As their Week 11 bye week approaches, the Atlanta Falcons are sitting pretty with a 6-3 record and a gaze fixed on their first postseason berth since 2012. While the 2016 campaign is far from overm the fact that there will be limited action for the Falcons in the coming weeks, with their Week 10 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles as their only action until the end of the month. Such a break allows a bit of a respite from the hectic action of the 2016 season and a look ahead towards the future of this franchise.
As I did a year ago, I will be going position-by-position to look at which direction the Falcons are headed for next season based off their play through the first part of 2016. A lot can happen over the next eight weeks before the season’s end, but this will give us a better idea of where things could be going in the team’s immediate future.
Keep these things in mind for the next seven (plus) games as they could go a long way to determine several players’ futures along with the courses of action the Falcons take in the coming offseason.
As written a year ago, quarterback Matt Ryan is in no danger of losing his grip on the starting job before the 2018 season. And based off his performance through nine games in 2016, it’s likelier that the team will begin the process of talking a contract extension this offseason.
Ryan’s current deal expires at the end of 2018, but it was very doubtful that the Falcons would allow their franchise quarterback to enter the final year of his contract without another long-term extension even before his breakout 2016 campaign. But with Ryan’s excellent play this season, it’s likely that the Falcons could renew his deal to make him one of the league’s highest-paid players a year earlier than expected.
The Falcons could open contract talks before the outset of the 2017 season with Ryan’s agent, Tom Condon, likely aware that his client’s leverage won’t be any higher assuming Ryan’s play over the next seven games does not dip significantly.
Andrew Luck and Drew Brees both signed contract extensions in the past six months that pay them deals approaching $25 million per year, although the latter’s deal was merely a one-year extension.
Yet based off Ryan’s play thus far this year, Condon potentially has the leverage to ask for a comparable deal. Should Ryan land the league’s Most Valuable Player honor at the end of the year, it’s a even possible that Ryan could surpass Luck as the league’s highest-paid player.
Regardless of the exact price tag, any new deal for Ryan should effectively extend his tenure in Atlanta as the unquestioned starter for a minimum of four more years, meaning that a new deal signed next offseason would mean that the Falcons don’t have to worry about their starting quarterback position until after the 2020 season at the earliest.
Thus the Falcons’ chief concern at quarterback will continue to be the reserve spot behind Ryan. That could result in the team using a mid-to-late round draft pick in the 2017 draft for a developmental quarterback. But that would depend a lot on what decision the Falcons make this offseason in regards to current reserve Matt Schaub as well as the status of current offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Schaub turns 36 next June and could be looking at retirement very soon. If he decides that he wants to continue playing ball, it’s likely that the Falcons would offer him another one-year contract to back up Ryan. But given the veteran’s age, the team might want to look into developing someone with more long-term viability.
The release of Sean Renfree this past summer leaves the team without a leading candidate to provide that long-term depth, unless the team feels strongly about the 28-year old third stringer in Matt Simms. But that’s also where Shanahan’s status comes into play.
Based off producing what is currently the NFL’s No. 1 offense, it’s very likely that a number of teams looking for head coaches in 2017 will come calling for the soon-to-be 37-year old coordinator. If another team is successful in luring Shanahan away, then it’s less likely that Schaub and/or Simms will be retained, as a new play-caller might bring a slightly different system to Atlanta and prefer other veterans to provide depth behind Ryan.
There are a lot of moving pieces headed into 2017, but the one constant will be Ryan’s presence atop the roster for several more years. How the Falcons handle the spots behind remains to be seen.
The Falcons are fairly set at this position, at least through the 2017 season. Devonta Freeman will be entering his contract year and whether or not the team tries to give the 24-year old back an extension afterwards depends on several things. One particularly is the continued development of second-year running back Tevin Coleman.
Freeman has been the superior option when it comes to toting the ball on the ground, coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2015 and currently on pace to exceed his yardage total a year ago. However Coleman has proven a highly valuable secondary asset given his explosiveness and ability in the passing game. The pair represent a solid one-two punch for the Falcons in the immediate future, but at some point after 2017 the team is going to have to make a decision about what direction they are headed in.
Coleman’s contract expires after the 2018 season and it’s less likely that both can be retained should they command market-level deals over the next two years. But as mentioned earlier, that’s a decision that the Falcons don’t have to really contemplate until after next year when Freeman potentially hits the open market. In the mean time, the Falcons will be happy to ignore any such future dilemma and reap the benefits from both players’ presences and performances.
Behind them the team has Terron Ward, who has shown significant improvement in limited action in 2016 after a lackluster rookie campaign a year ago. Ward seems like he’s perfectly suited to be a third option for the team moving forward and one should not expect his status to change next season.
Fourth running back Stevan Ridley has experience, but for the time being appears to be more of a short-term stopgap given the current injury status of Coleman rather than someone that the team plans to keep around long-term as a depth option. But he certainly will hope to demonstrate his value to the team in the coming weeks should he have the opportunities to do so.
Overall the Falcons are pretty set for next year at running back. They might face significant roster turnover come 2018, but that’s a bridge they’ll cross when they get to it.
Patrick DiMarco got a modest two-year contract a year ago upon the arrival of Dan Quinn and his coaching staff, likely a minimal expectation that he’d fulfill it. He has done more than that, earning a Pro Bowl bid a year ago thanks his ability to open holes for Freeman among others. DiMarco will be a free agent after the season and should receive another contract with a hefty pay raise for his contributions over the past two seasons.
DiMarco will also turn 28 next April and the Falcons should be fairly confident that he can maintain his current level of solid lead-blocking at least through the age of 30, meaning that there shouldn’t be any major concerns in regards to his viability for the foreseeable future.
The biggest wrinkle for DiMarco might be the possible departure of Shanahan leading to a replacement coordinator that introduces an offensive system that deemphasizes fullback position. But as noted earlier in regards to the quarterback position, that is a bit of an unknown at this point. Additionally, DiMarco has effectively demonstrated his value to a level that should supersede any schematic shifts.
As predicted in last year’s write-up, the wide receiver position was one that saw a significant overhaul in the 2016 offseason. That is unlikely to repeat this upcoming spring given the steady play of this position group during the season, although there could still be significant changes depending on the statuses of impending free agents Aldrick Robinson and Taylor Gabriel.
Robinson will be an unrestricted free agent while Gabriel will be restricted. That means the Falcons should be able to retain the latter, but it might be at the expense of the former. Gabriel in recent weeks has emerged as the team’s de facto No. 3 receiver behind starters Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. There are still seven more games to see how things play out, with a decent possibility that Robinson could reassert himself into that role. But if he does not, then it will increase the chances that the Falcons might let him walk after the season.
However given that Robinson owes all of his NFL experience to teams coordinated by Shanahan, it also means that there’s an above-average chance that the both the Falcons and the looming free-agent wideout find a way to come to an accord next offseason.
But should the Falcons let Robinson walk, it could create opportunities for players like Justin Hardy and/or J.D. McKissic in 2017. Hardy, as a 2015 draftee, is unlikely to face a significant challenge for his roster spot given his value as a reserve and on special teams.
McKissic offers potential as a returner and would be a natural option to replace Eric Weems in 2017, should the latter also depart as a free agent. That seems likely given that he’s 31 and the Falcons have other young receivers, including 2016 seventh-round pick Devin Fuller, to develop.
With Nick Williams also potentially returning in 2017, the Falcons should again have a fairly contentious competition for roster spots in next summer’s training camp on the bottom half of their depth chart at wide receiver.
At the top of the depth chart, both Jones and Sanu sit pretty. Jones remains among the league’s premier players, let alone wide receivers and Sanu has carved out a role as a complementary receiver. The contract he signed allows the Falcons to part ways with him after the 2017 season, but that possibility seems less likely now given his solid, albeit unspectacular play.
Depending on how the rest of the 2016 season goes might mean that the Falcons look into another mid-to-late-round draft option to develop for the future and groom as a long-term replacement for Sanu should the team decide to cut bait with him in 2019 or beyond. But with the plethora of young wide receivers already on the roster heading into next season, it’s more of a luxury rather than a need.
Among the team’s offensive skill positions, the tight end position probably has the most potential for significant turnover in 2017. That is because Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo both are set to hit the open market. While the Falcons likely would prefer to keep both players, it is far from a guarantee. Especially since next year’s draft class represents a very healthy crop of tight end prospects and it would be a perfect opportunity for the Falcons to solidify a position that they ignored for so long in past offseasons.
While the presence of ascending rookie Austin Hooper causes many to question the Falcons need at the position, the high usage of the position by Shanahan means that upgrading the spot could do wonders for their offense in 2017.
As noted by others, Shanahan has taken full advantage of multi-tight end personnel groupings to exploit defenses in multiple ways. With Hooper expected to ascend into the starting lineup next year, the team could potentially add another player to replace either Tamme or Toilolo to help expand these groupings. Tamme is a much better receiver than blocker while Toilolo represents the opposite dichotomy. Adding a player more akin to Hooper that can be equally effective in both capacities could be a huge boon to the team’s 2017 offense.
Of course the Falcons could simply opt to re-sign Tamme and/or Toilolo and still manage to get by, but the opportunity is out there for the team to make the leap from a fairly solid group of tight ends to one of the league’s premier units akin to the New England Patriots, who feature a pair of Pro Bowlers in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.
The team also has Josh Perkins, an undrafted player that has been inactive for much of the current season, expected to return in 2017. Perkins offers the potential to fill a similar niche as Tamme as a bigger contributor in the passing game, meaning the team has a ready-made alternative in case they opt against re-signing the veteran tight end that turns 32 in March.
The tight end position offers the most potential for roster turnover in 2017 among the offensive skill positions, but it remains to be seen if the Falcons take advantage of that potential this offseason.
While most of the Falcons offense is expected to see light tinkering with depth and personnel this upcoming offseason, the team’s line is likeliest to see what could be considered legitimate retooling. That is largely due to the impending free-agent status of right tackle Ryan Schraeder, as well as the increasing ages of starting guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester.
Based off his play over recent years, it seems a near certainty that the Falcons will try to re-sign Schraeder. However retaining him will be easier said than done. Despite having only four years of NFL experience, Schraeder turns 29 next May. That also means that he may not offer quite as much long-term value as typical for first-time free agents. It’s worth noting that it was at age 31 during the 2012 season when Schraeder’s predecessor, Tyson Clabo, started to trend downwards as an effective starter.
Thus it’s possible that even if the Falcons manage to keep Schraeder, they could be looking at replacing him three or so years down the road should he go down a similar path as Clabo. That means that 2017 offers a good opportunity for the Falcons to draft some developmental insurance to groom long-term for that possibility. Given that current swing tackle Tom Compton is also a free agent after this season as well, using a mid-round pick on an athletic tackle with long-term starting potential could be attractive to the Falcons this offseason. Such a pick would also give the team some headway in terms of development as insurance in case left tackle Jake Matthews isn’t retained beyond the 2018 season.
But the more immediate issue will be retaining Schraeder, who has carved out a niche as one of the league’s top right tackles. Given the increasing importance of having a right tackle that can hold his own against premier pass-rushers, Schraeder could fetch a hefty price tag on the open market next spring. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz signed a deal averaging $6.6 million per year with the Kansas City Chiefs this past offseason. Yet it’s possible that despite his advanced age, Schraeder could fetch a deal north of that.
Expect Schraeder to be the team’s highest priority as far as free agents to retain next spring, but there’s no guarantee the team will succeed in keeping him. If they do not, then finding a starting-caliber right tackle immediately becomes the chief offseason priority on the offense.
If a vacated right tackle doesn’t assume that spot, then it’s likely that upgrading the guard position will be the team’s most prominent need on the offensive side of the ball. Right guard Chris Chester is an impending free agent and will turn 34 in January. He could opt to retire, but his return to Atlanta is probably the least plausible outcome given his advanced age and arguably declining skillset. While Chester has been far from a liability for the Falcons through nine games this season, he could easily be considered the team’s most expendable starter among their front five.
Levitre will turn 31 next May and is much likelier to be retained given his relatively steady play so far in 2016. But his cap hit balloons to over $6.6 million next year, making that far from a guarantee. But given the likely departure of Chester, the team could be less inclined to create two openings next year versus one.
The player most likely to fill the void possibly created by Chester’s departure is 2016 sixth-round pick Wes Schweitzer. The Falcons showed an oddly high level of confidence in Schweitzer’s potential as a starter this past summer given his direct competition with Chester at right guard. Schweitzer’s actual play didn’t always reflect that confidence, but it probably tips the team’s hand to give him another opportunity in 2017.
He could easily be penciled into either of the possibly vacated starting spots at guard, with the team only likely to bring in some competition. Ideally that would be another young draft pick that could also be groomed as a long-term replacement for Levitre at left guard come 2018 should Schweitzer manage to win the right guard competition.
With starting center Alex Mack also on the elder side of the 30, Matthews represents the only starter that is currently under the age of 28. So getting younger at the position will be something that the Falcons will work on over the next few offseasons. That should start in next year’s draft, likely with a guard but possibly with a tackle as well.
I will break down the defense tomorrow.