While the 2015 season is far from over, the play of the 6-3 Atlanta Falcons over the past month or so has me far less enthusiastic about how they will finish this year. With each passing week of listless play, hopes of things being less than a multi-year fix decrease.
That is by no means indicative that I or anybody else should “give up” on this current season. The Falcons still have plenty of opportunities to finish the 2015 season strong and make a deep run in the playoffs. It’s only that through the team’s past several games a few more chinks in the team’s armor have been exposed, prompting the sideways glance ahead to 2016 when the team might be able to fill those holes. Given that the team is facing a bye this week, it’s probably as good a time as ever to examine those issues.
Let’s break this down position-by-position, starting with the offense.
Starter Matt Ryan has been facing increasing amount of criticism this year despite the fact that he’s on pace to throw for a career-high in passing yards. But the numbers don’t always tell the whole truth as Ryan hasn’t played poorly, but he’s been far from inspiring. Yet despite the sentiment of some of his harshest critics, Ryan is in no danger of losing his job at any point before the 2018 season, which also marks the final year of the six-year extension he signed two years ago. However should the Falcons fail to make the playoffs or win a game in the postseason, it’s unavoidable that much of the scrutiny will be placed on Ryan’s ability to win the so-called “big games.” Ryan will only have to look towards Tony Romo to know how that song and dance plays out. Unfortunately until the Falcons start to win more consistently in January, this will always be a driving force of the narrative behind Ryan.
Despite the increasing scrutiny on the team’s starter, the Falcons only real concern heading into next year at quarterback is the backup spot. This is nothing new in Atlanta as the team has had a revolving door at the position since 2012 when long-time reserve Chris Redman was let go. Sean Renfree played relatively well this summer, but whether the Falcons believe him to a be a long-term solution or just the best of what limited options they already had on the roster remains to be seen. Their late-summer addition of Rex Grossman suggests that the team doesn’t have complete faith in Renfree moving forward. Assuming offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is back in Atlanta in 2016, there’s the potential that the team could sign former proteges in Kirk Cousins, Matt Schaub or Dan Orlovsky in free agency to push or replace Renfree. Using a draft pick on another developmental option is unlikely given a limited supply of picks and a wealth of more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster.
Despite a 12-yard effort against the San Francisco 49ers last week, the Falcons are fairly confident that starter Devonta Freeman should close out the season on a high note. Regardless of whether Freeman reaches the 2,028 yards from scrimmage he’s on pace to hit this year, the Falcons are pretty strong at this position. Rookie Tevin Coleman has flashed potential and should he make a comparable jump that Freeman did from his first to second year, the Falcons could reasonably expect to sport the league’s top pair of running backs in 2016.
If there is any concern at this position, it’s the third option on the depth chart behind them. But the team has shown a great deal of confidence in undrafted rookie Terron Ward and it’s unlikely that will change over the next two months, making it likely that he’ll be penciled in for the third spot again next year. Given the wealth of young talent already on the roster, the Falcons most likely will put any running back concerns on the back burner and just look to bolster Ward’s competition next summer in training camp with a bunch of undrafted options rather than any significant offseason pickups.
Starter Patrick DiMarco was uncomfortably close to losing his hold on a roster spot this summer to Collin Mooney before the latter suffered a ruptured biceps in the final preseason game. But since then, DiMarco has been a big reason why the Falcons running game has been so effective this year. Both fullbacks are signed through the 2016 season and thus the Falcons should feel confident that there should be limited concerns at this spot heading into the next year.
Of all the positions on offense, this one might see the biggest overhaul in the upcoming offseason. Of the players currently on the roster, only Julio Jones and Justin Hardy are guaranteed to return in 2016. Leonard Hankerson is the only one that will hit free agency next offseason but despite having multiple years left on their contracts, Roddy White, Devin Hester, Nick Williams and Eric Weems are by no means guaranteed roster spots heading into next season.
Hankerson’s return is likely be tied to his market and Shanahan’s status with the team. As mentioned earlier there isn’t much cause to think Shanahan will be gone at this point, but one never knows about these things. If the right head-coaching opportunity or other extenuating circumstances come along, then it’s possible that the Falcons will have a new offensive coordinator. After all, I doubt that the Cleveland Browns expected to part ways with Shanahan after one year when they hired him before the 2014 season.
How Hankerson finishes 2015 will determine his potential market. Right now he’s the team’s de facto No. 2 receiver opposite Jones. He probably won’t command a huge sum of money, but may not settle for another one-year, $1 million deal next March.
White’s age (34) and high cap hit ($6.14 million) all work against him returning to the Falcons next year. His production (or lack there of) just doesn’t meet the cost. He could always restructure his deal but given that he’s unlikely to be counted as a starter in 2016 and could limit opportunities for Hardy’s development, all likely prompts his release. Right now what is more up in the air is whether the 11-year veteran will decide to retire after this year or try catching on with another team. Given the frustration he expressed earlier this year about his usage, it doesn’t sound like he’s quite ready to hang up the cleats just yet.
Hester’s status is also up in the air given his age (33) and 2016 price tag ($3.83 million cap hit). He has yet to play in 2015 and won’t until Week 13 at the earliest. That gives him up to five games to make his case why he should be kept next year. While it’s highly unlikely that the Falcons will find a better option at returning kicks than Hester, the question is whether the Dan Quinn-led staff feel that having a good return specialist is worth close to $4 million. Should Hester finish 2015 with a bang, then the answer is likelier to lean towards yes.
Both Williams and Weems are under contract next year and probably will be brought back to training camp to compete for jobs. But neither will be guaranteed to win one, especially if the Falcons choose to invest significantly in this position next offseason. Hester’s potential departure probably increases the chances that they return in 2016 given that both are competent return specialists. Williams has greater potential on offense however and it probably gives him an edge in any competition. Weems will count nearly double what Williams will against the 2016 cap, meaning that the Falcons will need to put a significant premium on the former’s special teams prowess to get him to stick.
The Falcons are very likely to make at least one significant addition next offseason at wide receiver. Whether it comes via free agency or the draft remains to be seen. Getting younger would be ideal, but given that the team is already down two late-round draft picks coupled with the fact that there is no proven starter opposite Jones should White be cut, likely means that the Falcons may settle for upgrading via free agency. Free agents like Miles Austin and Travis Benjamin played under Shanahan in Cleveland last year, and the situation in Washington with veterans DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon is also worth monitoring if the Falcons plan to look at veteran options.
Jacob Tamme has been a welcome addition this year and alongside Hankerson has alternated as Ryan’s favorite target not named Quintorris. While Tamme is by no means a long-term solution, his production in 2015 likely means that he’ll be penciled in as the team’s starter in 2016, which is the final year of the two-year contract he signed this past offseason.
Ideally the Falcons would like to add a long-term solution next offseason via the draft that can be immediately plugged into the starting lineup in 2017 if/when Tamme exist. It’s clear that Levine Toilolo is not that player, although he can still be counted as a competent reserve moving forward. Tony Moeaki will hit free agency next spring and the fact that he’s already been cut once by the Falcons this year suggests that barring a very strong finish in 2015, he’ll become expendable.
The Falcons could potentially find young options in free agency, especially if players like Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Ladarius Green, Andrew Quarless and Clay Harbor hit the open market. All five have flashed potential in their starting opportunities over the past few years. But the ideal is always finding solutions in the draft.
Like the receiver position, nothing should be written in stone with this group especially over the second half of the 2015 season since any number of current starters are far from proven. Only left tackle Jake Matthews is guaranteed to be in the team’s long-term plans, which is what is afford to a 2014 first-round pick through his first three seasons. Matthews has played at a high enough level through the first nine games of 2015 to believe that he’ll be handling the left tackle position again in 2016.
The same might be said of Ryan Schraeder at the right tackle position but to a certain degree, Schraeder’s fate isn’t truly resolved. He’s played well over his first 17 starts at the position dating back to 2014, but the Falcons may still be looking to hedge their bets moving forward. The level of competition is set to increase in 2016 for the third-year tackle as he’ll likely face top-level pass-rushers like Von Miller, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Khalil Mack and Justin Houston on the Falcons schedule. It’s a murderer’s row of pass rushers that won’t make Schraeder’s job any easier.
Since Schraeder is only set to be a restricted free agent after this season, he’ll almost certainly be back next year as the starter. But given the demands that the opposing competition may bring in 2016, there’s no guarantee he’ll carry that same status in 2017 when he presumably hits unrestricted free agency. Because of that, the Falcons may seek to get an insurance policy this upcoming offseason. That could potentially come in the form of re-signing free agents Jake Long or Lamar Holmes, but given durability concerns surrounding both players, they may be seen as less than ideal options. Fellow backup tackle Bryce Harris is also a free agent and his status is up in the air as well. It remains to be seen if any return, but it’s likely that the team will opt to keep one for depth purposes.
The Falcons interior line is likely to be the part of the unit that is most likely to be re-shuffled next offseason. Starting right guard Chris Chester is a free agent after this season and his return is also iffy. Shanahan’s continued presence likely will increase the chance he’s re-signed, but Chester does turn 33 in January. Even if kept for another year, the Falcons need to start making definitive plans to replace him.
The same somewhat applies to left guard Andy Levitre, who will count about $5.375 million against the team’s 2016 cap. That isn’t quite high enough to put Levitre’s job in jeopardy, assuming there is no major drop off in his play between now and the end of the year. But as is the case with Schraeder, he’s likely to be re-assessed after 2016 regardless.
Given it’s likely that the Falcons can only be guaranteed to keep both starting guards for just one more year, it’s imperative that the team starts to acquire long-term options. That likely means drafting a guard that can either be plugged into the starting lineup immediately in 2016 or no later than 2017 will be a fairly high priority come next spring. The team could also seek an option in free agency, although the pickings aren’t overwhelming. Seattle Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy could make sense given the coaching staff’s familiarity with him.
At the center position the play of Mike Person hasn’t been ideal, but worst-case scenario for him is that he returns in 2016 as the team’s utility reserve. He could also be moved to replace either starter at one of the guard spots if the team finds itself in a pinch, although the likeliest plan is to have him remain at center and compete for the job. That will be likely come from James Stone, who moonlighted as a starting guard for a short time this past summer. Neither Person nor Stone have yet shown themselves to be long-term options, but given the potential of more immediate concerns at guard, both have the potential to be decent short-term stopgaps. Gino Gradkowski is a free agent and has yet to see the field this year. He may also be able to throw his hat into the ring at center should he make any appearances the rest of the year and perform well.
Of the five starting spots, the Falcons are currently weakest at center which makes it an obvious choice to be upgraded in the offseason. Should he opt out of his contract, Cleveland’s Alex Mack could be a significant upgrade at the spot in free agency.
Veteran Jon Asamoah was already being pushed out the door this past summer and after he misses all of 2015 with a hip injury, it’s likely that will be finalized after the season. His 2016 cap hit of $5.3 million is nearly the same as Levitre, which contrastingly is too high for a reserve. Unless the team is newly prepared to guarantee him the starting spot that they were so unwilling to give a few months ago, then it’s likely they’ll take the modest $1.4 million savings from cutting him and move on. His only saving grace may be the departure of Shanahan and a shift in blocking scheme, which as noted above seems unlikely as things stand today.
Overall, one can expect the Falcons to definitely try and shore up their depth along the offensive line next offseason. Whether the team is also looking for new starters at up to two of the interior spots will be determined by how the rest of 2015 plays out. But it’s doubtful that given the aggressiveness at the start of the season to shore up this position, the team will be no less complacent to address any concerns after the year ends.
I will break down the defense tomorrow. But in the mean time, please leave a comment and give your thoughts on what areas you feel should be addressed on offense when 2016 rolls around…