(This is the first in a series of blogs in which I’ll focus on some high-profile Falcons’ veterans and their respective uncertain future with the team.)
The Falcons need some fixes. They’re not a wreck. (Wrecks don’t make the playoffs in three out of four seasons.) But they have problems — offensive line, secondary and defensive line, for starters. They may need to fill holes during free agency, and that means they’ll need to create salary space. Some players will have to go.
Which brings me to Michael Turner.
This should not be taken as the start of a “Dump Michael Turner” movement. The guy finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,340 yards. But the question of whether to keep him, cut him or trade him (if possible) for a mid-round draft pick is a legitimate one.
Because the Falcons don’t have first- or fourth-round picks this year (see: Julio Jones trade), they will have to plug more holes in free agency. That will mean salary-cap space. Turner is scheduled to make $5 million in salary next season, but has a cap hit of $7.5 million (factoring $2.5 million for his original signing bonus). He turns 30 years old next month. He has 1,189 carries in the past four seasons, which would wear down even a younger guy. (Technically, Turner is an eight-year back, but he had only 228 carries in his first four seasons in San Diego.)
At the very least, Turner is headed for a reduced role next season, as the Falcons want to give more touches to Jacquizz Rodgers, particularly in the screen game. Not integrating Rodgers into the offense was one of former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s failings.
Understand something: The NFL has changed a lot over the past five years. It’s a pass-driven league now, and marquee running backs are not in great demand. Several teams, including New Orleans and Green Bay, now have gone the running back-by-committee route. If the Falcons made the decision to part with Turner, that committee would include Rodgers, Jason Snelling (a free agent) and Antone Smith, unless another back is drafted or signed in free agency.
Despite his production this season, Turner showed signs of wear. He had rushed for over 100 yards once in a span of eight games until gaining 172 in the regular season-ending blowout against Tampa Bay, a team that had clearly quit. The accompanying chart illustrates how his monthly average yards per carry dropped from 5.57 in September to 3.38 in December. His average yards per game (78.8) also was the lowest of his four seasons in Atlanta.
Does this mean Turner is toast? No. He can still be productive. He ran behind a weak line. He played with a lingering groin strain. But the Falcons’ line isn’t going to suddenly morph into the Hogs up front, and injuries are common with older running backs. The move from Mularkey to new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was made with an expansion of the passing attack in mind.
So should Turner be sacrificed? There’s no absolute right or wrong answer. But if the Falcons truly want to fix their holes on the offensive and defensive lines — and this game is still about blocking and tackling — cutting or dealing Turner may be necessary.
The thought of saying goodbye to a 1,340-yard rusher may seem like a strange one, but it’s a new league — and the Falcons need the money.
Below is a chart showing Turner’s yards per carry and average yards per game by month in each of his four seasons. Remember too that the final game this season brought up his final 2011 averages.
YEAR SEPT. OCT. NOV. DEC. JAN. TYPC TYPG
• 2008 (YPC) 5.48 3.43 4.04 5.22 -- 4.5 106.2
(YPG) 105.5 77.7 110.6 122.8 --
• 2009 (YPC) 3.48 3.34 7.81 7.0* -- 4.9 79.2
(YPG) 75.3 59.0 115.3 7.0 --
• 2010 (YPC) 3.98 4.88 4.21 3.51 3.94 4.1 85.7
(YPG) 77.0 89.0 96.8 82.5 67.0
• 2011 (YPC) 5.57 4.03 4.04 3.38 10.12 4.5 78.8
(YPG) 78.0 96.8 81.8 55.0 17 (*Turner played only 11 games in 2009 because of injuries, including 1 carry in December.)
And now, the floor is yours.
By Jeff Schultz