(Part 3 of Thomas Dimitroff’s Moves will Come After Free Agency)
With a little over a week away until the free agency bonanza hits, the Falcons actually seemed more poise to make moves than they had in quite a long time. That could be a good thing (Michael Turner), a bad thing (Osi Umenyiora, Steven Jackson), or something to give fans nightmares as they head to sleep (Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards). The Falcons haven’t made many moves in free agency because they’ve recently focused on keeping their own and not needing to add much via the market.
But that was before the trainwreck of 2013 and a team that showed to have more holes than a screen door. The Falcons also happen to be in one of the most comfortable positions in terms of cap savings, AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter estimates it at $26.7 million, with the ability to create more in terms of restructuring current players contracts (Roddy White, Justin Blalock, etc) or cutting others (Thomas DeCoud, Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora, etc). There’s so many ways the Falcons could go about fixing this team, but fans will find a lot more about their direction when free agency starts. Dimitroff has taken both tacts in his past: being aggressive early on with Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson and letting the market completely settle with the likes of Steven Jackson and Ray Edwards. Even though there’s a chance the Falcons could well sit still, the lack of activity with their own impending free agents and the burden to make up for their awfulness in 2014 may see the Falcons make some moves this time around. A look at some possible free agents the Falcons could be targeting:
This is what so many outside experts thinks the Falcons “should” do to alleviate one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL the last 6 years. To be fair, it makes complete sense, but they should look more at what’s going on with their defensive tackle situation first. They have only two DT’s under contract, Travian Robertson and Adam Replogle, and neither project as frontline starters. But you never know. Greg Hardy received the franchise tag, as did OLB/DE Brian Orakpo.
Age: 27 / 5 Years / 202 Career Tackles / 26.5 Career Sacks
With Greg Hardy getting the franchise tag, Johnson immediately sprints to the top of the DE class. He’s young and loaded with potential, a rare species for pass rushers in the NFL. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012, but dwindled all the way down to 3.5 sacks when All-Pro DT Geno Atkins was lost for the year. If that sounds eerily familiar, fans remember one Ray Edwards who got back-to-back 8 sack seasons before coming to Atlanta and getting……3.5 sacks. Someone will likely overpay for Johnson and it’s just too risky for the Falcons to go for broke when they have so many holes on the roster.
Age: 28 / 6 Years / 129 Career Tackles / 23.5 Career Sacks
This seems like a good idea after the Seahawks failed to keep him Seattle, at least not using the franchise tag on him. It was a shock that he settled for such a low deal (1 year / $5 million) anyway, and even harder to imagine that Dimitroff and the Falcons didn’t even kick the tires, settling for a 32 year old Osi Umenyiora instead. Bennett only technically started 3 games last year, but was a big part of the Seahawks defensive run to the Super Bowl title. He’s averaged 9 sacks the last two years with two different teams. Bennett will probably be looking to cash in after going on a one year “prove it” contract. Hard to know what the market will look like for Bennett, but he’s definitely more of an option than Johnson.
Age: 26 / 4 Years / 220 Career Tackles / 16 Career Sacks
Houston is a very intriguing prospect who likely won’t command the top dollars like Johnson, but he could be a player in pole position for a breakout. He’s started all but 4 games for the Raiders the last 4 years and his sack total seems to be on the rise (1 in 2011, 4 in 2012, 6 in 2013). Houston could be a nice fit in an attempt to add several tough players on the lines, instead of just one. Houston is already bigger as a DE (6’3, 300 lbs) than any defensive tackle the Falcons have had in years.
Age: 30 (31 in 3 weeks) / 9 Years / 453 Career Tackles / 60.5 Career Sacks
Surely the Falcons will not elect to resurrect Giants Southeast bringing in Tuck who is only one year younger than Umenyiora, but stranger things have happened. He had a burst last year in pulling down 11 sacks on a pretty bad Giants defense, but this would the same old song and dance the Falcons have done for years in bringing in guys right at or well past their prime.
Age: 31 (32 in April) / 10 Years / 442 Career Tackles / 128.5 Career Sacks
Same with Tuck, the Falcons are in a sort of “rebuilding mode” on defense (even though they’ve essentially been in perpetual rebuilding mode for 6 years) and Allen wouldn’t do very much for that. But his consistency at getting after the passer is unbelievable and frankly unmatched.
Everson Griffen / 4 Years / 85 Career Tackles / 17.5 Career Sacks
Even though the Falcons probably will never take another defensive end from the Minnesota Vikings ever again, this could be an option if they are looking for a young player who could possible “break out” and compete against who’s already on the roster (Massaqoui, Goodman, Maponga). He’s only started one game in 4 years, but 17.5 sacks career sacks is about quadruple any Falcon not named Abraham or Babineaux and their respective totals.
Tyson Jackson / 5 Years / 209 Career Tackles / 9 Career Sacks
Like Griffen, Atlanta could look at Jackson who’s roundly considered a bust after being taken #3 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. He’s surely not been a pass rusher, but most 5-techniques in a 3-4 do the dirty work. He’s not your traditional defensive end at 6’4, 296 lbs, but he may try to revitalize his career and the Scott Pioli connections are of course there. He likely wouldn’t command much money at all on the open market.
It may not be glamorous, but this is where fans want to see the Falcons go first and foremost. After all, they have drafted 3 defensive ends the last two drafts in addition to signing one via free agency last off-season. As mentioned earlier, the only two DT’s currently signed are Robertson and Replogle. Babineaux has been good, but not great. Same goes for Corey Peters. Neither have been a #1 stud on the DL without a big body next to them. Most are begging for the Falcons to get as big and strong as possible at DT.
Age: 25 / 4 Years / 175 Career Tackles / 9 Career Sacks
Easily the most popular free agent among almost all Falcons fans. He’s the big body DT that fans have been craving for years. At 6’4, 322 lbs, Joseph could finally start a process of building the Falcons defensive line the right way. Signing a young guy like this opens up a ton of possibilities in terms of keeping their own (Babineaux, Peters) and the draft. However, fans will never get their hopes up too high until this front office or coaching staff believes it’s OK to have defensive linemen bigger than 300 lbs sopping wet.
Age: 31 (turns 32 in July) / 8 Years / 205 Career Tackles / 27 Career Sacks
Hatcher blew up for 11 sacks in year, but the same as the other past-prime free agents, why would the Falcons invest in someone who had one stellar year and is set to be 32 years old? They already have Babineaux if they decide to go that route.
Age: 30 / 7 Years / 160 Career Tackles / 4.5 Sacks
The ultimate 1 technique nose guard. Fans would feel they’ve died and gone to heaven if they signed Soliai, with his size (6’4, 340) and ability to free up other players to make plays, such as Babineaux, Peters, and a possible draft pick. He just turned 30, but he’s surely got a few more years left in him. If they can sign Umenyiora when he was 32 and Mike Peterson when he was 33, than they surely can take a chance on a just-turned 30 year old (in December) who would instantly remake this DT position.
Age: 27 / 5 Years / 5 Years / 89 Career Tackles / 15.5 Career Sacks
The Chicago Bear was one of the biggest names last year racking up 13 sacks in 2 years at DT, but he’s coming off an ACL injury after only playing 3 games in 2013. Does Melton really offer anything a whole lot different than what they have in Babineaux, except a little younger? The last thing the Falcons need is another DT with knee issues (see 2009 1st round pick).
Age: 27 / 4 Years / 120 Career Tackles / 8.5 Career Sacks
Jones is technically listed as a defensive end, a 5-technique in a 3-4 defense, but his size (6’3, 315) is easily bigger than any defensive tackle for the Falcons in 6 years. Jones may not command top pay, but he could be a very good option for the Falcons in their bid to get “tougher and more gritty” on the lines. He could be very valuable and versatile in Mike Nolan’s system.
Red Bryant (((Signed with Jacksonville)))
Age: 29 (30 in April) / 6 Years / 120 Career Tackles / 3.5 Sacks
Somehow Bryant was considered a “defensive end” in Seattle, and his numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but Bryant was a key cog in Seattle’s defense being dominant en route to a Super Bowl title. At 6’4, 323 he’s not quite your prototypical 1 technique, but he’s close. He was able to plug the middle and allow Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, the LB’s, and secondary to make plays. While he’s set to turn 30 next month, Falcons fans would convulse in joy to finally have some beef in the middle. But most won’t believe they’ll break their “not DT’s over 305 lb” rule until they see it.
Age: 28 / 6 Years / 192 Career Tackles / 7 Career Sacks
Hard to believe that Sims would be at the top of their list to bring in, since he is very similar to what they already have on roster in terms of height and weight (6’2, 310). If they decide to let Babineaux go, and sign a bigger name DT, than perhaps Sims comes in the conversation as a 2nd DT signing.
It’s hard to understand if the Falcons don’t shore up this via free agency. Since the Harvey Dahl disaster, this has been arguably the worst performing position, and certainly the most unstable, on the entire team. Sure, they could gamble and take a right guard in the second round or try to trade back and get one in the first, but when is the last time Dimitroff has traded BACK in the draft. Waiting to take one in the second would limit their options with their first. There’s really no downside at all to finally address this spot once and for all. The even better news is that there’s plenty of options here.
Age: 25 / 4 Years / 41 Career Starts
One of the two best right guards on the market, and the other is his former teammate. Asamoah (6’4, 305) has been rock solid at right guard and had nabbed the starting job in only his second year as a pro. He was rated as the 17th, 15th, and 20th best overall guard (including LG and RG) in the entire NFL the last three years. That includes last year where he only played 12 games. Some think that it may be a risk since he got “replaced” by Geoff Schwartz late in the year, but he’s light years better than anything the Falcons have had since Dahl left.
Age: 27 (28 in July) / 4 Years / 26 Career Starts
The bigger of the two chiefs, Schwartz (6’6, 340) has played both tackle and guard and ended up starting over Asamoah down the stretch, either due to an injury to his teammate or coach’s decision. Either way, Schwartz made the most of his opportunity, ranking as the 8th best among all guards in the NFL. The only other season he played mostly guard (2010), he ranked as the 16th best. He offers the ultimate in versatility, playing both guard spots and right tackle in his career. Sounds like Smitty’s “cross-training kind of guy.” Asamoah might be ranked a touch higher, but the Falcons could possibly score a homerun with this pickup.
Age: 27 / 4 Years / 62 Career Starts
Beadles (6’4, 305) may be rated lower than the Chiefs, but he has almost as many starts himself as they do combined. In fact, he’s only missed 2 starts out of 64 since being drafted. Those includes two years in keeping the best QB in the league upright and mostly clean. He ranked 21st, 73rd, 17th, and 51st respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. So, he’s definitely had some consistency issues and it will be more risky, especially considering the Falcons abysmal development system, particularly with linemen, but at least he’s shown he is capable of being good, which is already better than what they’ve had.
Age: 30 (31 in April) / 7 Years / 78 Career Stats
Colon (6’3, 315), the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler, has won a Super Bowl (2009) and been to another (2011). This would likely be a shorter term solution if they wanted to draft and develop a right guard through the draft (don’t laugh) and bring in some quality veteran experience to an OL in dire need of it. He actually played exclusively at tackle until he was moved to guard in 2012, where he’s ranked as the 35th and 36th best guard since. A Colon signing would almost have to coupled with a high draft pick, as he’s not shown to be a stud at OG.
Age: 30 (31 in July) / 8 Years / 62 Career Starts
The New York Giant doesn’t have the best resume. In fact, he didn’t earn a permanent starting job in the NFL until the last two years for the Giants. He actually rotated between center and guard this past season and graded out negative overall in both. If you’re going the “vet insurance” route, might as well go with someone who’s a little better (Colon, etc).
Age: 32 (33 in May) / 9 Years / 111 Career Starts
Wharton was a main reason that led to the Panthers huge turnaround, the NFC South title, and #2 seed in the NFC in 2013. They appear ready to part with him and he ranked as the 5th best overall guard in the NFL. Problem is, he’s set to turn 33 years old and he may be ready to hang up his cleats. Like other options, if the Falcons plan to draft and develop a guard, Wharton could be a great short term answer for a few years while the draft pick gets his legs under him.
With the news that Thomas DeCoud’s release might be imminent, this has been the hot topic for free agency. If DeCoud is ultimately released, the Falcons can ill afford to go with a rookie as a first year starter, especially with the plane crashes on the offensive and defensive lines. This may be a case of the Falcons poking around in free agency and even bringing in a “insurance vet” for competition before deciding to keep DeCoud. The big buzz is around arguably the best free agent on the market, Jarius Byrd, but can the Falcons really afford to spend big dough on another periphery player when the lines are so awful?
Age: 27 / 6 Years / 356 Career Tackles / 22 Career Ints / 3 Career Sacks
3 time All Pro in 5 years. There’s really nothing else to say besides he’s one of the best football players in the National Football League. He’s probably the best overall free agent in this year’s class and most are assuming that the Falcons might make a run at him. On the positive side, if the Falcons ultimately cut DeCoud, they could put his almost $5 million salary towards Byrd. The downside is that Byrd will be commanding the highest amount of money on the market. The question is whether the Falcons can afford Byrd for the long haul with so many issues on both lines.
Age: 27 / 4 Years / 342 Career Tackles / 5 Career Ints / 3.5 Career Sacks
Outside of Byrd’s interceptions, much of everything else with Ward matches up fairly closely with the 3 x All-Pro. Even though they’re eerily similar in height and weight, one has been cemented as a free safety, and the other a strong safety. Ward will be a much cheaper option overall, but the issue is thinking of pairing two strong safeties together and asking one to man the free safety position. Murf Baldwin of the Bleacher Report actually makes a really case of William Moore moving to free safety, the position he pulled down 9 interceptions at Missouri. They may be worried about the deep ball, but they would bring a toughness and tenacity to the secondary, at a much cheaper price.
Age: 26 (27 next month) / 331 Career Tackles / 6 Career Ints / 5 Career Sacks
It was reported that the Falcons weren’t interested due to “injury concerns.” Which is ironic, because they had no problem whatsoever giving Sam Baker a mega-contract ($41 million, in case you forgot), who’s barely played half of all possible games since he was drafted and hanging onto Peria Jerry for years after being an injury bust since being drafted. To be fair, Delmas has had some issue with injuries, but just completed a full season with the Lions. He would be a major upgrade over DeCoud and be way cheaper than Byrd.
Age: 28 / 278 Career Tackles / 4 Career Ints / 1.5 Career Sacks
Clemons is also listed as a strong safety, so it would be a similar signing to Ward and would ask either Clemons or Moore to convert to free safety. The Dolphin doesn’t have the gaudy numbers of the higher rated safeties, but he’s extremely solid. He was ranked as the 19th overall safety, including both free and strong safeties, and actually ranked 9th in coverage. Mike Nolan should be very familiar with him from his days as Dolphins defensive coordinator.
Age: 28 (29 in July) / 669 Career Tackles / 10 Career Ints / 47 Passes Defensed
Like Ward and Clemons, bringing in Whitner would have to move either him or Moore to free safety, but the Falcons couldn’t ask for much better after Byrd and Ward. Whitner ranked as the 6th overall safety and 5th in coverage. He’s a little older than some of the other free agent safeties, but he’s been instrumental in the 49ers recent defensive success.
This appears to be one of the weaker positions in free agency and the Falcons probably won’t be looking anyways. However, even if they do believe that Levine Toilolo is the answer going forward, an extremely optimistic outlook all on it’s own, then they still need two more tight ends. They appear to be ready to let Chase Coffman walk, so a lesser name signing might be in the cards. Too bad they let Michael Palmer walk last year, even as a 3rd TE.
Age: 29 / 284 Recs / 2,828 Receiving Yards / 16 Career TDs
With Dennis Pitta staying in Baltimore, Pettigrew evidently becomes the best TE on the market in an otherwise weak class. He’s definitely not lived up to his first round draft pick billing, but could be a good fit with all of Atlanta’s other weapons. Like any other frontline starter, it’s doubtful the Falcons will “block” Toilolo from starting. He ranked as 55th TE out of 64 according to Pro Football Focus, showing how thin this TE class is in 2014.
Age: 29 / 241 Recs / 2,875 Receiving Yards / 17 Career TDs
Keller is coming back from a gruesome ACL injury and likely won’t command very much and will probably sign a one year “prove it” contract. Keller is a good receiving TE and could complement Toilolo if signed. Problem is, he’ll turn 30 this year and would only be a short term solution.
Age: 27 / 78 Career Recs / 832 Receiving Yards / 8 Career TDs
Graham has been a backup for the Texans for awhile before having a pretty good season in Houston. He pulled in over 500 yards receiving and 5 TDs. It might make sense as a low risk / possibly high reward option.
Age: 26 / 223 Recs / 2,785 Receiving Yards / 20 Career TDs
Finley would definitely be the best option on the table if not for his medical concerns. He says he’s ready to go, but he’s missed significant time during his career. He’s had character concerns as well, which means he’s likely not on Atlanta’s radar.
Age: 28 / 135 Recs / 1,623 Receiving Yards / 14 TDs
The Buffalo Bill is not the splashy name, but he’s been a consistent target in the pass game over the last few years. He had years of 6 TDs in 2011 and 2012 and had 655 yards receiving last year. He’s a little older than some of the others, but he might be a good fit to pair with Toilolo for a lot less than other free agents.
By all accounts, the Falcons probably will roll with Peter Konz and Joe Hawley at center in 2014, but that doesn’t mean they should. They were supposedly in talks with Hawley, but no signing has been announced on the eve of free agency. They’re probably letting the market value his price and then re-sign him. Even though Alex Mack got tagged, there’s still good options available.
Brian De La Puente
Age: 28 (29 in May) / 4 Years / 44 Career Starts
The rival Saint isn’t the best free agent center on the market, but he’s been solid protecting Brees over the years. He ranked as the 16th best center according to Pro Football Focus. If they decide to get a veteran center for a little cheaper, he might be a good option.
Age: 27 / 5 Years / 25 Career Starts
Even though Dietrich-Smith has been in the NFL for 5 years, he only started for a full season just last year with the Packers. He made the most of it, ranking as one of the best centers in the NFL. The Packer ranked as the 8th best center in the NFL and one of the very best in pass blocking (4th). With Alex Mack essentially being taken off the market, Dietrich-Smith is the best center. This could be a great and young signing that could finally put this position in good hands. Too bad the Falcons are likely married to their pitiful draft picks.
Age: 35 (36 in June) / 785 Career Tackles / 53 Ints / 142 Passes Defensed
This likely won’t happen and the Falcons seem pretty set at cornerback with Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Robert McClain, but this would definitely be a sentimental signing for the former UGA All-American and Folkston, GA standout and it would have to be a very low contract. He said he was open to playing safety, so it’s possible, just not likely.