The Falcons do have some questions at safety, most of which linger around the looming free agent status of strong safety William Moore.
Moore is probably the team’s most likely candidate to land the franchise tag if it comes to that. That will carry a cap hit of roughly $6.8 million. Recent reports suggest that Moore probably won’t be too pleased to receive such a tag as it would conflict with his desire to test the market. For the sake of both the Falcons and Moore, it will work best if they can come to an agreement before the deadline of March 5, after which teams can no longer tag players.
Moore is one of the better players on the Falcons defense. Along with former college teammate Sean Weatherspoon, he represents the young core of the Falcons defense that is expected to succeed players like John Abraham, Asante Samuel, and Jonathan Babineaux as regular playmakers. Moore is an opportunistic run-defending safety that managed to make a lot of plays in coverage this past year. He seemed to really find a home in Mike Nolan’s defense. The two major weaknesses of Moore’s game are his struggles when facing quality tight ends and his lack of durability. Saints TE Jimmy Graham abused him so badly in the Week 10 loss this past year, that Nolan made concerted efforts to avoid that matchup in the Falcons in Week 13 win over the Saints. Moore has missed a quarter of the games in each of the past two years with thigh and hamstring injuries. He also sat out his rookie year in 2009 with a hamstring injury, and was often nicked up throughout college. Moore’s physical playing style contributes to his injuries coupled with the fact that players at his position tend to have the shortest careers of all defenders. I doubt that is a big enough issue to make the Falcons let Moore walk, but it may become an issue that may prolong contract negotiations. The Falcons may not want to pay top dollar to a player that already has a long injury history and may only be effective for just another three or four years given the nature of his position.
The Falcons drafted Charles Mitchell last year in the sixth round, probably with the mindset of having him add depth at the position but also to provide an insurance policy in case Moore walked. Well, it doesn’t seem likely that the Falcons will roll the dice with Mitchell as a starter going forward after a lackluster rookie season. But he’ll likely be expected to supplant free agent Chris Hope for the No. 3 safety position. Shann Schillinger is returning from sitting out the year with an injury and will be expected to contribute on special teams. But don’t be surprised if the Falcons look at more options in the draft or free agency to solidify their depth. Again, safety is the most injury prone position on defense, thus it pays to have good depth there. That’s what prompted the team to sign Hope last summer before camp. Hope had his moments filling in for Moore late in the year, but he wasn’t a great fit in Nolan’s scheme and probably won’t be back next year. The Falcons have featured a revolving door in terms of veteran backups the past three years, starting with Erik Coleman in 2010, James Sanders in 2011, to Hope last season. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons go for a fourth, although again it’s more likely that they will give Mitchell every opportunity to take over that spot.
When the Falcons signed Thomas DeCoud to a five-year deal last spring, the deal was structured in a way that suggested that the Falcons weren’t completely satisfied with him at free safety. The first two years of his deal had modest cap hits (both under $2.5 million), with a jump to nearly $5 million in 2014. If DeCoud is on the roster on the fifth day of the league year in 2014, $2.25 of his $4.2 million base salary will become guaranteed. The Falcons could potentially reap savings of $3 million against their 2014 cap if they were to cut him at before that point.
But DeCoud is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and it’s increasingly less likely that the Falcons will explore other options at the position in the near future. DeCoud would have to have a very underwhelming 2013 season in order for this upcoming year to be his last in Atlanta.
Like Moore, DeCoud really took to Nolan’s scheme. Already blessed with very good speed and range, he was much more disciplined in coverage this year allowing him to make more plays there. He’s still underwhelming in run support due to his lack of size, which will always be an issue. But he often can make up for it with his closing speed. Despite his 2012 accolades, he’ll probably never be considered one of the best safeties in the league but he can be a productive and effective starter moving forward.
The further solidify depth, the team could tinker with Dominique Franks playing here. It certainly was something they tried late in the year as they mixed in more of their dime subpackage. Franks may struggle to make the roster next year as a cornerback. He’s the biggest of the team’s corners. The Falcons may tinker with the notion of featuring more dime next year, especially as they face teams like New Orleans and New England that present matchup challenges for the Falcons personnel. Similar to Franks, that player might be styled as a big corner that can play the run effectively.