It’s heaven again: Atlanta Falcons football has officially returned! Gone are the days of being on pins and needles on whether or not the NFL and Falcons would return or if any of the season would be missed. There will be plenty of time to jump headfirst into the Falcons training camp, position battles, and roster spots, but we would be remiss if we didn’t reflect on the insanely quick off-season that was. Give your grades for the Falcons off-season moves and the job that Thomas Dimitroff did.
Ray Edwards – A+
The only Falcons true free agent signing was a master stroke by Thomas Dimitroff. Everyone who has ever made any comment about football in the history of the sport said that the Falcons HAD to address their pass rush and if they didn’t, they were in for an awful year. Well, even though the Falcons probably would’ve been ok without a defensive end signing, but TD probably made one of his best free agent strikes since becoming GM.
Even though Edwards hasn’t played a down yet, the fact that the Falcons got one of the best and most consistent defensive ends available speaks volumes for what this defense can now achieve. Edwards has had 16.5 sacks the past two years, which about quadruple or 5 times the amount that the defensive line not named Abraham has had in that same time frame combined. Edwards is only 26 and was ranked as one of the best overall defensive ends by ProFootballFocus.com. The icing on the cake was the amount. After the Panthers paid about half their salary cap to Charles Johnson, TD inked Edwards for exactly half (12 million a year vs. 6 million) of what the Panthers paid Johnson. Well done sir!
Tyson Clabo – A+
Arguably the biggest potential free agent was Clabo, who just made his first Pro Bowl and was considered the best offensive lineman on the Falcons extremely consistent OL over the years. There was some worry that Clabo would try and cash in as on a big payday and bolt town, especially when there was news that Buffalo was making a strong play for the right tackle. In the end, the Falcons kept their bedrock on the right side after agreeing to an extremely fair deal. Clabo got locked up for 5 years at $25 million a year. The Falcons wanted to keep Clabo and he wanted to stay in Atlanta: a perfect win-win.
Harvey Dahl – A-
Fans knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but how many of the three offensive linemen wouldn’t be retained on the model of consistency OL. In reality, the Falcons excellent consistency (Clabo, Blalock, and McClure haven’t missed a start), was just too good to be true and they benefited for a long time by being one of the more underrated offensive lines in the NFL. The secret was out after the 13-3 season and doing so well in rushing and passing categories. Dahl’s contract details haven’t been released, but the writing on the wall came when TD drafted Mike Johnson in the 3rd round with the assumption that he would be starting sooner rather than later.
It’s very unfortunate that Dahl is leaving, but he continues the Billy Devaney-Falcons-Rams connection and is going to a team on the rise. Even though Dahl was ranked by some as the best of the 3, he was probably the best to lose. Blalock is younger and more versatile and guards are much easier to find than bookend tackles like Clabo.
Stephen Nicholas – A
One of the most underrated signings of the free agency period. Yes, some believe that Nicholas isn’t that great and that the Falcons should have pursued other options, but this may turn out to be one of the best. Nicholas hasn’t made the impression of being the next Ray Lewis, but he has shown major flashes and owns, by far, the highest sacks total in one year (3) by any linebacker under the Smith/Dimitroff regime.
Another reason this was a must was due to the lack of options if they didn’t re-sign him. They could have gone with Mike Peterson at the age of 35 for an entire season, gone with an unproven player like Spencer Adkins or Robert James, or dipped into an extremely weak OLB free agent pool. Nicholas was signed for a very fair contract at 17.5 million for 5 years. Finally, this absolutely confirms that the starting linebacker corps will be Nicholas, Curtis Lofton, and Sean Weatherspoon. This gives the Birds their most athletic LB corps in a long time. Whether Smith and Van Gorder use them correctly is another major issue.
Jerious Norwood – B-
Many will vehemently disagree with this grade, but the Falcons could have really bolstered their insurance factor at running back if they would have re-upped Norwood. It absolutely true that Norwood hasn’t been able to stay on the field for more than a few games, but you have to look at what it would have cost to keep him. Even though the official money numbers aren’t out, it’s hard to believe that the Rams paid too much since they also signed Cadillac Williams to backup Stephen Jackson.
You can understand the Falcons staff not wanting to take away carries from rookie Jacquizz Rodgers (who’s reportedly having a very good camp), but they are extremely thin at running back behind Turner and Rodgers with Snelling still remaining unsigned. Hard to imagine that Gartrell Johnson and Antone Smith are answers after Turner and Rodgers. There’s no arguing that Norwood has proven unsustainable, but it’s also hard to argue that Norwood would’ve been a high risk in terms of contract.
Michael Koenen – A+
If there was a grade higher than A+, than this would have it. Dimitroff sealed Koenen’s fate when he took punter/kicker Matt Bosher in the 6th round, but after seeing how much Tampa Bay paid him ($19 million contract), this looks like the biggest no-brainer of all time. Especially considering Koenen made 2+ million a year and was 28th in the league in punting average.
Matt Bryant – A-
Also a no-brainer after the year he had. There really was no other option and Bryant proved he could still kick after recording an excellent year filled with many last second winning kicks. The only reason this isn’t an A+ is due to the fact that he got a 4 year deal at the ripe age of 36. Did they learn nothing from the Jason Elam collapse?
Brent Grimes – A+
For all the drama surrounding Grimes this week, the bottom line is that he signed his restricted free agent deal, is now in camp, and said he “never intended not to sign.” It may be a case of simple miscommunication and Grimes has to know that he is line to get a very fair long-term deal from the Falcons front office, who have had a long history of being rewarded for great play and leadership (Clabo, Nicholas, White, Babineaux, Blalock).
Justin Blalock – A
Another great signing. After virtually no news regarding Blalock, it appears that it was just a matter of time of that they were just hashing out details. Blalock had the most potential and upside of all three free agents. He was drafted by the Falcons and has shown steady progress since working under Paul Boudreau. Only 27, Blalock can either continue his excellent work alongside Sam Baker on the left side, or he could move over to the right where he excelled at the University of Texas. The Falcons definitely showed how much they value Blalock when they gave him a 6 year, $38 million dollar deal. Maybe the Falcons overpaid a tad, but they locked up a core member of their OL for a long, long time.
Michael Jenkins – B
Even though Jenkins was the brunt of much criticism over the years (especially from this author), its tough to see a guy that was such a great teammate and leader in the locker room on the field leave town. Jenkins didn’t match his 1st round draft status, but he was consistent if not great. The simple truth came to bear, though, that with all the weapons on the field, Jenkins just couldn’t take advantage of the numerous one-on-one opportunities he was afforded. He was a good chain-mover, but definitely not a receiver to make plays after the catch. He even had difficulties taking advantage of his height in the red zone. If the Birds could have held onto him, they likely would have had one of the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL. Jenkins didn’t really fit the description of a slot receiver in the 3 spot and it’s insane to pay a slot receiver or 4th WR over $4 million a year. Ultimately, he just didn’t live up to his contract or draft slot, but it’s still tough to see him go and the Falcons are now relying on two players who have had ACL injuries to complete 2 of the 5 spots available.
Jamaal Anderson – A-
The amount of space written about Jamaal Anderson could fill tons of books, so there’s no need in re-hashing a point of contention that has been completely worn out. Anderson couldn’t cut it at defensive end and was thought to have a shot at becoming a force at defensive tackle. Anderson was always good at run-stuffing and his versatility of playing both DE and DT made him attractive, but with the potential of getting Ray Edwards, his $3+ million salary was unacceptable for a backup. It would have been nice to keep him on for DT, but with a solid group of Babineaux, Peters, Jerry, Walker, and Lewis, Anderson finally was expendable. Some think that Chauncey Davis may have been a better choice to go, but ultimately Anderson’s versatility wasn’t a factor anymore with Edwards on board and the depth at DT.
Eric Weems – A+
A special teams Pro Bowler looks to finally become more involved in the Falcons offense with the departure of Michael Jenkins. Weems returned two for touchdowns last year and there’s no more talk of him having to fight for a roster spot. He’s earned it on the field and hopefully will be involved in the offense.
Jason Snelling – N/A
It’s definitely a cop-out to not give a grade, but this one hasn’t been decided yet. Teams obviously didn’t have the feeling that Snelling could be a feature back, as some thought may happen. The Chiefs and Giants have both worked out Snelling, only to sign other backs after he left. The question is if the Falcons are not meeting his expectations in terms of money or if Snelling is hesitant to return with Rodgers on board.
A Nickel Back?
This seemed to be a definite need and its almost a certainty that Dimitroff will go the route he did with Brian Williams a few years back. Since the Birds only have 4 legit cornerbacks on their roster, they will need to add another cornerback. However, it may be an also ran if reports out of camp are true. There’s seems to be an epic battle going on between Chris Owens and Dominique Franks to land the nickel back spot. With their record of in-house development, don’t be surprised that any new cornerback signed won’t be a splash.
Mike Peterson – B+
Great to have Peterson back for his leadership and run-stuffing. He gives great insurance and a superb element to the locker room. Now that he’s in a backup role, this a great marriage. However, it does basically eliminate the possibility of a Spencer Adkins or Robert James making the jump and continuing their development since all 6 LB spots are spoken for (Lofton, Nicholas, Spoon, Dent, Peterson, Wire).
Sure, there were names out there that the Falcons could’ve signed or the Bird could’ve have turned into the Philadelphia Eagles, who evidently are the new Washington Redskins, and just bought every big name out there, but Dimitroff’s methodical and amazing off-season moves have absolutely resulted in the Falcons owning their deepest roster in a long time, maybe in franchise history. Dimitroff kept the core players due up for free agency and added one of the best defensive free agents available to a team coming off a 13-3 season. Each year welcomes new position battles and competitions for roster spots, but the best thing is that outside of right guard, depth at running back, and nickel back, there’s not a ton of spots open. Thomas Dimitroff is the man, plain and simple, and has given the Falcons and their fans the best, most complete roster maybe in franchise history. He also has an amazing eye for what’s to come down the road. You can bet that this time next year, TD will have plenty of money to retain Curtis Lofton, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, and Harry Douglas when they become free agents.