Yet it would be better to start out discussing the positives from the past five days since the 2016 league year began.
Although Mack is no longer in the prime of his career and there is a valid question centering on how long he can be expected to continue playing at a high level given that he’ll turn 31 a week before Thanksgiving, the team still made a major upgrade. They went from one of the worst starting centers in the league under Mike Person in 2015 to one of its best in Mack, which is a move that should be applauded.
Adding Mack Stabilizes a Weak Interior Offensive Line
The Falcons identified one of the biggest weaknesses on what proved to be a lackluster 2015 offense and addressed it. In doing so, they got a player in Mack that will beef up the interior of the offensive line both as a run blocker and pass protector.
Mack doesn’t move quite as well as he did several years ago and at least from an athletic standpoint, it’s fair to say that he is a downgrade from Person at this stage in his career. Yet the difference is that Mack is smooth as silk and plays under control. That comes from the years of experience , given that Mack has started 101 career games since entering the league in 2009.
Person, on the other hand, had logged zero starts and only 69 offensive snaps prior to being handed the starting center gig at the outset of 2015. Despite the superior athleticism, Person was never played confidently while learning on the fly at a fairly brand new position. That inexperience and insecurity showed throughout the season. Now the Falcons will have a heady, veteran in Mack that can stabilize and provide much-needed leadership along their front.
Mack’s addition should boost the play of others along the offensive line, particularly left guard Andy Levitre. He will now be bookended by a veteran center in Mack and a young, up and coming left tackle in Jake Matthews. Mack’s arrival should help with communication, an area that Levitre struggled in last season. It was concerning to see late-season games in which Levitre and Matthews struggled to handle defensive stunts, indicating their cohesion was not improving despite increased repetitions together. That also speaks to Person’s inability to handle the pivot with the right calls and adjustments.
Person should also fare better with a move from center to guard in 2016. He won’t necessarily be counted upon to fill the vacancy at right guard, as the Falcons could and should still add another body there.
That body might still be incumbent Chris Chester, who hit free agency this past week, on another modest one-year contract. But the team could also look elsewhere.
The fact that they looked at free-agent guards J.R. Sweezy and Jeff Allen suggests that the team isn’t content with their current options, which include Person. But they could equally be just as willing to wait until the draft if they can’t snatch up a quality player capable of starting at a relative bargain in the coming weeks.
Mack signed a five-year contract worth $45 million, which includes a record-breaking $28.5 million over the first three years. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a sound investment throwing that kind of money at a soon-to-be 31-year old center. But it’s much less problematic given how good a player Mack is.
This also applies to the Julio Jones trade from 2011. The Falcons probably paid too much, but they at least got a very good player in return so the “over-investment” is at least tolerable. The hope is that the three-time Pro Bowler in Mack can notch a few more on his belt in Atlanta.
Yet that same principle doesn’t quite apply with the team’s second-most prominent addition in wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Expectations High Despite Limited Past Output For Sanu
One unfortunate reality of free agency is that NFL teams often wind up overpaying for players. It’s essentially an auction system, where even if there just two bidders instead of 32, it can still lead to high dollar amounts being spread around to players that one wouldn’t initially think always merit it.
This happened when the Falcons paid Sanu $32.5 million over the next five years. According to Over the Cap, based on his annual average that makes him currently the 22nd highest-paid wide receiver in the league.
While saying Sanu didn’t deserve that amount of money isn’t accurate, since a player deserves exactly what the market is willing to pay him. Yet it’s certainly fair to question if his production up until now suggests he’s capable of being one of the 22 best active receivers in the league.
Sanu certainly isn’t devoid of talent or ability as he did many good things over the course of his four-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. But were they enough good things to suggest that he can outperform those expectations here in Atlanta? After all, Sanu spent the bulk of his time in Cincinnati serving as a reserve, not a starter. He won’t have that luxury here in Atlanta given his price tag.
Coupled with the fact that Sanu is pegged with the difficult task of filling the shoes of the greatest receiver to ever don a Falcons uniform, expectations will be exceedingly high. Sanu must not only be productive, but be a tangible difference-maker when it comes to elevating a Falcons offense that was ineffective at putting points on the scoreboard for a large portion of 2015.
However it is not the excess of money that is most disturbing about the Sanu acquisition. Instead it’s whether or not Sanu is capable of making that difference. And that speaks not only to Sanu’s own (in)abilities but also to whether or not this current Falcons regime properly evaluated what they needed at the wide receiver position in the first place.
Falcons Fail to Evaluate Need For Speed With Sanu Signing
In the past, I’ve written about the Falcons’ inability to self evaluate and how it became a major factor in the ultimate downfall of former head coach Mike Smith after 2012. Operating from the premise that it becomes exceedingly difficult to address needs if one cannot first identify them.
Last week I wrote about the ways in which the Falcons could potentially make offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme work if they acquired the right pieces this offseason to offset its many deficiencies. Those centered on the ability to get more explosive in the passing game, improve their efficiency in the red zone and toughen up the interior of the offensive line.
The Falcons clearly did the latter with the addition of Mack. They had opportunities to accomplish at least one of the former two needs with any addition made at wide receiver, but settling on Sanu seemingly fell short.
Simply put, Sanu is not particularly explosive. While he made a number of big plays in Cincinnati, he lacks the speed to truly challenge defenses down the field. This past season, the Bengals used him primarily as a slot and underneath receiver.
While there is hope that Shanahan and the Falcons will be able to mine more talent frtom Sanu than what was seen of him in Cincinnati, it might be a foolish hope. The Bengals had Sanu in their building for four years and likely came to understand that his best usage was on shorter routes and gimmick plays.
After all, it’s not as if the Bengals were unable to develop other receivers during the time that Sanu was there, evidenced by the existence of players like A.J. Green and Marvin Jones.
Combine that with the fact that the Falcons will have a new wide receivers coach in Raheem Morris, who is completely new to coaching offense, and it doesn’t present a great recipe for this team getting dramatically more out of Sanu than his previous employer did.
Sanu will certainly get more targets working as a No. 2 receiver in Atlanta than he did as a backup with the Bengals this past season. But those increased targets will only matter if he manages to do something with them, particularly getting into the end zone.
As I wrote last week, Sanu was never overly efficient scoring in the red zone. In his “breakout” 2014 campaign, Sanu was targeted 15 times in the red zone, scoring twice. That red-zone conversion rate of 13.3 percent ranks as the fifth lowest among the 44 players that were targeted at least 14 times that season. Contrast that with White, whose conversion rate of 42.9 percent that season was the ninth best among the same group.
Perhaps the Falcons will be able to supplement their red-zone offense by adding anotyher option at tight end at a later date. The team could also seek to boost their red-zone efficiency by finding more effective ways to get the ball into the hands of Jones.
The Falcons offense remains a work in progress yet they seem to be betting heavily on Sanu boosting the unit. The bottom line is that seems like a very expensive gamble with unfavorable odds towards success. That raises red flags about whether the current leadership helmed by head coach Dan Quinn is completely up to task of making the best personnel decisions moving forward.
Raising additional red flags was the team’s inability to snag one of the top inside linebackers in the first week of free agency as well.
Falcons Whiff on Significantly Upgrading Middle Linebacker
Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Tahir Whitehead were arguably the top candidates that could have upgraded the Falcons’ middle linebacker spot this offseason. Yet all three will wind up playing in the NFC North, as the former two signed with the Chicago Bears and the latter returned to the Detroit Lions on a modest two-year contract.
It’s a disappointing result in the Falcons failing to land any of those three players, as they each could have helped the defense make a dramatic leap forward at middle linebacker.
Instead the Falcons appear poised to settle for James Laurinaitis in free agency. While Laurinaitis is far from a bad player, he might be too similar to incumbent Paul Worrilow to instill any excitement.
While an upgrade, Laurinaitis falls into the same category of player that is valued more for their abilities from the “neck up” rather than the “neck down.” That doesn’t represent a significant enough change for a defense looking to take the next big step as a unit.
Continued Offensive Issues Emphasize Defensive Holes
If Sanu and Shanahan can’t break the Falcons out of their scoring funk this year, the team’s ability to improve their record will lie firmy on the defense’s ability to clamp down on opposing teams.
The presence of Laurinaitis in the middle doesn’t inspire quite as much hope that would happen, at least not as much if the team had added Trevathan, Freeman or Whitehead.
One could argue that Laurinaitis’ effectiveness as a starter for the Los Angeles (née St. Louis) Rams had less to do with his own ability and more to do with the strength of that team’s front four. That group featured players like Robert Quinn at defensive end and Aaron Donald, Nick Fairley and Michael Brockers at defensive tackle. All four of them were taken in the top 14 picks in the past five NFL drafts.
While the Falcons front is improving, it hasn’t quite reached that talent level in terms of featuring four players with top-of-the-first-round pedigree. However the Falcons did at least make some strides to improving that unit over the past week with the addition of Derrick Shelby and successfully retaining free agent end Adrian Clayborn.
Shelby and Clayborn Strengthen Falcons Defensive Rotation
Shelby is expected to split time at both defensive end and tackle, likely playing the former in the base defense and the latter in the nickel sub-package. He’ll function in the same capacity that Quinn featured Michael Bennett in during their shared days with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014, although one should not expect Shelby to perform at the same level as Bennett.
Instead Shelby can realistically be expected to produce three to five sacks for the Falcons in 2016. But he can also provide a significant amount of pressure, giving the Falcons a versatile asset that can be deployed in multiple ways.
Clayborn will likely be expected to play more defensive end this year than he did last season. He’s probably the best current candidate to play right defensive end in the team’s nickel sub-package across from Vic Beasley. He’ll probably also get some reps inside as he did a year ago, but the presences of Shelby, Grady Jarrett and Jonathan Babineaux potentially give the Falcons much better options there.
Clayborn is a solid rotational piece like Shelby, but neither quite approach the level of a player like Robert Quinn. Thus the Falcons will be heavily reliant on Beasley taking that next step as a pass-rusher if they hope to see dramatic improvement from a unit that produced a league-low 19 sacks in 2015.
Beasley certainly has that potential and perhaps a good benchmark for his production in 2016 might be doubling the previous year’s sack total of four. But it’s no surprise that the Falcons are looking for more heat to come off the edge, which is why the team has been linked to defensive end Chris Long over the past week, a former teammate of Laurinaitis.
Yet if the Falcons are looking for an edge-rusher on the level of Quinn that could produce a double-digit sack season, it’ll have to wait until the draft since Long hasn’t shown that ability in recent years.
Assuming the Falcons add another pass-rusher and upgrade the middle linebacker spot at some point this offseason, they can certainly say that they’ve improved their defensive front seven. But they’ve yet to add a true difference-maker on that side of the ball.
Even the much-acclaimed return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon won’t provide that. Despite being beloved by myself and the majority of Falcon fans, he’s probably safely considered a lateral move in regards to replacing Justin Durant, who was released a month ago. Both are older players that have routinely struggled to stay healthy in recent years.
There’s hope that Weatherspoon looks better this year than he did last season in Arizona since he’ll be further removed from the Achilles tear that ruined his 2014 season. But there’s still very little reason to trust that he can hold up for 16 starts at weak-side linebacker. The Falcons still will have to at least add some insurance at that position between now and the end of the offseason.
Despite the lackluster tone of this column in its assessment, the offseason is far from over. It’s lasted less than a week so far, thus a large amount of judgment must be reserved at least until after the draft before the big picture can be ascertained.
Will Remainder of Offseason Net Better Results?
Yet the impending moves on the horizon that may include Laurinaitis and Long don’t dramatically raise expectations. Most of the top defensive playmakers have already been snatched up by various teams, leaving the chance of making another major free-agent addition in the near future growing slimmer each day.
While Long and Laurinaitis will make solid additions and upgrades at their positions, they are several years past the point where adding them will take a defense to a completely new and higher level. They’re role players at this point. Good ones, but role players nonetheless.
Therefore most hope lies with the draft, yet even then, the enthusiasm must be tempered somewhat. The Falcons only have five selections and could use three difference-makers alone on the defensive side of the ball. Those would potentially come at all three levels of the defense: defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary at the safety position.
Given additional questions over whether the Falcons also need an upgrade at tight end and at right guard, there is still significant room to grow for the Falcons roster this offseason.
The Falcons offseason is by no means a failure, just a bit disappointing. They had an oportunity to make a significant leap forward on either side of the ball this offseason in the first phase of free agency, but seemingly only made modest gains.
The team is improved, which is perhaps all that one can ask for at the end of the day. But this felt like an offseason where the Falcons could have potentially “hit a few home runs” in conjunction with several other big hits. Instead they probably “tripled” with the addition of Mack, but the rest of the moves feel more like “singles.” And at least from my own point of view, there is a gnawing concern that the Sanu signing might prove to be a complete “strikeout.”
Continuing with the baseball metaphor, this offseason represented a critical “inning” in which the Falcons could have made a quantum leap forward by putting several runs on the scoreboard. Thus my disappointment centers on the uncertainty that just a week into free agency, I’m questioning if they did or can.