After covering the offense, it’s time to break down the areas of concern facing the Atlanta Falcons in their immediate future on the defensive side of the ball.
Based off their inconsistent play through nine games in 2016, the Falcons defense appears much more problematic than their No. 1 ranked offense. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t optimism for the future, particularly with the way that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has begun to lay a firm foundation for forthcoming success with solid draft selections the past two offseasons. The Falcons will of course seek to continue that trend into 2017.
Let’s go position-by-position to see exactly which approaches the Falcons may take next spring in bolstering their defense.
The biggest concern facing this unit a year ago was the lack of pass rush. The Falcons 2015 defense finished the season with a league-low 19 sacks. Through nine games so far in 2016, they have already surpassed that total with 21 sacks, putting them on pace to finish this season with 37, nearly twice as many as they had a year ago.
Clearly the team’s pass rush has improved, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t remain an area of concern heading into next year.
The pass rush has gotten a big boost from players like Adrian Clayborn and Dwight Freeney this year, along with the improvements made from second-year players Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. Those four players have contributed 18 of the team’s 21 sacks so far this season and at least three of them can be expected to return next season.
Freeney, the exception, is an impending free agent and will turn 37 this coming February. Most indications are that 2016 is expected be Freeney’s last season of playing professional football. As a situational pass-rusher for the Falcons this year, they will have to find a way to replace his production next year should Freeney decide to hang up the cleats.
So the question lingers whether outside the aforementioned quartet, if any other players on the Falcons defensive line can significantly contribute to the pass rush if need be.
The team had hoped that recent free-agent signee Derrick Shelby would provide help there. Despite a slow start in 2016, Shelby seemed to pick things up as the year progressed while working predominantly as a defensive tackle in the team’s nickel sub-package. But he suffered a torn Achilles against the Seattle Seahawks in Week Six.
Since that injury the Falcons have been primarily relying upon fellow free-agent newcomer Courtney Upshaw to pick up the slack as an interior rusher on passing downs. While Upshaw has made modest contributions, few would describe him as a pass-rushing maven.
Like Freeney, Upshaw also stands to hit the open market as a free agent in the spring. Even if his play down the stretch merits the team offering him another contract, all signs indicate that he’ll be seen more as a valued reserve rather than a prospective starter.
Coupled with Achilles injuries being ones with indeterminate recovery times, the ability for the Falcons to count on Shelby in 2017 is also up in the air. That means that addressing the interior of their defensive line next offseason should be a high priority.
Adding a player that can fill that three-technique defensive tackle role beside Jarrett both in the base and nickel defenses would be ideal. That could happen either in free agency or the draft, with the goal of adding a player comparable to Jarrett that can be an every-down contributor to offset any potential deficiencies due an extended recovery by Shelby.
Right now there isn’t a player on the roster that looks like he can fill that potential void. Tyson Jackson has gotten the majority of the reps next to Jarrett in the base package this season, but is probably playing his final year with the Falcons. The team should be expected to part ways with him and his $5.85 million cap hit in 2017, unless he agrees to a significant contract restructuring.
The same fate could await long-time veteran Jonathan Babineaux, who turned 35 last month and is set to hit free agency this offseason. Even if he chooses not to retire after the season, it’s doubtful that the Falcons would offer him a contract based off his declining play so far this season.
The only other current roster candidate to line up beside Jarrett would be third-year player Ra’Shede Hageman, but his status is also up in the air. While Hageman’s on-field play in 2016 has been some of the best (or at least most consistent) of his short career, off-field question marks still linger.
With NFL teams continually coming under fire for turning a blind eye to domestic violence issues surrounding their players, one wonders if the Falcons can afford the public relations hit that is keeping Hageman around beyond this season.
Hageman may ultimately be exonerated of his off-field transgressions but until he is, there is a black cloud hanging over him. Therefore in the moment of looking ahead to 2017, the Falcons cannot be completely sure of any significant contribution.
Throw in the fact that the Falcons have been utilizing reserve offensive lineman Ben Garland as Jarrett’s primary backup at nose tackle on early downs, it’s another strong indication of the utter lack of depth the Falcons possess on their defensive interior, prompting a big effort this offseason to address it.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also concerns on the edge at defensive end. Hageman has been getting most of his work in 2016 at defensive end in the base defense. In an ideal world both this year or next, Shelby would have been able to handle those duties in addition to his role as an interior pass-rusher in the nickel. But as mentioned above, the Falcons cannot put too much on his plate for contributions next season.
This all means that the Falcons could once again be looking for another player that can bolster the rotation as a dual end/tackle in 2017 if they cannot count on Hageman or Shelby’s contributions.
On the other side, Brooks Reed has served as the team’s primary option at the “LEO” defensive end spot in the base package. But like Jackson, Reed’s contract makes his return next year less feasible. While Reed has been an effective role player at times, his cap hit of over $5 million in 2017 is far too high for such a limited player.
Thus there could be significant turnover for the Falcons this coming offseason up front along the defensive line. Right now, the only players that are certain to return include Jarrett, Beasley, Clayborn and Shelby, with the latter possibly being in a limited capacity.
Since the Falcons typically carry nine or ten defensive linemen under Quinn’s regime, they could potentially be adding or replacing up to five or six contributors in their rotation next year.
Ideally at least a starting-caliber defensive tackle and end will be two of them to keep the arrow pointing up in regards to their slowly improving pass rush.
The Falcons likely have already assembled the core of their linebacker corps for 2017 thanks to 2016 draft picks Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Leaving the only major question at linebacker moving into next year as to whether Beasley will take on a more substantial role along the strong side in the base defense.
Expectations were that Beasley would move into that role more in 2016 and while he’s seen the occasional rep as a stand-up linebacker on early downs this year, the team has relied on veteran Philip Wheeler in that role for the most part in 2016.
Whether or not the Falcons hope to utilize Beasley more as an every-down defender or continue to rely on his situational pass-rushing abilities remains to be seen. If it’s the latter, then it creates an opportunity for the Falcons to possibly replace Wheeler this offseason given he is another impending free agent.
While Wheeler has been functional in his limited role in the base package, the presences of Jones and Campbell incentivize the team to get younger and faster on the strong side. The added value that the youthful 2016 draftees bring in the speed departure would also be appreciated at Wheeler’s spot, with the veteran linebacker set to turn 32 in December.
Jones’ predecessor, Paul Worrilow, will also be a free agent in the spring. The team obviously likes his experience, leadership and value on special teams, so one can imagine him being offered a modest contract to return to the team as a role player.
Whether the Falcons make a similar offer to fellow free agent Sean Weatherspoon remains to be seen. Weatherspoon will be 29 before the season is up and a month ago suffered his second torn Achilles tendon in the past two years, putting the future of his NFL career in jeopardy.
Backup middle linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is also an impending free agent, meaning all four of the Falcons’ veteran linebackers behind Jones and Campbell could be replaced this offseason. Like Worrilow, Reynolds stands an above-average chance of being retained thanks to his prowess on special teams.
But the Falcons could easily shake up their depth at this position by bringing in new veteran free agents or utilizing mid-or-late-round draft picks. But it’s not going to be a huge priority considering their other potential needs on the defensive side of the ball.
One of those looming needs could come at cornerback where the Falcons will have to make a decision about the future of starting cornerback Robert Alford this offseason, as the fourth-year player is set to hit free agency.
The Falcons extended the fifth-year option to Desmond Trufant this offseason, locking him up through the 2017 season. But it’s very likely that as was the precedent set with wide receiver Julio Jones in 2015, the team will seek to give Trufant a lucrative long-term contract before the start of next season.
Given the price tag that free-agent cornerback Josh Norman netted this past offseason with the Washington Redskins, it’s possible that Trufant could become the league’s highest-paid cornerback within the next 12 months.
That leaves the status of Alford a lot more fluid given the expectation that the Falcons will be less inclined to have a significant portion of their cap wrapped up in the cornerback position by paying both starters market-level deals. Particularly since Quinn’s zone-heavy defensive scheme doesn’t place as much emphasis on having two premier corners as other ones that play more man coverage and rely on blitzes.
This was almost exactly the situation that Quinn’s former team in the Seahawks faced two years ago when they had to decide whether or not to pay free-agent cornerback Byron Maxwell a year after paying Richard Sherman with what was at the time the second-biggest contract for his position.
The Seahawks opted to let Maxwell walk to Philadelphia go cheaper with veteran Cary Williams, which didn’t work out. But in the year since, the Seahawks found greater success with mid-level options like DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane opposite Sherman. One can expect the Falcons to try and do the same, with the hope that it goes much better for them than it did with the Seahawks and Williams.
Of course a lot of this depends on what sort of market Alford has when he becomes a free agent. Alford is already 28 years old and has a penchant for drawing penalties, which could lead to him having a substantially fewer suitors than Maxwell and other corners that have netted massive deals in recent offseasons.
Yet at the same time, Alford has also flashed the ability to play at a very high level when he’s not drawing flags. And those same lucrative contracts signed by others show that there is always a premium for good cornerbacks, which Alford is certainly counted among.
The presences of young corners Jalen Collins and Brian Poole might also push the Falcons to let Alford walk. Collins is still raw and unproven at the point of this writing, but his upside is unquestioned. Should he be able to show promise down the stretch in 2016, the team should be less inclined to re-sign Alford due to seeing Collins as a cheaper alternative on the outside.
As the nickel cornerback, Poole’s presence also hurts the chances of Alford’s return. If Poole continues to produce solid play in the slot, then it essentially means that the team will already have two good corners in him and Trufant, making it less likely that they’ll be willing to invest in a highly paid third like Alford.
Also with Poole solidifying the slot, it somewhat forces the Falcons to choose between furthering the development of Collins or retaining Alford as the team reasonably can’t expect to do both. Despite Alford being relatively long in the tooth for a first-time free agent, the expectation remains that he should continue to be an effective starter for at least two more seasons, which would include the entirety of Collins’ rookie contract.
Given the presence of Collins along with former wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, the smart money suggests the Falcons will instead try to save some money by replacing Alford with a cheaper veteran in free agency next year. Said veteran could provide an immediate starting option should neither Collins nor Goodwin be ready in 2017, buying each player one more possible year of much-needed development time.
The Falcons could also seek to draft another cornerback in the middle or late rounds, but the presences of Collins, Poole and Akeem King, all of whom will be under the age of 25 when 2017 starts, means the team isn’t exactly hurting for young developmental options. But adding another to the mix is by no means against the rules.
Yet it’s much likelier the Falcons seek a known commodity in bolstering the cornerback position next offseason. There’s a chance that could be in the form of retaining Alford, but more than likely it’ll be new blood that won’t involve a substantial long-term financial commitment.
Like cornerback, the Falcons are fairly young at the safety position thanks to the presences of starters Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, who will be 25 and 22, respectively, when the 2017 season begins.
Allen has faced increased criticism this year for subpar play, yet he’s still in the early stages of his development after moving from cornerback a year ago. While the Falcons certainly could stand to upgrade over him at the free-safety position, finding high-level fits in Quinn’s intensive scheme is easier said than done.
Such players have involved teams paying high premiums in free agency and/or utilizing high draft picks, two things that the Falcons may not be inclined to do this offseason given a desire to address more glaring needs elsewhere. Instead the Falcons might want to see how much growth Allen and Neal can have with another year or working together.
Depth-wise the Falcons are in relatively good shape at safety. Robenson Therezie and Kemal Ishmael have had numerous opportunities to fill in as reserves the past two years, giving them more experience than many other 25-year old reserve safeties.
However Ishmael’s return to the Falcons in 2017 is not guaranteed. He’ll hit free agency and likely will be one of several players that the Falcons will make a substantial effort to retain since he’s carved out a solid niche as a hybrid linebacker-safety and spot-starter under Quinn the past two seasons.
But this creates the possibility that another team is willing to pay him to be a full-time starter, with the Falcons only seeing him as a role player and reserve behind both Neal and Campbell at strong safety and weak-side linebacker.
Should Ishmael depart for greener pastures, that could create an opportunity for Sharrod Neasman to become Neal’s primary backup next season. But unless Neasman gets an opportunity to showcase his value as an injury fill-in over the second half of 2016, he’d be a much more unproven option. Meaning that if Ishmael leaves, the Falcons are likely to try and replace him with a veteran reserve in free agency.
Players like Charles Godfrey and DaShon Goldson have provided that same role in recent years, but ideally the Falcons can find someone under the age of 30 to the same if need be in 2017.
Similar to the linebacker position, the Falcons can afford to be patient in regards to their safety position for next year. There certainly is room for improvement at free safety, but the relative rarity of top-level center fielders coupled with competent play of Allen means that the team doesn’t have to force the issue.
Instead they can concentrate on retaining Ishmael and choose to invest significant resources in other needier areas.
Even at age 41, kicker Matt Bryant has shown little sign of decline through the first part of the 2016 season, making it probable that he’ll get another opportunity to play out the final year of his contract come 2017.
Should that be the case, then the only major concern in regards to the team’s three main specialists will be bringing in a young, likely undrafted free agent to push Bryant in next summer’s training camp.
Otherwise the Falcons should be comfortable with their veteran kicker alongside punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris, who are signed through the 2019 and 2018 seasons, respectively, returning to their normal roles.
In the return game, the Falcons might shake up the position with impending free agent Eric Weems set to turn 31 next summer. Weems probably won’t be retained given his advanced age and the expected retention of both Devin Fuller and J.D. McKissic in 2017. Both young receivers will be front-runners in any competition at returner in next summer’s training camp, even if Weems manages to return.
Weems’ possible departure is a much bigger loss in terms of the team’s coverage units than in the return game. Bolstering that unit is likely going to be the team’s primary special-teams priority this offseason since core special-teamers like Weems, Worrilow, Reynolds, Reed, Wheeler, Ishmael, Patrick DiMarco and Levine Toilolo are not guaranteed to return next year due to impending free agency or in the case of Reed, becoming a possible cap casualty.
Several of those players could potentially be replaced in the draft or with other veteran free agents that have value in the third phase of the game. But a good portion of them will be offered modest contracts to return in their same roles, making this unit relatively secure.
While there will probably be some turnover on special teams, it’s unlikely to have a major effect in 2017.
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