As the Atlanta Falcons approach the 2012 off-season, one of the most interesting points to follow is how much the Birds roster, which has been extremely stable the last four year, will change. Those very few changes made a lot of sense when the Falcons were believed to be “right on the cusp of greatness.” But going 0-3 in the playoffs, including 2 straight embarrassing blowouts, has prompted the belief that its time for a minor overhaul of the roster.
The Falcons have a large amount of their own players set to become unrestricted free agents, 17 to be exact, which includes a large portion of key players from Dimitroff’s first draft. In the season review press conference, the Birds GM talked about their being “no sacred cows, tough decisions, & 8 or 9 guys which to build around.” In addition to having a limited amount of cap space, Dimitroff also has no 1st round or 4th round pick due to the Julio Jones trade. Your task today: which 8-9 free agents should they re-sign?
**Note: A more detailed analysis on each free agent will follow in coming weeks leading up to free agency.***
C Todd McClure, QB Chris Redman, WR Eric Weems, WR Harry Douglas, TE Michael Palmer (exclusive rights), RB Jason Snelling, RB Antone Smith (Exclusive Rights), TE Reggie Kelly, OL Kirk Chambers, C Brett Romberg and LS Joe Zelenka.
LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, CB Brent Grimes, S Thomas DeCoud, DE Kroy Biermann, CB Kelvin Hayden, S James Sanders, DT Vance Walker (Restricted), and LB Mike Peterson.
(In Order of Importance)
This one’s the biggest no-brainer of them all. If Matt Ryan is the leader and captain of the offense, Curtis Lofton means the same amount to the defense. Lofton was selected in the 2nd round of Dimitroff’s first draft and has emerged as the heart and soul of the defense. Lofton has started every single game except one since his rookie year and has experienced a major overhaul at the linebacker position.
He is the only player to remain since 2008. Known initially as a throwback middle linebacker who would track down and tackle everything in his path, Lofton has emerged as a playmaker at middle linebacker where he has improved in pass coverage and shown an excellent ability at getting to the quarterback.
Lofton recorded a career high 147 combined tackles this year (492 in his short and esteemed career) and his 7 passes defensed is further evidence of his improved play in coverage. One of the Falcons greatest strengths is their linebacker corps including Lofton, Sean Weatherspoon, and Stephen Nicholas, not to mention impressive rookie Akeem Dent and Spencer Adkins, who looked good in limited playing time. Put simply, Lofton is one of the most important players on this Falcons squad and is only 25 years old. Anything less than making Lofton a Falcon for life and rewarding him for his work ethic, toughness, and leadership, is unfathomable.
Some think that Douglas will try the open market and attempt to become a #2 wide receiver in the NFL. He certainly has the ability to do so, but the idea of him going to receiver-starved Jacksonville to play for the man, Mike Mularkey, who did such a poor job integrating him into the offensive gameplan, is hard to imagine. Douglas may not have blown up the way many thought he would after his impressive rookie year, but that has nothing to do with him or his ability.
If used correctly, Douglas can be one of the best and most dangerous receivers in the NFL. He recorded the best hands in the 2011 season of all Falcons receivers, even though he didn’t get near the amount of looks and offensive inclusion he should have.
It will be tough for Dimitroff to hold onto him if he has his heart set on being a number 2 receiver, but he has to do whatever it takes to give another coordinator a shot at having Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas at his disposal in the passing game. With Douglas, the Falcons have arguably one of the best receiving corps, at least in terms of potential, in the National Football League. Dimitroff should overpay if he must. For comparison, Green Bay found a way to hold onto James Jones last off-season and he’s considered their #4 receiver.
This is mainly contingent on the belief the Falcons will part ways with Michael Turner. The Falcons have had the luxury of Jason Snelling and his versatility the last several years, without ever truly tapping his deep potential. Snelling has done it all for the Falcons including being a feature back when needed (remember him stepping in for Turner in 2009), a 3rd down back, an excellent receiving back, and even a fullback. Snelling tested the market and didn’t find much last off-season.
Along with Douglas in the past and Jacquizz Rodgers this year, Snelling seems to have been a victim of underutilization playing for Mike Mularkey. His numbers aren’t eye-popping and evidently no teams were willing to take him on as their feature back, but Snelling deserves his shot in Atlanta after paying his dues and offering more potential, versatility, and youth in the run game. He just turned 28 in December, but has limited wear and tear due to his under use while in Atlanta.
Many fans believe that it’s time to part ways with Michael Turner. Snelling has helped to build that argument because he’s seemed to run harder and surely offers more in the passing game than Turner does. If the Falcons do decide to let Turner go, than Snelling is a must re-sign. Maybe he’s not a feature back, but he wouldn’t have to be with the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers. Snelling would also be an player to help in the transition from Turner to Rodgers and any new running back they would draft. Sure, it would be a risk, but Snelling has proven he can perform well in the backfield when asked to. If anyone questions his toughness and commitment, he reportedly continued to play in the playoff game even after he broke his jaw during the game.
Outside of Brent Grimes, Abraham is the trickiest one to figure out. He’s been the sole provider of sacks and pressure for the last 5 years and he’s done a darn good job of it with little to no help. After his masterful year in 2010 with 16.5 sacks, Abraham seemed to drop off some in 2011. As with the other players, that likely was the result of a predictable and vanilla defensive scheme asking too much of Abraham with no big defensive tackles to take away double-teams. Like Lofton, it’s kind of a no-brainer on whether the front office and fans alike want him back, but the issue of his age (turning 34 in May) and how big of a contract he desires cloud the prospects of him returning.
Like most free-agents-to-be, the player’s asking price will play a big part in whether they return to Atlanta or move on somewhere else. That is especially true of Abraham. If he would accept a 2-3 year deal worth around 7 million per year to retire a Falcon, while being used sparingly under Coach Smith as he has the last 4 years, there’s a good chance he’ll be back.
However, if he is looking to max out at all costs for his last contract of his career, than he may be gone. It’s hard to believe the market would set a high demand for an aging defensive end, but all it takes is one team. Some thought the Mike Nolan hire meant the end for Abraham in Atlanta with the potential move to a 3-4, but after Nolan stated his desire to stay in the 4-3, Abraham’s chances spiked significantly. The Falcons surely want him back, but it’s hard to believe they’ll overpay with so many other areas needing help.
Many or even most may disagree with this selection, but bringing back DeCoud makes sense on several levels. Like several other defensive players who’ve gotten a bad rep (Robinson, Owens, Edwards, etc), DeCoud may very well be the victim of a soft and predictable scheme that has the defensive backs in a hole even before the ball was snapped. DeCoud has had his struggles in coverage for sure, but asking your DB’s to cover talented receivers for an eternity with little pressure after already being backed off them 10, 15, and 20 yards is a little bit ridiculous. Perhaps DeCoud is more to blame than simply being a victim of a bad scheme, but he showed a great deal of talent in his first year as a starter.
That talent led many to think that DeCoud was on the verge of a Pro Bowl worthy year. After his breakout in 2009, DeCoud has been middling around and has taken several steps back. During his time as a starter, he’s seen major changes at strong safety and at cornerback, coupled with not using his excellent blitzing ability as a part of his game. DeCoud’s demand shouldn’t be very high so the Falcons should be able to re-sign him for a reasonable deal while also giving him a chance under a proven defensive coordinator.
Finally, the simple fact remains that with limited draft picks and space under the salary cap, there’s only so much you can fix in one off-season. And while DeCoud’s play has left a lot to be desired at times, the pairing with William Moore at safety is not nearly on the level of importance as say the offensive line is. Bringing back DeCoud would allow them a chance to see if he is in fact a main cog to build around, while also drafting a safety to groom under him. He also led the team in interceptions with 4 and was tied for 12th in the NFL.
Weems earned $1million dollars and was really only used as a kickoff and return man. He was technically slotted as the Falcons #4 receiver, but if Harry Douglas had a hard time getting involved in Mike Mularkey’s offense, than Weems getting involved bordered on fantasy. Weems had an excellent season in 2010 and made the Pro Bowl as a specialist (not as a returner) and has proven to be a superb special teams player.
He had some rough outings this year when not fair catching correctly or deciding to fair catch when he had room to run, but he’s shown to have great speed and athleticism. As with all involved, it depends on what Weems is looking for, but any significant monetary commitment should also have the promise of getting him involved in the passing game with his quickness and speed. Weems would continue his run as kick and punt returner, while also solidifying the Falcons passing attack, receivers 1 through 4.
Assuming the price would be reasonable, Sanders would be an excellent re-sign for depth and experience for the Falcons defensive backfield. With his ability to play both positions and blitz in an aggressive system, Sanders seems a good fit for Mike Nolan’s defense. Sanders would be the ultimate protection for backing up Thomas DeCoud while also being available to fill-in for the oft-injured William Moore if needed.
Bringing back both DeCoud and Sanders may not seem to make much sense, but Sanders hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2008, so his price couldn’t be too high. Having Sanders, DeCoud, and Moore would solidify a backfield mixed with youth, potential, and veteran leadership, while also allowing the Falcons to draft a 4th safety to groom for the future. Sanders also just turned 28 last November.
Hayden coming back is almost completely dependent on their decision to either re-sign Brent Grimes or let him walk in free agency. Hayden played very well in his limited time in Atlanta and even came away with two interceptions. Of course Hayden’s big problem has been his major trouble with staying healthy. He only appeared in 8 games in 2011 and didn’t see the field again after the Tennessee game on November 20th.
The Falcons are financially committed to DUnta Robinson and look to build around Dominique Franks and surprising rookie Darrin Walls. Chris Owens has earned himself a spot on the roster as well, even if he doesn’t play the nickel role. If they bring Grimes back (which seems pretty unlikely at this point), than Hayden definitely will be allowed to move on. But if they let Grimes go, Hayden would be a good re-sign for insurance purpose. Hayden would turn 29 before the season started and time is running out on him.
Since the Falcons were one of the only teams to take a chance on him, he may try and reprove himself here in Atlanta in a new defense with no clear pecking order at cornerback. His deal could be mainly contingent on a roster signing bonus, where he would have to prove he’s capable of kicking the injury bug and make the 53 man roster.
This one’s a really tough call as well and is likely dependent on the return of John Abraham. Biermann has been the consummate player and teammate since his time in Atlanta. He improved himself out of sheer work ethic and determination to go from a potential 3-4 outside linebacker at 240 lbs. to a 4-3 defensive end at 260+ lbs.
He burst on the scene as a rookie on special teams and even collared 2 sacks with limited snaps. He improved his prospects even more in 2009 with 5 sacks and led many fans to believe he was on the verge of something special. 2010 saw him start 14 games at defensive end, but wind up with 3 sacks. He garnered 2.5 sacks this year, but was replaced by Ray Edwards in the lineup and saw many of his snaps be taken away by Lawrence Sidbury.
He is extremely athletic for a big man, where he’s intercepted passes in consecutive years and taken them for a touchdown each time. Much like Abraham and others, it will depend on what Biermann is looking for in a deal. He doesn’t really project as a 4-3 starting defensive end, but could be an excellent asset as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker, even though it’s been stated they are staying a 4-3. He’s the ultimate teammate who helps out on special teams and even kicked off in a pinch, but if the Falcons bring back Abraham, it’s likely they would let Biermann go with Edwards, Sidbury, and even Cliff Matthews higher on the priority list.
**Didn’t include exclusive rights free agents since they are only allowed to negotiate with the Falcons.**
Next blog post will include analysis of players they will/should let walk and why
-Choose the 8 or 9 free agents the Falcons must re-sign
-Give your list of who they SHOULD re-sign
-Also give your list of who you think they WILL re-sign, if its different
-What kind of contracts should they offer