It’s a question that has been raised by AJC columnist Jeff Schultz in his musing about which available free agents could come in and help the Falcons. The simple answer is yes, offensive tackle Eric Winston can help the Falcons. He is one of the premier right tackles in the league, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to stick in his last two stops in Kansas City and Houston despite solid production.
Winston is basically a similar player to Tyson Clabo. Not a guy that is an overpowering player, but has good size, strength, and knows how to use leverage. He is also very adept in the zone-blocking scheme, consistently able to get downfield and hit his assignments, which has helped spring backs like Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster to generate big runs on the second level. Winston turns 30 in November, making slightly less than two years younger than Clabo, who the Falcons cut in early April.
Schultz discussed the possibility of defensive end John Abraham’s return to Atlanta in the same article. But in truth, while a pass rusher of Abraham’s skill would certainly help the Falcons in that arena, it would be done so with sacrificing development of younger players. It’s true that none of the Falcons young pass rushers that Abe would likely supplant, such as Cliff Matthews or Stansly Maponga, are likely to become as skilled as he is, even at his relatively ancient age of 35. But the Falcons won’t do it as Schultz notes because it would mean less snaps for players like Matthews, Maponga, as well as Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman, who many believe do have significant upside worth developing. The Falcons just don’t appear interested in investing the money it would take to keep Abraham for what is essentially a one-year solution.
And while one could argue the same applies to Winston if signed, given his recent history of unceremonious dismissals in Houston and Kansas City. Although at least with Winston, there is a much greater potential that he could linger for at least two if not three seasons given his age.
Winston probably wouldn’t thrive in Atlanta because they aren’t as strict a zone blocking team as his previous two. But the Falcons certainly could benefit from incorporating more zone-blocking into their offense this year. Jacquizz Rodgers is tailor-made for that offense, and Steven Jackson was still very effective in St. Louis last year on the stretch plays that are the hallmark of that blocking scheme.
Winston’s presence would allow the team to move Mike Johnson inside to right guard, where he could compete with Garrett Reynolds for the starting position. It would also give them an opportunity to give Lamar Holmes another year of development working as the swing tackle. That will give the team greater flexibility in 2014 and beyond with him being able to potentially supplant Winston on the right side or Baker on the left, if his play should slip.
At least that’s the positive spin any potential signing would have, even though unlikely to occur. In truth, the Falcons don’t want to spend money if they don’t have to. Mike Johnson is entering a contract year alongside Joe Hawley, and the Falcons are prepared to give both a substantial shot at winning a starting job this summer to prove that when both were third and fourth round picks, respectively, in the 2010 Draft, the team made the right decision. If Johnson proves to be a capable right tackle or guard this year, then he’ll be on his way to an extension next spring that could cost substantially less than even a short-term deal given to Winston. Also Johnson only recently turned 26 giving him much greater longevity than Winston. Simply put, the team wouldn’t feel right if Johnson left next year and become a solid starter with another team similar to how Roberto Garza left for the Chicago Bears eight years ago. Garza has started 117 games for the Bears and while not a Pro Bowler, he’s been a fairly consistent starter at both guard and center.
A similar scenario occurred this past off-season with the departures of cornerback Chris Owens and defensive tackle Vance Walker. Both players are expected to compete for and win starting jobs in Cleveland and Oakland, respectively. While neither Owens nor Walker were in a position to start here in Atlanta, it’d be disappointing to see other teams get more production from them than they gave the Falcons.
The Falcons don’t want that to happen to either Johnson or Hawley next year. The team was also high enough on Lamar Holmes to pull the trigger on him in the third round of last year’s draft, trading out of the pick that ultimately was used on running back Bernard Pierce by the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens. While Holmes is working behind Johnson currently, if he’s good enough to overcome him in training camp then that’s valuable production they could be missing with Winston instead in the lineup.
In the end, the team would certainly be better with Winston on the team. But there is a method to Atlanta’s “madness” when they pass on veterans like him and Abraham that are clear upgrades, yet still sit waiting for their phones to ring.
And given Thomas Dimitroff’s history, he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on players midway or at the end of camp to bolster problem positions. If the team doesn’t feel comfortable with Johnson or Holmes at right tackle by the end of the preseason, then if Winston is still available he could still wind up a Falcon.