The NFL Scouting Combine is complete and free agency is only a few weeks away as the NFL off-season starts to pick up some steam. It obviously isn’t the same as the real, live games, but it can be just as exciting thinking about what the Falcons need and trying to predict what moves they plan to make over the next few months. For us Falcons addicts, it can be a great way to pass the time while also building excitement for the 2013 season.
As the raw numbers are in from the combine and you start to build your own draft board, one good way to go about looking at free agent prospects and at the players in the draft is to rank what you think the Falcons biggest areas of need are and that will give you a baseline to start from. Of course it’s entirely likely that none of what you hope will happen will actually come to fruition, but it’s still a fun exercise to help pass the time in the off-season. A look at the Falcons biggest needs at the off-season rolls along……….
It’s tough to differentiate on which is the bigger need between defensive end and defensive tackle. Like the chicken and the egg argument, these two are almost indistinguishable on which one is in greater need, but also how one is affected by the other. Even though the defensive ends have had hardly any help from their DT teammates, this one goes up first for obvious reasons. As mentioned in the very first off-season post, it’s a massive failure on all involved the last five years since Dimitroff and Smith took over to not develop one single defensive end with much of any success or potential at all.
John Abraham has been the only one providing any sort of rush for five plus seasons now. They tried to give Jamaal Anderson a chance before moving him to defensive tackle and finally releasing him. They signed Chauncey Davis to starter level money and that didn’t pan out, even though he did almost notch as many sacks in one year (4) than Anderson’s entire Falcons career (4.5). They tried to convert Kroy Biermann, who came out of Montana 6’3, 241 lbs, to an every down defensive end with his hand in the dirt to limited success. There was a Kindal Moorehead sighting at one point. 2009 even saw a defensive tackle (Jonathan Babineaux) collar more sacks (6) than then Abraham (5.5).
Three years pass before the Falcons staff really do anything more than depend on Abraham to get all the pass rush. Ray Edwards is added via free agency in 2011, but is outmatched from Lawrence Sidbury in terms of sacks 3.5 to 4. And then we arrive at 2012. And guess what the scenario is: Abraham leads the way with 10 sacks and Biermann is second with 4. Sounds eerily familiar to 2008. What makes this the biggest area of need is the fact that there’s really not a whole lot for fans to hang their hat on. Abraham will be 35 in May, Biermann should be moved to linebacker, Sidbury appears ready to catch on and blow up with some other team, and Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi have that all important “potential” with exactly zero sacks between them. It’s obviously not easy to develop all-world defensive ends or all 32 teams would have a J.J. Watt or Jared Allen, but looking at the past five years and the lack of pass rush from players not named Abraham.
In fact, Abraham pulled down the same amount of sacks (34.5) in four years tham all the other defensive ends have in five seasons, a list that includes a ton of names, many of which are no longer even on the roster (Anderson, Edwards, Davis). Five years and nary one player to take over not only one defensive end spot, but possibly two depending on Abraham’s 2013 status in Atlanta. The worst part is that there are no immediate fixes and the Falcons are razor thin on cap space.
Similar to defensive end, this has been the Jonathan Babineaux show and not much else. Babineaux has collared 18 sacks in 5 seasons and has had a turnstile next to him. All other defensive tackles that have lined up next to him over that same time period have a combined 15 total sacks. It’s hard even to imagine that all they’ve had to do is develop one other defensive tackle to pair with him. Dimitroff tried to plug that hole in 2009 with his first overall pick, but both injuries and flat out underperformance has rendered that pick a bust. Maybe it’s a little blunt, but Clay Matthews was picked only two spots later and they needed a linebacker too. While Dimitroff claims that Jerry is making “progress” in year 5, it seems like trying to dress up a bad decision.
To his credit, Dimitroff picked Corey Peters in 2010 and that has turned out to be one of his best. Peters seems to be the rock that they can build around a true frontline starter, pulling down 1 sack as a rookie and 3 sacks in his 2nd campaign. Perhaps he never overcame his off-season injury, but his less than stellar year put some doubt on his long term ability. Vance Walker may not be a starter, but he’s been the most solid and stable of defensive tackles since he’s been a Falcon. He’s really come on the last two years, pulling down 2 sacks in 2011, 3 sacks in 2012, and even started 9 games last season. In fact, the Falcons will have to pay him some decent money to keep him. Travian Robertson showed some excellent promise in preseason, only to be place firmly in Smith’s Witness Protection Program.
Babineaux enters the last year of his contract and turns 32 in October. Atlanta will likely try and keep the consummate Falcon, but he’s one of the few players who could free up cap space with limited money still owed. Other than not providing the most pressure in the league, they also rarely help out their defensive ends or linebackers by drawing double-teams or collapsing the pocket. Going forward, the Falcons have something to build around with Peters, Robertson, and Walker, assuming they keep him, but they need some front-line talent in the worst way and DT is one of the deepest positions in the draft.
This has also been a rotating turnstile since Dimitroff and Smith arrived. 2008 saw the Falcons starting rookie Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker, Keith Brooking, and Michael Boley (arguably the best defensive player in 2007) at the outside linebacker spots. Neither Boley nor Brooking were re-signed in an effort to “remake” the defense after a failed 3rd and 16 was converted vs. Arizona in the regime’s first playoff game. 2009 saw the Falcons sign veteran Mike Peterson (who could still play, but was near or over 30 years of age). Stephen Nicholas manned the other spot. 2010 and 2011 saw a combination of new 1st round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon, Peterson, and Nicholas play the outside spots and Lofton in the middle.
2012 saw Lofton allowed to leave and inserted Akeem Dent into the base 4-3 package, even though he didn’t see the field a ton. Most of this can’t necessarily be blamed on any one person, per se, because the last thing that fans think of is the playoff loss to the Niners and almost loss to the Seahawks. That game showed a major vulnerability with the Falcons linebackers covering the tight end facing the read-option offense. They actually did a very good job containing Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson on the ground, but were vulnerable vs. the pass. Much of it may be scheme or it may be personnel, but the Falcons have got to find a way to become more aggressive and dynamic from the linebacker position. In a league that’s seeing Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith rack up close to 20 sacks by themselves, the Falcons linebacking corps has never been a threat against the rusher and haven’t pulled down many interceptions either. In fact, the total number of sacks and interceptions from all the linebackers combined in the past 5 years is pretty abysmal. 20 total sacks from all the Falcons linebackers in 5 years. Aldon Smith matched that in one season. The total interceptions from the all linebackers combined in 5 years is 7. Wow. The total amount of forced fumbles from all linebackers combined is 17.
As mentioned before, some of it may have to do with scheme or personnel, but that is the exact opposite of a “playmaking linebacker corps.” Weatherspoon is the only surefire stud among the LBs. Nicholas has his ups and downs. In general, he had a pretty good year, but the playoffs is what fans remember most, and he was several steps slow there. Also, his 3 sacks from a few years past seem like ages ago. Akeem Dent showed very good progress towards the end of the year, but there’s still question marks on whether he’s a bonafide every down linebacker. The depth is not only razor thin, but essentially not even there. Biermann seems like a good candidate to move to linebacker, but they’ve given no hint of being innovative with moves like that. Robert James time should be up. He’s had five years to get something done, and nothing. A major infusion of youth, talent, speed, and playmaking ability is needed this off-season.
Sure, this isn’t as important in the grand scheme when compared to the meat-and-potatoes of a football team, but ask the Baltimore Ravens if special teams aren’t important as they polish their 2nd Lombardi Trophy. Kick returner was actually in good hands with Jacquizz Rodgers, so it’s a little unfair to include that on here. However, Rodgers seems set to take on an even bigger role in the backfield in 2013 and may need to give way to someone else if possible.
Punt returner, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Dominique Franks started getting called Fair Catch Franks as the season wore on. It’s understandable that you won’t always take the ball and run, but he would fair catch when there was plenty of room to run. He was often unsure of what to do and just was pretty awful overall at the position. Harry Douglas tried his hand at it, but that also didn’t garner much. There has to be more of an emphasis on bringing in a specialist that can turn this major weakness into a strength.
Amazing that this is ranked as the biggest need for the first time in 5 years, huh? The offensive line still is nowhere close to being dominant, but they finally have started to shore up the OL and benefit on this ranking from a pretty good performance in the playoffs. They did a superb job of protecting Matt Ryan in the playoffs and helped lead a great rushing performance against Seattle, even though not so much vs. San Francisco. This offensive line has the “potential” to be really good, but make no mistake about it, there still some major changes that should be made to become a superb OL. Justin Blalock is about the only offensive lineman that is (or at least should be) settled heading into 2013. The assumption is that the Falcons will keep Sam Baker in free agency and continue to play him at left tackle, especially since he just had arguably his best season at that spot.
Tyson Clabo will obviously be starting somewhere, whether that be his normal spot of right tackle or a move to right guard, even though as mentioned earlier, the staff has shown no tendency to make changes, get creative, or really try anything different than the status quo. Peter Konz had some trial by fire, but he was the best center in the 2012 draft for a reason, so it only makes sense to move him over to center. Todd McClure has been a wonderful Falcon, but he was one of the weakest spots on the OL and will be 36 next season. The big question yet again (big shocker) is what to do at right guard.
Lamar Holmes needs to start somewhere on this offensive line, even though there’s still disagreement among some fans on this.he 3rd round is pretty high for an offensive linemen, and if they’re not starting in their second year, than it was a bad pick. In fact, many Pro Bowl linemen are routinely taken late in the draft and developed into high caliber linemen. Although he may have been drafted for left tackle, it seems as though his best place to start may either be at right tackle, thus moving Clabo back to guard, or to simply plug the hole at right guard. Either would be a very good and beneficial move.
Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley have proven to be no more than valuable backups and seemingly weak draft picks or just not developed correctly. They both have value in case any injuries occur due to their versatility. Garrett Reynolds was having a decent start to the season before he was injured and if he’s kept, he would definitely add even more depth and versatility to the unit. Reynolds may even be primed to take over the right tackle spot as Clabo ages along. Also keep an eye on practice squad players Harland Gunn and Jacques McClendon as well. Many fans wouldn’t be upset if the Falcons took a guard early on with an ability to plug and play, but it’s finally not the catastrophe it once was.
Some will feel that this should much higher of a need since the assumption is that the Falcons will be without a feature back for the first time since before Michael Turner was signed in 2008. Even though it hasn’t happened yet, all signs are pointing to the Falcons releasing one of the best Falcons running backs in franchise history. Time, money, and production eventually catch up with all players at some point and that time has come. There’s a large debate on whether Jacquizz Rodgers can be a full-time back or not, but the fact is that the kid can play and he will only see even more touches in 2013. Mike Smith seems to be going away from one feature back to the more trending running-back-by-committee approach. It allows to not only keep the backs fresh, but add different complementary traits as well to keep defenses guessing.
Although seemingly underused, Jason Snelling is a great workhorse and extremely versatile to have. The main reason that running back isn’t higher is the known security that both Rodgers and Snelling provide, even if they aren’t front-line feature backs. The idea is that the Falcons will address the running back position either through the draft or in free agency.
Although this isn’t the deepest of running back classes, there are plenty of backs who can come in and provide the Falcons with exactly what they need while simultaneously getting younger and rebuilding the backfield. Some think that the Falcons may end up pulling the trigger on Eddie Lacy with their first pick if he’s still there, but there’s plenty of other backs who can be difference makers as well. Joseph Randle, Stepfan Taylor, and Jonathan Franklin to name just a few. There’s also speculation they could look into the free agent market as well (although they currently have no money to do that with). Steven Jackson was mentioned as looking at Atlanta in trying to win a Super Bowl and many fans would be delighted to see the big boy in red and black. As long as they don’t do something silly like bringing in Reggie Bush or Shonn Greene, than this should be an easy fix in 2013.
This one’s obviously in flux until Tony Gonzalez makes his decision on whether or not to return for one more go around. If he hangs it up, this obviously throttles to the front of the list, but it’s hard to imagine that Gonzalez would be waiting this long to say no. Whether that’s an accurate assumption or not remains to be seen, but most of the times when guys are retiring, they will do it fairly quickly after the season. If he comes back, the Falcons have yet another year to develop some guys behind him. Which leads into the next point.
There is a lot of unknown in terms of pure numbers from Chase Coffman and Michael Palmer, but they have potential (Coffman) and good experience (Palmer) in a very nice complementary setup. Some think that the Falcons will take a look at Tyler Eifert if he’s still on the board at #30, while others believe that the Falcons are prepared to roll with both Coffman and Palmer in a dual type role. It will be futile trying to replace a legend, so they may not even try.
Coffman was one of the best receiving tight ends to come out of college in recent memory when he was selected in the third round. Injuries and being stuck behind Jermaine Gresham led to his release. The potential is certainly there as evidenced in his acrobatic catch in the playoffs, but the injury history gives pause. Palmer is an excellent #2 tight end with good hands that can get you the first down and block extremely well. Together, they pair up to be a pretty formidable duo. Eifert proved he’s the best tight end in the draft in an otherwise weak year for tight ends.
Like tight end, this one is in flux too. Assuming that everything stays the same, this is a position of strength…….for now. Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, and Robert McClain formed a very nice trio of cornerbacks in 2012, especially considering the lack of pass rush from the front seven. The trade for Samuel was one of Dimitroff’s best moves and he proved he’s still got plenty left in the tank. While Robinson may not be an All-Pro and will never live up to his infamous contract, he was very, very solid both in pass coverage (for the most part) and in run defense. He arguably had his best year as a Falcon under Mike Nolan’s new scheme.
The Birds also seem to have a keeper in Robert McClain, who was a wonderful surprised playing the nickel. Even Chris Owens seem to play much better under Nolan. If the Falcons keep Samuel, Robinson, McClain, and Owens together for another year and either bring back Brent Grimes or bring in a new draft pick, this is one of the more stable positions on the team, at least for now. However, the financial details could prevent that from happening. Owens is a free agent, McClain is a restricted free agent, and Robinson could easily be a cap casualty where the team desperately needs to free up space just to re-sign some of their own (Baker, Moore, Owens, etc) and their new draft picks. And that’s not even including bringing back Gonzalez if he wants to return. If they cut Robinson, that’s another huge hole they have to fill.
It could be Brent Grimes, but he hasn’t even started running outside yet in his comeback from his injury. Dominique Franks is surely gone after a pretty poor 2013, so there should be an open slot for a new cornerback to make his mark. If it stays together, it’s stable for now. In another year or so will be an entirely different story.
As with all positions, this one is very fluid as well. If the Falcons can hang onto William Moore as he hits the free agent market, than this is one of the most stable and best performing positions on the entire team. They may still be inconsistent, but the combination of Thomas DeCoud and William Moore both earned them a trip to the Pro Bowl. Charles Mitchell looks to finally add some security and a potential player to develop after going through a turnstile of players the last few years. The other spot was held by Chris Hope, who came in and did a very good job in Moore’s long absence. If Hope doesn’t stay, Dimitroff has shown that he likes to fill the spot with a savvy veteran.
This obviously all changes if Moore is allowed to go to another team and get a max contract. All of sudden, Charles Mitchell is the given starter and they have to either venture into the highly inflated free agent market for a replacement or move yet another position up their draft board. Some have discussed moving Robinson to safety and bringing back Grimes in an emergency scenario, because even though there’s plenty of talent at safety in the free agent market (Jarius Byrd, Kenny Phillips, maybe Laron Landry), they all are reportedly looking for big deals. This is the biggest one to watch as March 12th approaches.
Julio Jones and Roddy White. Enough said, right? Well almost. The wide receivers were certainly the strength of this Falcons team. Julio Jones made his first Pro Bowl. Roddy White should have made his 5th Pro Bowl and the top two spots are secure, at least for now. White will be turning 32 soon and it’s high time to develop some younger talent under Jones and White. Perhaps no player will have a brighter spotlight on him than Harry Douglas. The Jonesboro High product and one of the nicest guys on the team will need to finally either prove his worth or make way for some younger talent.
Douglas’ career could even be summed up in two plays in the playoffs. On one hand he caught the first pass on the final drive that led to the Falcons getting the first playoff win in the Smith Era with under 32 second left. And he got out of bounds to stop the clock. That play could be a representation for his rookie year, where he dazzled in the pass game, punt return game, and even had his fair share of reverses. He was shaping up to be something special in the slot. The other side of the coin is filled with unfulfilled potential. The other play will haunt Falcons fans for a long time. Douglas was thrown a beautiful pass that had nothing but open field between him and a likely trip to play the Ravens in the Super Bowl. Untouched, he tripped and barely made the catch upon booth review. Sure, the pass went for a first down, but could’ve been so much more. He’s no young buck anymore at the age of 28 (will turn 29 in September) and it’s high time to breakthrough or give way.
Both Drew Davis and Kevin Cone are loaded with that all-important potential, but only Davis gave a glimmer of converting that into actual production. Hopefully, both will break through and we’ll find a future starter either on the outside or replace Douglas in the slot, but at least one has to make the jump very soon. Douglas, Davis, and Cone should all see continued competition from draft picks and undrafted free agents until a legit Sunday player is found, not just a special teamer.
Matt Ryan. Done
In all seriousness, the only issue is getting a new contract done making Ryan the Falcons franchise QB for the rest of his career and it being done sooner rather than later. Some believe that Ryan should face competition for his job and those individuals should buy a clue. Is he perfect? No, but he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He just needs to cut down on his turnovers in big games.
Smith and Co. should take Dominique Davis firmly out of their Witness Protection Program and put him in as the Falcons #2 immediately. Luke McCown can stay on and hold a clipboard as the emergency backup #3 QB or they can draft and develop someone else.
1) Simple Dive – give your rankings on biggest needs to least (1 – highest, 11 – lowest)
2) Ideally, who will / should be starting at DE in September?
3) What’s your ideal 5 or 6 man DT rotation on opening day?
4) How much do Falcons need to re-do their LB corps?
5) Are you surprised at the lack of “play-making” stats over the past 5 years from the LB corps?
6) Is Punt / Kick Returner too high or too low? Who should get the nod?
7) Is the OL still a high need or has it leveled out some?
8.) How would you go about changing the RB backfield?
9) What should Falcons do if Gonzalez leaves?
10) Should Falcons cut DRob or keep him? If cut, who starts?
11) What’s your backup plan if Moore leaves?
12) Is this HD’s last chance to show up?
13) Will Matt Ryan go for a Brees max contract or closer to a manageable Brady contract?