By Jeff Schultz
In his five seasons since being handed a sledgehammer and a paint brush, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has turned over close to 90 percent of the roster and benefitted with five winning seasons and four playoff berths. And as he knows, that’s still not good enough.
Sports franchises are measured by championships, and Dimitroff worked for one of the greatest in New England. He works for an owner, Arthur Blank, who dreams of Super Bowl trophies. The fact that the Falcons won a playoff game this season and came to within 10 yards of playing on the NFL’s final Sunday was progress, but not nearly the finish line.
“It was an emotional ending to the season, as close as we were,” Dimitroff said during Super Bowl week in New Orleans. “But we have a number of areas to focus on, and that’s what’s driving us to move forward. We have decisions to make, some financial and some talent-wise, so we can make this team better and win those big games down the stretch.”
At the end of the season, only eight players from before Dimitroff’s arrival in 2008 remained among the 70 on the active roster, injured reserve and practice squad. The Falcons don’t need a wrecking ball, but they do need some help. They need a few pieces on both sides of the ball to win those aforementioned games down the stretch. Dimitroff has made significant moves every offseason: drafting Matt Ryan and signing Michael Turner in 2008; trading for Tony Gonzalez in 2009; signing Dunta Robinson in 2010; trading up for Julio Jones and signing Ray Edwards in 2011; acquiring Asante Samuel in 2012.
Not all of those worked out. If there was a Mount Rushmore of free-agent busts, Edwards would be on it -- modeling underwear.
What's not known is how much money the team is willing to spend, given the need to re-sign safety William Moore, Gonzalez's potential return and the anticipation of a new contract for Ryan. But there will be a number of intriguing players on the open market. Here's a few who could help the Falcons:
1. Reggie Bush, RB, Miami (or Steven Jackson, St. Louis): Most expect Michael Turner will be released. Bush would be a significant upgrade, and he fits the Falcons’ offense perfectly. He can run, catch and is terrific in the open field. Two potential issues are salary demands (his 2012 base salary was $4.5 million) and his desire for more total touches (he prefers being a featured back to being one in a rotation). Can he be satisfied? Jackson is another interesting option. He's expected to void a player option and become a free agent. Retirement seems unlikely (he'll be 30 in July). He might be the banger the Falcons need in short yardage, and there's no need for him to carry the ball 250 times.
2. Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Baltimore: He was undrafted out of Georgia, but ascended into a solid regular on the Ravens' defense, next to Ray Lewis. Now he's looking to cash in. When I mentioned the Falcons’ possible interest to Ellerbe during Super Bowl week, he smiled and said, “Whoever offers the best contract.” The Ravens have to re-sign Joe Flacco and others. They may not be able to keep him.
3. Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati: The Falcons need a young pass rusher, even if they bring back John Abraham. The best one on the market is Dallas outside linebacker/end Anthony Spencer, but he'll likely be kept. The same could be said for Johnson, formerly of Georgia Tech, who is coming off an 11½-sack season. But the Bengals have a history of being cheap with players, and Johnson’s market value is high. He’s from the South and probably wouldn’t mind coming back to Atlanta.
4. James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh: It’s a little outside the box, but hear me out. Mike Peterson won’t be back. The Falcons' need Harrison's presence on the field (even in a part-time role) and in the locker room. The Steelers have cap issues, and Harrison might be sacrificed.
5. Offensive line (tackle/guard): There likely will be changes. Center Todd McClure’s future is uncertain, and left tackle Sam Baker’s contract is up (he rebounded with a strong season, but his contract value is uncertain). Guard Peter Konz could replace McClure at center. The market will be flooded with tackles. The best options may be Kansas City’s Branden Albert (left tackle, but he also projects to guard) and New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
Dimitroff always makes at least one significant move. This year likely won't be any different.
"what if there were no hypothetical situations?"