A few days ago, I broke down the Falcons needs both at offensive tackle as well as along with center and guard. Well after some time to really dive deep into some tape via Game Rewind, I was able to look at many of the potential free agents that could be available this off-season for the team to sign.
The Falcons potentially have needs at both areas, principally at left tackle and at right guard. Sam Baker is a free agent, and as mentioned in that previous post he will likely be their first priority to re-sign rather than trying to add a replacement on the open market.
There certainly are better left tackles that could become free agents than Sam Baker. Jake Long (Dolphins), Ryan Clady (Broncos), and Branden Albert (Chiefs) headline that group. Clady almost certainly will be slapped with a franchise tag, so there really is no point discussing him. But the other two, Long and Albert, the possibility that they hit the open market is a little higher. Both probably will be tagged given the loads of cap space that each team is projected to have. But if not, then both present significant upgrades to Baker if the Falcons are willing to spend.
The expectation is that both players will seek new deals that approach the monster eight-year, $92 million deal that Joe Thomas signed in the summer of 2011. Up until this most recent year, Long was considered along with Thomas as the top left tackle in the game. But he’s coming off a down year in Miami. Injuries have accumulated over the past few years with Long, and it started to really affect his game as well as a shift in blocking scheme under head coach Joe Philbin.
Long is still a premier tackle due to his quick feet, polished technique and strength, but one wonders if the injuries will limit the remainder of his NFL career. He was limited in 2010 by a left knee injury and had shoulder surgery at the end of the year but still managed to play at a Pro Bowl level that year despite his injury issues. He was limited at the start of the 2011 with another left knee injury, and then had to deal with lower back problems late in the year. His season ended with him on the IR after suffering a torn biceps in December. He was once again limited with a minor MCL sprain in his right knee at the start of the 2012 season, and once again his season was cut short prematurely with a late-season triceps tear.
Essentially, it’s going to be a tough decision for a team to be willing to commit huge dollars to a player that hasn’t made it through a season healthy in over three years. Why Long is better than Baker is because he’s much quicker and more adept in pass protection, and is a much more physical player as a run blocker. But I did notice that Long can get beat by speed rushers, because I believe he sets up too deep in the pocket which allows defenders to be able to build speed and momentum too easily. He also did not play with great power this past year, which could be directly related to all of the injuries that have accumulated on his arms and shoulders in recent years. But he’s still very athletic, and would be an excellent fit for the Falcons on the left side with their ample use of screens and a renewed emphasis on the ground attack. Late in the season, Miami moved right tackle Jonathan Martin to left tackle, and while he was capable he’s a huge downgrade from Long. But given Long’s injury history and his huge price tag, the Dolphin may opt to pass on him.
Albert is also dealing with injury concerns of his own, as his season was ended prematurely due to back problems. Back issues are notorious with offensive linemen, as they have limited the careers of players like Marcus McNeill and Jared Gaither in recent years. So it’s going to take team doctors signing off on him for another team to merit paying him a big contract. Albert is a capable run blocker that is athletic with good feet. He’s not a dominant player, but he certainly would make a significant upgrade for the Falcons in terms of his ability to get push off the left side. The Chiefs have the No. 1 pick, and many believe that the top prospect in this year’s draft is tackle Luke Joeckel out of Texas A&M. Joeckel’s contract will be considerably less than what Albert would make on the open market, so there remains questions on whether the Chiefs will left him walk.
Other left tackle prospects include Will Beatty (Giants), Jermon Bushrod (Saints), and Bryant McKinnie (Ravens). None are considerably better players than Baker and thus would be primarily a lateral move for the Falcons if signed.
Beatty is coming off his best season as a Giant, after three seasons of flashing potential but never putting together a full year. He’s both a competent run blocker and pass protector, but he’s not a player that wows you. Bushrod has been an effective pass protector at times over the years in New Orleans, as he’s a gifted athlete. But he’s inconsistent, and tends to struggle when facing top-end pass rushers. McKinnie is age 33 and played well down the stretch for the Raven during their Super Bowl run, but sat out of most of the season due to questions about his conditioning during the summer and some nagging injuries. McKinnie is infamous for his less than stellar work ethic dating back to his days in Minnesota as well as his actions of the “Love Boat,” which I probably won’t go over well with the brass in Atlanta.
There are some right tackles that the Falcons could possibly look at. People for years have suggested the Falcons think about moving Tyson Clabo inside to guard and plug in someone new at right tackle. That move only really makes sense if the new right tackle is an improvement over Clabo. At this point, there are really only two possibilities there: Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots) and Andre Smith (Bengals). Vollmer has experience playing both left and right tackle for the Patriots, but has exclusively played on the right side since 2009. Vollmer is a physical run blocker that is good in pass protection, and coupling him with Clabo on the right side would be an instant upgrade.
Smith got off to a slow start in Cincinnati in 2009, but has turned it on recently and is coming off his best season. Similar to McKinnie, there have always been lingering questions about his work ethic. He moves well for his size, although he’s predominantly effective in pass protection due to his size and his strength, not because he has great technique or feet. That strength also translates into him being a very good run blocker that would instantly be an upgrade there.
Most if not all of those players will probably cost more money to add than it would take for Atlanta to re-sign Baker. If the Falcons are successful at retaining Baker, it’s unlikely that they will make another move at offensive tackle. Baker and Clabo would be the starters, and Lamar Holmes would be the swing tackle. The Falcons probably aren’t going to commit a huge chunk of money to Baker because I believe they also want to see what Holmes can do in the future. Holmes path may ultimately lead to him becoming Clabo’s heir apparent at right tackle if Baker continues to play well. Or he may remain an insurance policy on the left side if Baker reverts to his pre-2012 form.
If the Falcons don’t re-sign Baker, they probably will settle for re-signing Will Svitek. That would still give them a viable starter on the left side in case Holmes isn’t ready for the job, as well as a capable swing tackle. But if both Baker and Svitek walk, the Falcons probably would look for a swing tackle that could push Holmes.
Sean Locklear (Giants) served that capacity for the Giants this past year. Locklear is limited in pass protection and thus would be worrisome if he was asked to start on the left side for multiple games, but he’s serviceable with plenty of starting experience. King Dunlap (Eagles) has started at three different positions over the years for the Eagles, and was capable late last year at left tackle. Again, he’d be less than ideal starting a full season. Jonathan Scott (Bears) took over for Gabe Carimi late in the year at right tackle. He’s experienced starter for the Bears and Steelers over the past few years. He too seems like a liability whenever he plays, but his 29 starts over the past four years indicate that the moment isn’t too big for him.
More than likely, the Falcons will be content to retain their own free agent(s) in Baker and/or Svitek rather than trying to make a big splash on the open market. If they were to target a prospective free agent, then probably Beatty or Bushrod give them the most bang for their buck and don’t have the concerns about injuries that many of the other options do. Beatty is the more consistent of the two, while Bushrod is versed in playing in the NFC South.