Coping With the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 Offseason

Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsNate Stupar

I’m writing this impromptu piece as an explanation for the “meltdown” I had on twitter on Wednesday evening that was initiated after learning that the New Orleans Saints signed Atlanta Falcons linebacker Nate Stupar in free agency.

For a brief recap, here are some of the highlights:

So I’m writing this mostly as a more coherent outlet to vent some of my frustrations with what has been occurring with the Falcons this offseason.

Losing Stupar, as some have opined isn’t that big of a deal because Stupar’s role in Atlanta was mostly to serve as depth and play on special teams. He performed exceptionally well in both of those roles last year, earning reps at all three linebacker positions and starts at middle and strong-side linebacker when injuries sidelined starters Paul Worrilow and Brooks Reed at the various points throughout the 2015 season. In many ways, his brief performances as an injury replacement in a trio of starts outshone much of what either incumbent starter put on film throughout most of the year.

He also shined in the latter capacity as well as he led the Falcons with nine special-teams tackles this past season. Stupar has been one of my favorite Falcons players over the past two years largely thanks to that special-teams ability. I have a tendency to develop “crushes” on any players that perform at a high level in that oft-forgotten phase of the game in special teams.

Yet at the end of the day, finding a quality backup linebacker that can perform at a high level on special team isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for the Falcons to overcome this offseason. So I understand the confusion of many when they see my “outrage” over losing Stupar. That frustration is not about finding a suitable replacement for the void on the roster that losing Stupar creates, but what that void represents for the Falcons offseason as a whole.

As noted earlier, Stupar outperformed a pair of starters in Reed and Worrilow last season, but he was not alone in that regard. Despite an underwhelming year, weak-side linebacker Justin Durant was often the best linebacker on the field throughout last season. But Durant was released after the season due to durability concerns.

The team brought in former Falcon Sean Weatherspoon to replace Durant. Yet despite much fanfare to Weatherspoon’s return to Atlanta, the reality is that is just a lateral move. Weatherspoon has just as much if not more durability concerns as Durant does. I’m ecstatic that Spoon gets to return to Atlanta, as I never wanted him to leave, but that is still just a emotional reaction to this signing. On the other hand, logic tells me that this exchange of one oft-injured player for another is at best a lateral move. The Falcons have not improved their linebacker position.

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O’Brien Schofield

Much could also be said of the team’s decision to pass on re-signing free agent O’Brien Schofield. While there’s still a chance that Schofield returns to Atlanta, it is clear that the Falcons aren’t going out of their way to make sure that it’s a certainty. What is troubling about this is that towards the end of last season, Schofield’s play on the field at strong-side linebacker also outshone Reed.

Throw in that Philip Wheeler is also a free agent that remains unsigned, one could make a strong argument that the Falcons might lose the four best players this offseason at what was their weakest position.

This is the root of my “outrage” over losing Stupar. The Falcons have made no serious gains at what was the most glaringly weak position on their entire roster. And at least from my point of view, it seems to stem from a lack of trying. And that centers on the team’s inability to upgrade the middle linebacker position where Worrilow resides.

As Falcons fans we have been forced to sit through the past two seasons watching Worrilow man that spot ineptly, to be frank. Yet we’ve been forced to stomach it as two separate coaching staffs have heaped praise on him despite the fact that the product on the field has been about as underwhelming as it can get.

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Paul Worrilow

Worrilow earned a 40.1 grade from premium website Pro Football Focus after the 2015 season, which places him firmly in the realm of a “replaceable” player. One would be hard-pressed to find a defensive starter with as low a grade that has earned more defensive snaps than Worrilow the past two seasons.

The Falcons pursued free-agent linebacker Danny Trevathan at the outset of free agency last week, but the fifth-year ex-Denver Broncos linebacker decided to sign with the Chicago Bears. A disheartening loss, but not one that was catastrophic since the Falcons still had opportunities to add other quality free agents that could prove to be upgrades from Worrilow in the middle.

That centered on free agents Jerrell Freeman and Tahir Whitehead. It was reported that Freeman was expected to sign with the Falcons from one outlet, yet that never materialized as the team never scheduled a visit. Freeman wound up following Trevathan to Chicago for what was a very modest contract.

Whitehead visited with NFC South division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before ultimately decided to return to the Detroit Lions on what was an even more modest contract. Presumably the Falcons showed very little interest from the start.

Yes, it can be said that perhaps neither player ever wanted to play in Atlanta. As they say, it takes “two to tango.” But it’s extremely difficult for me to believe that both players settled for “under-market” deals especially when the same aforementioned outlet reportedly earlier this offseason that the team was willing to fork up to $6 million per year to upgrade their linebacker play.

Now we could of course could come to the conclusion that this reporter simply was wrong from the jump. But despite my issues with said reporter, I certainly respect his journalistic abilities to report the facts as he discovers them. Also at this point, I’m much more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt than the team at this point.

If for no other reason than the belief that this team watched all of the tape from last season and decided that the four best linebackers were replaceable as opposed to the fifth (Reed), sixth (Starr) and seventh-best (Worrilow) guys. This is only solidified from the reality that the one other middle linebacker that the team seriously pursued outside Trevathan this offseason was one the one linebacker that managed to get a lower grade than Worrilow from Pro Football Focus while also playing a ton of snaps. I’m referring of course to former Los Angeles (née St. Louis) Ram James Laurinaitis.

Along with Stupar, Laurinaitis also signed with the Saints yesterday. Losing Laurinaitis is not a big deal because as you can probably guess, he isn’t that good a player. While I disagree with Pro Football Focus on the grounds that I believe he is a better player than Worrilow, the possibility that the Falcons would just sign a “slightly better version of terrible” was something I could not stomach. So the Saints gave us a reprieve in that sense.

However, what is difficult to stomach is that Laurinaitis is the best evidence we’ve had to date of the team’s actual “Plan B” this offseason as far as upgrading the middle linebacker position. Now with Laurinaitis out of the picture, it’s on to figure out “Plan C.”

What that exactly is at this point is anybody’s guess. But given that the quality of middle linebackers available on the open market has essentially evaporated, it’s likely one that involves the Falcons turning to the 2016 NFL Draft for solutions.

As of this writing, the first night of the draft is exactly six weeks away. And we may find ourselves in a position over the next 42 days looking at the Falcons selecting some young, talented linebacker and plugging him into the lineup at middle linebacker.

And if that should occur, I can imagine many a Falcon fan applauding the move and subsequently rewriting the narrative. That narrative transforming into the notion that waiting for “Unknown Draft Phenom” was always the Falcons’ plan from the start. Those revisionist historians will suggest that while the Falcons showed initial interest in Trevathan at the start of free agency, their “Plan A” was always the “Unknown Draft Phenom” and that initial free-agent interest never got serious.

Savvier fans won’t be so bold as to downplay the team’s attempt to snag Trevathan, but will still do their best to suggest that the “Unknown Draft Phenom” was nonetheless “Plan B” and that any other possibilities (e.g. Laurinaitis) were simply the team kicking the tires on a free agent rather than seriously engaging in contract talks.

But even savvier fans like myself will see through this charade and understand that this is simply a coping mechanism for Falcons fans to deny the possibility that the Dan Quinn-led regime may simply not have a real plan at linebacker. Instead the reality may be that they are throwing stuff at a wall and hoping something sticks eventually.

Many of us must believe that because Quinn is the guy that is going to save us from the “bad coaching” that Mike Smith brought to Atlanta for multiple years!

Yet here we are, little more than a week into free agency and Worrilow still rests atop the depth chart. And it’s very likely that his status will go unchanged until the draft six weeks from now. We as Falcon fans will be forced to wrestle with the reality that there is a legitimate chance that if the Falcons don’t land the right “Unknown Draft Phenom” come April 28, leading to the possibility that we get a third year of our ballyhooed defensive captain making plays like this.

So my expectation is that our fan base will spend most of the next six weeks coping by trying to convince themselves that this or that “Unknown Draft Phenom” will be the right choice for the Falcons at the top of the draft. Yet once again, I serve as a dissenting voice.

This is just one opinion, and you are free to take it or leave it. But I think approaching the draft given the team’s needs at  linebacker is the team finding itself in between a rock and hard place.

This team needs to add at least two starting-caliber linebackers between now and the start of the season. As I noted before, the questions surrounding Worrilow’s competence and Weatherspoon’s durability should preclude the Falcons from counting on either this season.

So for a team that could also use upgrades at tight end, right guard, defensive end, strong safety, they potentially approach the draft with two dire needs at middle and weak-side linebacker. Between Jacob Tamme, Mike Person, Adrian Clayborn and Kemal Ishmael, the Falcons at least have some current options at those other positions. Comparatively, they have zero legitimate options at linebacker, thus why it should take priority of those other needs if push comes to shove in the draft.

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Ohio State LB Darron Lee

And of course any draft-savvy person will tell you, needing to take a player at position has a tendency to lead to reaching on players. For the less savvier of you that are still reading this diatribe, a draft “reach” is when a team takes a lesser player higher than they should at a position of need. Reach is a bad word in draft circles because teams almost always live to regret it.

I could continue to write about how that dreaded “r word” applies in particular with this specific 2016 draft class at linebacker, but that would make this an exceptionally long essay, so I will hold off on that until later in the offseason.

But I do want to make note that part of the coping mechanism for dealing with what could be described a “failed strategy” of the Falcons in terms of upgrading their linebacker corps this offseason, may be convincing oneself over the next six weeks that certain draft prospects are better than what they actually are.

As it is often said, desperate times call for desperate measures. Which could mean that the Falcons wind up compounding their early missteps in free agency with later mistakes in the draft.

While the loss of Stupar might barely register as a blip on the radar of others, it is a very big deal to me because it only heightens my fears that the Falcons are already on this path to eventual path to destruction at this one position group.

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2 Comments on "Coping With the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 Offseason"

  1. Gerald bowman | March 17, 2016 at 7:32 pm |

    This is article is everything about the falcons.. dumping guys without a clue to replace them.. no way we can start the gritty guy again. . It’s almost a slap in our faces to make us witness worrilow getting trucked weekly again. I’m in the minority but I believe we have to over pay at linebacker because we are so poor at that position. .I know overpaying in fresh agency is bad but the rabble we assembled currently is complete debacle.. so why not offer 10 million or more a yr to trevathon or freeman. It’s money better spent than paying mo-fo manu 7 million

  2. The Real Fan | March 19, 2016 at 1:18 pm |

    Nailed it. At some point we fans are going to have to raise our expectations!

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