Kicking off our 2010 Bird Cage Off-Season, we’ll take a look at all the potential free agents the Atlanta Falcons may elect to pay or pack as the start of free agency approaches in a little over a month and a half. Thomas Dimitroff, Coach Smith, and Co. will have to make some hard decisions concerning who to try and re-sign, and who to let go. In the free agent editions, each potential free agent’s situation will be examined, along with the pros and cons associated with re-signing them or letting them walk. First on the agenda, Right Tackle Tyson Clabo.
One of the biggest question marks in this NFL off-season deals with whether or not the NFL and the Player’s Union will reach another collective bargaining agreement. The story, rules, and policies surrounding the entire situation is convoluted and complicated to say the least. The long and short basically say that unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, than 2010 will be an uncapped year in terms of free agency. However, this will actually limit free agency for much of the league. Currently, NFL players have to have played in the league at least 4 years to be eligible for free agency, but the new agreement will extend that window to 6 years instead of 4. Basically, this will actually limit free agency much more than the past. 212 players that were designated for unrestricted free agency actually will become restricted free agents, meaning their current club can match any offer and even receive compensation in terms of draft picks. Several Falcons fall into this category including Tyson Clabo.
Tyson Clabo was an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest who was originally picked up by the Denver Broncos in 2004 and made it onto their active roster for the final two games after spending time on the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants practice squads. Was signed by the Falcons in 2005 to their practice squad and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup at right guard. Next year of 2007, Clabo moved to right tackle and started 11 games. The next season under Coach Paul Boudreau’s leadership, Clabo helped pave the way to the NFL’s second leading rushing attack and assisted in sending Michael Turner to the Pro Bowl. Clabo has been a model of consistency in starting the last 43 games he’s played without injury. The right tackle is enormous at 6’6, 331 and very, very young for an offensive lineman at 28.
Clabo was the anchor of the most surprising aspect of the 2008 Falcons turnaround by protecting rookie Matt Ryan in the passing game and being superb in run blocking, paving a way for Michael Turner to hit the Pro Bowl and finish second only to Adrian Peterson on the season. The Birds, including Clabo, likely benefited from one of the weakest schedules in the league, but still sparked one of the best turnarounds in recent memory. Many thought that Dimitroff might go the way of re-upping Clabo during the season the same way they did with Jonathan Babineaux and Michael Jenkins. With plenty of money to spend, the silence in the negotiations with Clabo and the Falcons have been deafening. “There have been no talks of . . . contract extension,” Clabo said. The question remains: is Dimitroff simply waiting for the contract/collective bargaining situation to be resolved? Or does TD, Smitty, and Boudreau know something we as fans don’t?
The right tackle had a less than stellar year this season with a much tougher schedule. Although some of the issues with the running game may have been play-calling or the running backs, Clabo had difficulty living up to the standard he set for himself in 2008. Clabo may have kept up in run blocking, but took a step back in pass blocking. He was beat many times by defensive ends, Stylez White 2.5 sack performance comes to mind, and didn’t have the same dominance in the rushing attack he had in 2008.
Tyson Clabo was a huge success story going from skipping around to practice squads to finally being developed by the Falcons to legit starting right tackle. He is a fierce power in the run game and helped to jolt Michael Turner to almost 1,700 yards rushing, 17 TDs, and the Pro Bowl and the Atlanta Falcons claiming the second best rushing attack in the NFL in 2008. Clabo pairs with Harvey Dahl to form the “Nasty Boys” combo that creates a force in the rushing attack. He may have had a dip in production, but that can be said of the entire offense and offensive line as a whole.
The guy was a practice squad-to-starter project the Falcons constructed and it would be hard to imagine letting him walk to another team. After all, the O-Line only gave up two more net total sacks than 2008 with a much, much harder schedule. If there is no new agreement put in place by March, do the Falcons match other team’s offers? The alternatives are risky and perilous. The Falcons would likely pay tons more to sign another free agent tackle if they were to go that route. The drop-off to 1st year 5th round draft pick Garrett Reynolds would likely be too significant. Although Will Svitek showed some promise filling in for Sam Baker, there’s no guarantee that would translate into a full season and be any better. At some point, you have to pay the dough for legit starting tackles in the NFL, and if history shows anything you have to run the football to win. Can a team hoping to make a serious run in the playoffs with several holes really afford to open another one?
Clabo is a huge success story, but feel-good stories don’t translate into wins in the NFL. The right tackle had a marvelous year in 2008, along with the rest of the offensive line, but most of that was due to the fact that the Falcons ran against one of the weakest schedules in the league. As was evidenced this year, when the Birds didn’t have a ton of cupcakes on the docket, they struggled to run the ball and certainly had a hard time pass blocking. The amount of sacks did see an increase, but that fact may not be entirely indicative of the hurries and pressure that Matt Ryan saw in his second year than his first. The rushing attack was not nearly as potent either and that was the main focus for the Falcons offense to be successful in 2008: run first, run second, then play-action.
Although Clabo is young, he likely will not be worth the dough that he will command. With Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo both having their contracts due up at the same time, it is unlikely that Dimitroff will be willing to fork over the money for both at the same time. Although Coach Boudreau worked his magic with Clabo, it may be the case that Dimitroff, Smitty, and Boudreau would like to give a chance to someone they scouted, chose, and drafted (Garrett Reynolds). Would Clabo be willing to move to guard, perhaps his natural position, where he can road grade defenders and not worry as much about pass protection? Unlikely, since tackles typically command more money than guards, on average. Ultimately, is Clabo worth the money he will likely command? Assuming there is no new labor agreement set in place, the Falcons hold the upper hand in possibly tendering Clabo and will be doubtful that other teams will give up draft picks for Clabo. If Clabo walks, the Falcons will have Svitek, Reynolds, and likely a 2010 draft pick to develop.