The NFL scouting combine commences this weekend. Free agency begins next month. April brings the draft. Before the cutting and pasting begins, we offer semi-educated guesses as to what the Falcons will/won’t do.
They will keep Sam Baker. The website Pro Football Focus rated Baker the second-worst tackle in the NFL last season, but he wasn’t always so hapless. A lot of things had to go wrong to render a serviceable left tackle so ineffective, and a back injury was only part of it. The Falcons fired line coach Paul Boudreau, who had lost faith in Baker, and will give Pat Hill, hired as a replacement, every chance to rebuild Baker’s self-esteem.
They will rely on Hill to set a tone, and not just with Baker. Hill hasn’t worked in the NFL since 1996, but his aggressive approach as head coach — he dared to play Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime — put Fresno State on the map. This O-line could stand some prodding. It was revealing that the Falcons’ front couldn’t muster the required push on three infamous fourth-and-1’s. It also was revealing that Mike Johnson, a 312-pound guard taken in Round 3 in 2010 after playing at Alabama under a rather exacting head coach, never found favor with Boudreau.
They won’t trade up into Round 1. Owing to last season’s five-picks-for-Julio-Jones deal, the Falcons don’t have a first-round choice in 2012. General manager Thomas Dimitroff’s preference would be for this draft to play itself out and his organization to get back on schedule. Sure, he’d waver if Indianapolis called and said, “We’ll give you the No. 1 pick for Michael Turner.” But Indy won’t.
They will keep Michael Turner. The best-case scenario is that the Falcons will get one more big season from the big back, and logic holds that you should trade a guy one year too soon, as opposed to one year too late. But what sort of return would Turner, who’s 30, bring? Would you trade a 1,000-yard back for a fifth-round pick? Wouldn’t you be better served letting him work behind a retooled line under a new offensive coordinator who might actually direct a screen pass the big back’s way?
They won’t be crushed if Curtis Lofton leaves. The middle linebacker is a three-year starter and a fierce tackler, but there’s growing sentiment that he’s a liability against the pass. The question thus becomes: Would you pay $8 million a year for a two-down linebacker? At the right price, the Falcons would love to keep Lofton. If he does depart, they’d give Akeem Dent, the Georgia product taken in Round 3 last year, a long look in the middle.
They will slap the franchise tag on Brent Grimes. The Falcons could apply this tag, which allows a team to hang on to a free agent for another year at a much higher price, to any of several defenders — Lofton, John Abraham, Thomas DeCoud — but cornerback seems the area of greatest need. (And DeCoud figures to be more affordable as a long-term re-up.)
They won’t spend big to keep Abraham. Of the Falcons’ 33 sacks last season, he produced 9 1/2. But Abraham will turn 34 in May, and he has a history of injury. It’s scary to think that a team incapable of sustaining a pass rush would shed its best pass rusher, but remember what new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after his hiring: “I’d rather have 10 guys get four sacks than four guys get 10.”
They won’t pursue Hines Ward. As much as the Falcons would welcome the locker-room presence of Ward, who’s from Forest Park and who played at UGA and who may be cut by Pittsburgh, there would have to be an on-field component to warrant such a hire. Ward will turn 36 next month, and he plays a position where speed is of some essence. As great a pro as he has been, he doesn’t have much left.
In the tradition of “urgent” and “explosive,” they will adopt a new watchword: “Daring.” In the neo-NFL, it would seem impossible for the 10th-ranked offense to oppose the 27th-ranked defense and to make no turnovers and miss no field goals and still not score a point. But that was the Falcons’ wretched lot in their playoff loss to New York, and there’s only one rational explanation: They played scared.
Mike Smith didn’t coach scared — he went for it on two fourth-and-1’s — but the message didn’t resonate. Matt Ryan threw 41 passes to no effect, and how in the neo-NFL can a big-time quarterback leave no imprint? Dirk Koetter, the new coordinator, has to render Ryan daring again. (It isn’t as if he was always risk-averse: He threw 19 interceptions in 14 games as a Boston College senior.)
For inspiration, the Falcons can turn to their nemesis. In 12 Saints-Falcons games, Drew Brees has thrown 11 interceptions, and that’s a fat number. His team, however, has won 10 of those games. The Falcons have allowed timidity to dilute their conspicuous talent, and that starts — and needs to end — with the quarterback. It’s time for Matty Ice to become Matty Fire.
By Mark Bradley