest a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal in an injury-prone player who has underperformed to date? Especially in a year when left tackles like Ryan Clady (Denver, though he will likely be franchised), Jake Long (Miami), Branden Albert (Kansas City), Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans), and Will Beatty (New York Giants) could be available in free agency? I wouldn’t.
McClure has always been undersized for his position, and now he is on the wrong side of thirty-five. In recent years the Falcons have drafted Joe Hawley (fourth-rounder in 2010, 117th overall) and Peter Konz (second-rounder in 2012, 55th overall) with the intent of developing them for the day McClure moved on. I believe that day is here. Konz started at RG after Reynolds went down with a back injury, and showed enough to be given the first crack at replacing McClure as the team’s starting center in 2013. As much as I admire McClure and what he’s done for Atlanta since 1999, it’s time to let him go.
Reynolds could be replaced, as well. He was drafted (fifth-rounder in 2009, 156th overall) as a right tackle to back up Tyson Clabo, but moved to right guard when Atlanta decided to let Harvey Dahl move on in free agency after the 2010 season. Reynolds has been adequate at best in that role. While there aren’t many upper-echelon guards likely to hit free agency outside of possibly Andy Levitre (Buffalo) (Louis Vasquez of San Diego, too, perhaps?), the draft looks fairly deep at the position. If by some miracle Chance Warmack (Alabama) fell to the 30th pick, I’d jump all over him. Jonathan Cooper (North Carolina) is a more realistic option in the first round, and Larry Warford (Kentucky) could be there in the second. Brian Winters (Kent St.) and Alvin Bailey (Arkansas) could be worth looking at in the third.
DL – the only consistently reliable pass-rusher in this group is John Abraham, and he is nearing the end of his most recent contract and will be 35 on May 6th. Ray Edwards was released during the regular season. Kroy Biermann is best as a rotational player. Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi look like special-teamers at this point. Lawrence Sidbury has failed to develop after showing some flashes earlier in his career and should be allowed to move on in free agency. Both the draft and free agency are deep in edge rushers this year, though I might look to free agency to get a proven player. Guys like Michael Johnson (Cincinnati), Cliff Avril (Detroit), Michael Bennett (Tampa Bay), and Paul Kruger (Baltimore) come to mind immediately.
The interior defensive line needs to generate more of a pass rush, as well. I like Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters as the starting DTs, and I think Vance Walker should be re-signed. Peria Jerry, on the other hand, I think should be released. He has never fully recovered from the knee injury that cut his rookie season drastically short in 2009, and likely never will. Unfortunately, he looks like a bust. Somebody like Desmond Bryant (Oakland) would be a nice pickup in free agency to play the role of situational interior rusher.
LB – the key goal here is to get better in pass coverage. Zach Miller (Seattle) and Vernon Davis (San Francisco) in the playoffs (8 catches for 142 yards and a TD and 5-106-1, respectively) weren’t the only tights ends to victimize the Falcons in 2012. Greg Olsen (6-89-1 and 4-55-1) in Weeks Four and Fourteen, Fred Davis (5-54-0) in Week Five, Brandon Myers (5-62-0) in Week Six, Jimmy Graham (7-146-2 and 4-59-0) in Weeks Ten and Thirteen, Dallas Clark (4-65-0) in Week Twelve, and Luke Stocker (3-50-0) in Week Seventeen all burned Atlanta fairly well. The only linebacker currently on the roster who isn’t a liability in coverage is Sean Weatherspoon, and that’s only because he has the speed and quickness to recover from mistakes he makes in instincts and technique. The other starting ‘backers, Akeem Dent in the middle and Stephen Nicholas on the strongside, are far better run defenders than pass defenders. Robert James is a special-teamer. Mike Peterson should be allowed to move on in free agency. Possible free agents to look at bringing into the fold are Philip Wheeler (Oakland), Dannell Ellerbe (Baltimore), and Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland).
DB – another position of strength for the Falcons. While Dunta Robinson will never live up to the contract he signed, he’s a legit NFL starting corner. Asante Samuel turned out to be an excellent acquisition. Robert McClain and Chris Owens really stepped up as nickel and dime backs. Yes, they could do better than Dominique Franks, but a #5 CB / PR is a fairly low priority.
Brent Grimes? Yes, it would be nice to bring him back, but he’s coming off a major, season-ending Achilles injury, will soon be 30 (July 19th), and will likely be expensive to retain. If he’s willing to take a “hometown discount” and sign some sort of incentive-laden deal, great. If not, let him move on.
At safety, the team’s highest priority free agent to retain must be SS William Moore. He and FS Thomas DeCoud were both Pro Bowl alternates this past season. Charles Mitchell and Shann Schillinger are basically special-teamers. I don’t mind letting Chris Hope go in free agency as long as a good #3 safety who can play both free and strong safety can be found to replace him.
ST – Atlanta is also in very good shape here, for the most part. Matt Bryant has become one of the most accurate, clutch kickers in the league over the past few years. Matt Bosher has developed nicely as a punter and kickoff specialist. Jacquizz Rodgers is a good (though not great) kick returner. The coverage teams are solid. Punt returner is the only obvious flaw.