The Atlanta Falcons and their fans enter a very intriguing off-season. On one hand, this regime is by far the most productive in franchise history, making the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years. However, they are also 0-3 in the postseason, with the last two being embarrassing blowouts. Add to that the issue of 17 players set to become free agents, and this is by far the most unpredictable off-season in recent memory.
GM Thomas Dimitroff could decide that only a few tweaks are in order to get over the playoff hump, or he could take this opportunity to dramatically remake the Falcons roster for the forseeable future. In other words, Dimitroff could decide to “play it safe” or “take some risks” in regards to several positions on the roster.
This ones still a year or two away from making an assessment. Although the majority of fans still believe Matt Ryan is the franchise QB, there are some who think all that ails the Falcons is the quarterback. He does need to win in the postseason to quell the minority.
The Falcons don’t have the luxury of drafting a quarterback to groom with only a handful of draft picks in this years draft. Although its nice to have a veteran backup, the Falcons need to start grooming a young quarterback that could take over for Matt Ryan or even be in a position to move that quarterback in a trade. The Texans, Eagles, and Packers are only a few examples of teams developing young quarterbacks and have earned picks for them (Eagles – Kolb) or probably could in the future (Texans – TJ Yates, Packers – Matt Flynn).
This one seems the most likely. Even though many fans are clamoring to get more dynamic at running back, it hasn’t appeared to be in TD’s DNA to cut or trade big name veterans like Michael Turner. Throw in the fact that Coach Smith loves his power backs and its most likely the only change fans will see is more of a split in carries with Jacquizz Rodgers and perhaps an inclusion of a 3rd RB such as Antone Smith or new draft pick. Ken Strickland had a great idea of keeping Jason Snelling and moving him to fullback, but its unlikely both Turner and Snelling will be splitting carries again in 2012.
As mentioned above, it seems unlikely that Dimitroff will make a big change in the backfield for 2012, but it is a possibility. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Birds offense was its high predictability in its slow, methodical running game. If the front office wanted to take some risks to get more dynamic in the running game.
With the advent of early success from rookie running backs, the likelihood of the Falcons getting much of anything at all for Turner is very low. How many teams will want to take on a 30 year old running back that has shown major signs of slowing down, doesn’t have a burst, and will cost over $5 million dollars against the cap? They may could swing a 4th or 5th round pick, but even that seems unlikely. If they want to part ways with Turner, they will probably just have to cut him outright.
Assuming they couldn’t get any draft picks in return, they would probably be forced to go with a rotation of Snelling, Rodgers, and either Antone Smith or a late round pick / undrafted free agent for a year until they could spend a higher pick on RB in 2013.
With their other needs and fairly limited cap space, its also highly unlikely they would venture into free agency for a running back. On paper, it would seem a major risk to part with Turner, but considering all three backs would be assets in the pass game, a step quicker in the run game, and saving between $5 – $7 million in cap space, its not that far-fetched. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
This one’s a little reversed. Although it would require the Falcons to spend money to keep Harry Douglas, this would by far be the safer route when it comes to offensive weapons in the pass game. It may be tough to keep Douglas as a slot receiver and a contract close to $3 million a year might be required, but if you consider the stability going forward, and more importantly the risks in not keeping him, it simply makes too much sense to keep him.
Douglas was a TD draft pick and he’s shown he can play given the chances, which were rare under Mularkey’s play-calling. He has speed, good hands, and an excellent ability of running after the catch. A contract to keep him here would be as much to keep him here as a slot as it would be to be Roddy White’s heir apparent, or at least the chance to compete for that spot. Given Whites age (30), recent drops, and his penchant for spouting off on Twitter, its a no-brainer. Finally, are you comfortable with Eric Weems or Kerry Meier taking over as a #2 WR if Roddy or Julio were injured?
The Falcons may either not be willing or able to keep Harry Douglas in Atlanta and suddenly one of the Falcons greatest strengths could turn to a thin weakness. If they allow Douglas to leave, Eric Weems seems most likely to take over the vacated slot position. Despite his good work on special teams, Weems has never proven to be an asset in the pass game. Perhaps its not all his fault playing under Mularkey, but the fact is still unchanged.
Kerry Meier has been injured both years he’s been in Atlanta and can’t really be counted on. Not to mention, like Weems, he’s never produced in the pass game. After Weems and Meier, there’s nothing more than practice squad potential that would simply be lucky to earn a roster spot.
Would it make much sense to go out and spend money on another receiver in free agency when there are so many other pressing needs? And they probably would spend more than Douglas anyway. Finally, in case you haven’t heard, the Falcons only have 2 draft picks in the first 4 rounds this year, and spending an early draft pick on a receiver seems preposterous.
Like wide receiver, tight end is a little reversed in terms of what’s safe and what’s risky. The safe route actually is for Dimitroff and Co. to go ahead and draft Tony Gonzalez’s heir apparent with either the 2nd or 3rd draft pick at his disposal. Some of the best tight ends in the game were all taken in the 2nd (Rob Gronkowski), 3rd (Jimmy Graham), and 4th (Aaron Hernandez). Even though offensive line is by far the biggest need, the Falcons front office will have to address some of that in free agency. The would leave the 2nd round pick for an offensive lineman (likely an OC or OG) and the 3rd round pick for a tight end to groom under Gonzalez for a year.
There are a ton of guys who should be available either in the 2nd or 3rd round when the Falcons finally do pick. If they want to anger a lot of fans and pick in the 2nd, they could have Coby Fleener, Orson Charles, or Dwayne Allen and if they’d do the correct thing and take an OL in the 2nd round, they’d still probably have a chance at Ladarius Green or Michael Egnew. The point is that it’s less risky to go ahead and draft your heir apparent than leave it up to chance and have to go through the process all over again in 2013. Michael Palmer is definitely in the Falcons future, but he also hasn’t shown that he’s anything more than an excellent #2 tight end, at least so far.
The Falcons front office could choose to pass on selecting a tight end this year and just roll the dice for 2013 after Tony Gonzalez’s likely imminent retirement. As mentioned earlier, Michael Palmer has shown good hands and decent potential in limited chances, but he’s also not shown that he is ready to take on the full-time starting role left behind when Gonzalez decides to hang up his cleats.
Dimitroff has drafted for almost every single position during his time in Atlanta, but one of the only ones he hasn’t legitimately drafted for is tight end (he signed Michael Palmer as an undrafted free agent and took Keith Zinger in the 7th round). It’s hard to say that not drafting a player amounts to a risk, but what are the Falcons waiting on if they pass once again in trying to find Gonzalez’s replacement?
Again, this one will seem reversed in terms of what should be risky and what should be safe. The idea of spending money or draft picks on players to solidify a position or create competition seems ludicrous. The exception comes into play with the Atlanta Falcons current offensive line. The Falcons offensive line has been ignored in terms of talent infusion, essentially since Thomas Dimitroff has been general manager.
Yes, he’s drafted Sam Baker in the first, Mike Johnson in the third, Joe Hawley in the fourth, and Garrett Reynolds in the fourth, among several others, but he has not hit on one offensive lineman to date that is a cog for the future on the Falcons offensive line. He re-signed Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock as future mainstays on the offensive line (both drafted or signed under different regimes). Left tackle, one of the guard spots, and the center positions are completely unsettled.
Even though new offensive line coach Pat Hill is expected to add some help with a new scheme and new techniques, the fact still remains that offensive line has been one of the most ignored in terms of talent. Dimitroff has already said that all OL positions will be open for competition and the safest route will be to infuse some new talent to compete with what’s already there. The Falcons will almost definitely spend some money on offensive line free agents, particularly looking at left tackles such as Marcus McNeill, Anthony Collins, or Demetrius Bell. The vast majority of left tackles are drafted and developed in the NFL, not taken and inserted with a late 2nd round draft pick.
If the Birds want to get really adventurous in free agency on the OL, they may even go after an offensive guard as well. With the money they’re expected to have, it’s conceivable they could also entertain potential names like guards Ben Grubbs or Evan Mathis. Considering how many free agents they need/want to re-sign, it makes the most sense to spend their first pick on guard to add to the competition mix. The Falcons offensive line has overachieved for the last 4 years and it’s simply the safest route to finally infuse new talent to the position in many different ways.
Again, it doesn’t seem to make sense talking about not spending money as the risky route to go in the off-season, but it does apply to the Falcons offensive line. The Falcons front office can decide to stay put with the players they have and hope a new offensive line coach and new scheme can make all the difference with the current players.
Even though Joe Hawley seems to be a legitimate candidate of the Falcons OL future, Mike Johnson never got a truly good look due to injury, and Will Svitek did very well in relief of Sam Baker at left tackle, to not significantly upgrade the talent on the offensive line would likely be a failed strategy.
They may decide to only add a few or even one piece to the offensive line either in the from of a single draft pick or only one OL free agent, open the competition to all spots, and hope that does the trick. Again, there seems to be no downside into “overdoing” the offensive line this time around.
Dimitroff re-upped Blalock and Clabo to legitimate contracts, but he has yet to hit on one offensive lineman in the draft or free agency that is a lock to be a part of the Falcons offensive line going forward. If they decide to go piecemeal or safe regarding the offensive line, it could be a major mistake, even if that means not bringing back Brent Grimes and John Abraham, who will be commanding insanely high salaries.
1) Should the Falcons play it safe or take risks on offense this off-season?
2) Is it time to draft a QB to push Matt Ryan?
3) Play it safe or take some risks concerning the running backs?
4) Bring back HD or let him walk?
5) Draft a tight end early this year or pass until next year?
6) Piecemeal or major infusion of talent on the offensive line?