It may not include as many names as last off-season, but the Atlanta Falcons are on the clock as to whether or not they intend to keep their soon-to-be free agents before they hit the open market. A good rule of thumb is to keep your guys well before the free agent frenzy starts, because anything and everything can happen. Last off-season saw the Falcons keep a great core together including Kroy Biermann, Jason Snelling, John Abraham, Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez, Thomas DeCoud, Michael Palmer, Antone Smith, and franchise tagging Brent Grimes. It may not be the flashiest and most exciting thing in the world to just keep your own players and not spend big on new ones, but that strategy yielded the Falcons one of their best in franchise history, coming up only 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.
The big names include William Moore, Sam Baker, and Brent Grimes, but there’s a slew of other players that have also been vital to the Falcons success. Vance Walker, Chris Owens, Garrett Reynolds, and Lawrence Sidbury are also set to hit the open market if deals aren’t done in the next week. The Falcons also have Michael Palmer as a restricted free agent as well as Robert McClain as an exclusive rights free agent. The Falcons organization may let some of their players test the market before bringing them back to Atlanta after all is said and done. Harry Douglas, Jason Snelling, and John Abraham were all allowed to test the market before they came back to the Falcons for a fair deal. However, anything can happen once the deadline passes. A look at the soon-to-be Falcons free agents………
Age: 27 (turns 28 in May); 38 Games Started
Career Stats: 203 tackles, 25 passes defensed, 11 Ints, 5 FF, 1.5 sacks
Moore is the biggest name this off-season for the Falcons to keep. Moore just had his best season and was named to his first Pro Bowl, alongside his safety partner Thomas DeCoud. And that was done with missing 5 games due to injury. Even though injury issues have plagued Moore throughout his young career, this one is simply a no-brainer in terms of keeping the former Missouri Tiger. Moore brings a tenacity, toughness, and play-making ability that the Falcons sorely need to build around. He is good in run support and has an eye for the ball. The Falcons operate on a different level when he’s back there roaming around the secondary.
He had good years in the past, but he seemed to flourish in Mike Nolan’s more aggressive approach and will likely only get better with more time in the system. While it’s true you can’t keep every single player you ever draft, the best teams make sure they find a way, any way, to keep players franchise players. Safety was easily the best part of the Falcons defense, and most of that was done with an extremely anemic pass rush. Just think how good he can be with a halfway decent one. All signs are good that the Falcons will get Moore signed before he hits the open market. The Falcons decided not to use the franchise tag on Moore and that seems to have paved the way for good negotiations. The tag number is close to $7 million dollars and Moore will probably be looking to secure something around the $5 to $6 million dollar a year range. He likely won’t be getting Tory Polamalu ($7.5 mill), Antrell Rolle ($7 mill), or Eric Berry ($7 mill) money as his base salary, but he’ll likely be looking at a Tyvon Branch and Eric Weddle ($6 mill) contract. He also could have a decent amount of incentives, such as staying healthy, that could boost his deal up any further. Surely, it’s just a matter of time before Moore is locked up.
Age: 27 (turns 28 in May)
Career Stats: 57 Games Started
It’s funny the difference a year can make in the NFL. Last year, Baker was the biggest target for fans ire and many wanted to see him gone immediately, and based on his 2011 play, that wasn’t entirely crazy. However, Baker turned in quite possibly the best season of his 5 year career on the Falcons offensive line at left tackle. For once, Baker wasn’t the main culprit of the offensive line in allowing pressure on Matt Ryan. That was mostly reserved for Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure. It’s no coincidence that two of the Falcons best years, 2010 and 2012 that saw them win their division and lock up the NFC #1 seed, came when Baker was fully healthy and started every regular season game. Only a year ago, Baker was left as roadkill, but credit Coach Mike Smith big time on this one because he didn’t give up on Baker and said that injuries caused his lack of production. He was proven right in 2012 and it seems to be a win-win for everyone.
It’s hard not to think that the Falcons won’t try to keep Baker. And while he may not be Jake Long or Joe Thomas, he is a very serviceable left tackle that did a very good job of protecting Matt Ryan last season. He will only be 28 when the season hits and keeping a solid left tackle in tow for the next 5 years or so would be an amazing luxury. The big question will come down to price. How much is Baker looking for and how much are the Falcons willing to pay him. Baker was helped recently by some other big name tackles who could command more being franchise tagged. Both Branden Albert and Ryan Clady received the franchise tag. On one hand, it seems to drive Baker’s stock up with two big names being taken off the market. But on the other hand, those are two less names to drive up the overall price. Tyson Clabo signed a 5 year / $25 million contract a few years ago with $11.5 million of it being guaranteed. Clabo was coming off a Pro Bowl season, which Baker is not, but Clabo is a right tackle and left tackles usually command more. He had two down years with injuries and 3 solid ones. It’s hard to imagine Baker asking for, much less receiving, much more than $6 million. However, Doug Free signed a contract worth $7 million a year with the Cowboys and he’s not much better than Baker.
Age: 29 (turns 30 in July); 43 Games Started
Career Stats: 254 tackles, 56 passes defensed, 13 Ints, 1 FF
This one is the big mystery. The natural assumption is that the Falcons will look to keep Grimes since they cut Dunta Robinson. It always seemed to be a mutually exclusive choice between Grimes and Robinson and the Falcons now have a huge hole in their secondary. In fact, Asante Samuel and Dominique Franks are the only cornerbacks under contract on the roster. It’s likely the Falcons will keep Chris Owens and Robert McClain, but neither project to a frontline starter. Some believe that Grimes will only be looking for a one year “prove-it” contract before getting a longer (and likely) higher deal, especially after getting a $10.21 million franchise tag in 2012.
Others think that Grimes will be looking to cash in on one last contract as he will be turning 30 this summer as well as coming back from major injury. The last report that came through during the combine was that Grimes was still not even running outside as of yet. The Falcons would surely like to keep him since A) they have a major need and, B) he’s been developed as an undrafted free agent since the Falcons signed him back in 2006.
It’s going to be extremely interesting to see how the Falcons let the Grimes situation play out. They could let him test the market and go from there accordingly, but they also could be out of luck since it only takes one team to take a chance on him. Who knows exactly how the relationship is with Grimes, his agent, and the Falcons after last year’s franchise tag. Grimes may not be the only answer to filling the empty CB spot, but at the moment it seems the most logical. Flowery Branch could always try to bring back Dunta Robinson at a lower rate as well once the market has settled. The contracts for cornerbacks are all over the place. Nnamdi Asomugah is due to make $15 million this year if he’s not cut. Brandon Carr just signed a 5 year / $50 million deal with the Cowboys last season, and even Antoine Winfield is due to make over $7 million with the Vikings in 2013. The only major wrench in the debate is how teams will feel about Grimes injury and subsequently committing a large amount of money to that.
Age: 25 (turns 26 in April); 58 Games, 11 Games Started
Career Stats: 79 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 passes defensed, 2 FF
While Moore, Baker, and Grimes are the big names in this year’s off-season free agent list, Walker might be one of the most important. The former Georgia Tech product is likely one of the more underrated Falcons on the entire roster. A former 7th round draft pick who has turned out to be one of Dimitroff’s very best picks in 5 years. He may be considered a role player, but Walker has surely and steadily worked his way up the depth chart, moving from barely making the roster to being the 3rd D-Tackle in the rotation. He even started 9 games this year.
Keeping Walker has Dimitroff written all over it. He has been invaluable to the defensive line with both Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters suffering injuries at some point the last few years. The belief among most is that the Falcons will be moving to the 3-4 and Walker figures permanently not just in the rotation, but as a potential starter at one of the 5-technique spots if in fact they do convert. Dimitroff has done a great job of keeping his core together and Walker is one of the linchpins of that core. While Walker may not garner much interest in the free agent market, at least until the first frenzied wave passes, he likely will be in line for a decent little payday. Even though Jason Snelling was kept for a 3 year, $4 million dollar deal, Walker is likely to be closer to Kroy Biermann’s 3 year / $9 million deal. It’s very reasonable to think that Walker will get somewhere in the vicinity of $2 million.
Age: 26; Games: 59, Games Started: 12
Owens seems to be the forgotten man in the secondary behind William Moore and Brent Grimes, but he’s yet another one of the core pieces that have played a part in the Falcons recent success. While some may always remember Owens for his poor performance in the “Debacle in the Dome” vs. the Packers, he has been an overall very solid cornerback. Has he developed in a full-time, starting level cornerback? No. But he has been an excellent role player who has provided excellent depth as a Falcon. Some believe that since Owens hasn’t taken hold of one of the starting spots that it was a bad pick, but that might be a little short-sighted.
It’s often forgotten that Chris Owens was manning one of the cornerback spots very well that helped Atlanta win the final three games in 2009 to break the “back-to-back” curse once and for all (a stretch that included beating the New York Jets on the road, who later went to the AFC Championship game that year). That curse may seem trivial now, but it was a huge deal at the time for a very vulnerable franchise. The former San Jose State product looked much more comfortable and seemed more like his 2009 self under Mike Nolan’s new scheme. It just makes too much sense because it shouldn’t take too much to keep him. Maybe something similar to Jason Snelling’s $1 million per year type of deal. Also, he has shown enough potential to keep at the very young age of 26.
Age: 27; Games: 48, Games Started: 0
Career Stats: 17 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 Def. TD
The vast majority of Falcons fans believe that Sidbury is as good as gone. And there’s really nothing to base any evidence to the contrary. A look at his stat sheet makes essentially renders him a ghost. The following is all the slam dunk facts that Sidbury likely won’t return to Atlanta. He has 17 total tackles in 4 years. He has never started a game since becoming a pro, and this on a team with one of the worst pass-rushing units in the NFL the last 4 years. He hasn’t had that long-awaited “breakthrough” playing under two different defensive coordinators. He even got leap-frogged by 2nd year pro Cliff Matthews and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi this season when Ray Edwards was cut. You’d be crazy to bet on the Falcons bringing back a player who might as well been a ghost the past 4 years.
However……..there’s just a gut feeling that many fans have that the Falcons could bring him back. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but anyone who notched the most sacks in a season not named John Abraham the past five years clearly should at least be considered. If Atlanta stays in the 4-3, then it’s a lock he’s gone, but with Abraham’s release the belief among many is that a move to the 3-4 is in store. In that case, Sidbury would seem like a perfect fit as a rush outside linebacker with his enormous athletic ability. Like Walker, Owens, and other role players, it’s hard to believe that Sidbury will command a large amount of interest due to his lack of production, so the Falcons could likely keep him for fairly cheap, perhaps on an incentive laden contract. More than likely it was a case of unrealized potential (for whatever reason), but fans can still hold out hope for one more try until another teams signs him.
((((Scratch all that. D. Orlando Ledbetter just wrote an article on how Sidbury can’t wait to leave Atlanta. Mike Smith better hope he doesn’t blow up somewhere else, because this is all on him)))))
Rest of post coming soon……..
Age: 25 (turns 26 in July)
Career Stats: 27 Games, 13 Games Started
Like a few others, Reynolds is another player that is quietly hitting the free agent market this season. The former Tar Heel has had a mixed bag in his first four years. He played right tackle exclusively all through college and reportedly even in high school. Many thought he was simply being groomed to take over for Tyson Clabo one day. But in an open competition to fill the hole left behind at right guard by Harvey Dahl, Reynolds won the job outright in 2011. It was an up and down start for Reynolds before he finally gave way to Joe Hawley in the starting lineup.
Another competition in 2012 yielded Reynolds winning the starting job again, this time beating out 2nd round draft pick Peter Konz. This experience was a much better one, seeing Reynolds hold up at right guard while the Falcons got off to a blazing start. He was injured during the 6th game and was later placed on injured reserve. The injury and early exit kind of leaves Reynolds as a question mark. One season saw him get off to a really good start before falling to injury. But only a season ago saw him get replaced. The Falcons should want to keep Reynolds because he could be a perfect replacement for Tyson Clabo at right guard, who will be 32 himself this fall.
If nothing else, Reynolds has been an superbly versatile offensive linemen who could either compete for the RG spot again (assuming Konz moves to center), or bide his time until Clabo hangs them up / declines. A contract may break down similar to what they signed Will Svitek to a few years ago. A deal for 2 years / $3 million with half of it guaranteed. They obviously would make it more years since he’s younger and he could play into future plans, but $1 million per year seems about right. Hard to think they’ll let go of such a versatile linemen as they are finally solidifying a long nightmare position.
Age: 24 (turns 25 in July);
Games: 31 (16 – CAR, 15 – ATL), Games Started: 5 (2 – CAR, 3 – ATL)
Career Stats: 77 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 1 int
The Falcons may have found themselves another Brent Grimes, and maybe even a replacement for him someday. Robert McClain came out of nowhere after being cut by the Panthers after his rookie season. He caught on with Jacksonville, but logged no playing time. He caught on with the Falcons and surprised everyone by making the roster. He was forced into action vs. the Broncos in the second game of the season after Grimes was injured for the year in week 1. Literally, his first play of the game and the season as a whole saw him pick off the great Peyton Manning.
McClain became the de facto nickel back and even started 3 games for the Falcons in a very transient secondary. Many believe that McClain may even be competing for a starting position sooner than later and keeping both he and Owens seems a must at this point and would form a good solid pair of young and talented cornerbacks to build around. The only other cornerbacks under contract on the roster are Asante Samuel and Dominique Franks. An exclusive rights free agent means that he is a two year veteran and cannot negotiate with other teams. The only “free” part about it is that the player is free to quit. If the Falcons offer him the league minimum, he has to take it. However, going over the league minimum may lead to a smoother path on keeping him when he is actually is due to hit the market. (thanks to http://football.calsci.com/FreeAgency.html for the good info).
Career Stats: Games -53; 23 rec, 123 yards, 3 TDs
Believe it or not, Michael Palmer has been with the Falcons for 3 years. The former Parkview product was signed as an undrafted free agent and has been one of Dimitroff’s best UDFA signings. Palmer, and really any tight end not named Gonzalez, has been completely overlooked, but he has firmly cemented his place on the roster as the backup TE to future Hall of Famer. Palmer won’t even be confused with Rob Gronkowski, but he’s been a very good #2 tight end: sure hands, chain mover if needed, and great blocker.
If Gonzalez does retire and the Falcons don’t replace him in free agency or the draft, than it’s very feasible that Palmer will split some time with Chase Coffman at tight end. Coffman definitely has more pass-catching ability, but Palmer adds a nice complement. The two offer a nice combination together. Palmer is a restricted free agent and he technically could negotiate with other teams, but even so, the Falcons have any final chance to match any other offers.
Career Stats: 195 Games, 198 Games Started
A book could be written about McClure and how awesome of a Falcon he’s been. He’s started almost 200 games for the Atlanta Falcons and one of their best all-time players and overall leaders. There’s a good chance he’ll be hanging next to Jeff Van Note someday in the Ring of Honor. But it’s simply time to move on. He signed a 1 year contract worth $990k well after the free agency period began last year. Maybe it was their plan all along to have him start, but father time has caught up with him. He’s still a great leader on the OL, but his physical skill set has diminished.
It’s time to build this offensive line for the future and McClure’s road has come to an end. There’s a chance the Falcons could bring him back for depth purposes, but knowing Coach Smith, if that happens than he’ll probably be starting again in 2013. But that doesn’t mean he should.