Alright, to finish up my lengthy assessments, I’m going to be looking at linebackers, the secondary, and special teams.
My Assessment: Boley might make the Pro Bowl this year, and he right now is the only guy here that is worth a damn. He makes plays and is active, and usually when we need to make a stop, he’s the guy that often steps up to get it down. But Boley is no elite linebacker. He would probably rank in the third or so tier of guys around the league. He’s a restricted free agent, so he needs to be locked up long-term, but the Falcons can’t pay him like he’s a Lance Briggs by any means. More like a David Thornton. The other two starters are marginal. Heck, I love Brooking for his long service and his toughness and effort. But he’s an average starter at best. He’s a poor fit really. He’s too slow to play on the weakside anymore, as he lacks sideline to sideline speed he possessed years ago. And he’s not very stout at the point of attack to play in the middle. And he’d be a coverage liability regardless of the spot he played in. He’s essentially a man without a position, and whether the team moves him outside or keeps him inside, it’s going to create more problems than it fixes. Demorrio Williams however earns the majority of my spite. Brooking at least has the excuse that’s he’s old. Demorrio’s? I guess that he’s dumb. He’s as gifted an athlete that I’ve seen at the position, but he takes poor angles, misses too many tackles, and just doesn’t make any plays. Which is sad because he plays the “playmaker” position on the weakside traditionally in the 4-3 scheme. Right now, he’s really an overglorified nickel linebacker if anything. The only two things he’s contributed this year were two “gimme” interceptions on two terrible passes. Depth is average at best. Stephen Nicholas looked like he was playing at a level early on in the year that he could have replaced Williams by now. But injuries set him back. He might be able to fill in as a starter next year, but I haven’t seen enough to think he would be anything more than a marginal upgrade over Williams. Tony Taylor and Marcus Wilkins have performed on special teams, but I’m not sure they are anything more than that. Taylor had a good camp, but I can’t help think that he’s overhyped because of his Georgia ties.
My Recommendation: Let Williams walk via free agency. This is a weak year for linebackers, so we probably wouldn’t be able to replace him with another young upgrade. But I’d take my chances in the draft. Brooking probably should be cut, but it will be harder to replace him than Williams. We need someone more stout against the run in the middle, but also athletic and quick enough that he can stay on the field on passing downs (something Hartwell could not do). I’m willing to bite the bullet and start Nicholas next year. But we need to find a decent middle man in the draft which methinks will likely come in rounds three or four.
My Assessment: I used to love DeAngelo Hall, but watching his progression over the past four years, I haven’t seen enough to merit a big contract extension. He’s actually gotten worse in run support, and although he makes a lot of big plays, they are infrequent and there are too many opportunities where he could have made a play that he does not. Not to mention, Hall’s attitude can be a big negative at times. At the other corner, Chris Houston has shown some improvement as the season has wore on, but at this point he’s just a quicker and stronger version of Jason Webster, as the frequency of his getting burnt isn’t much less. But the Falcons do a poor job of protecting him as he lines up against top receivers a bit too much at this point in his career. Lewis Sanders as I expected was marginal. He can get by as a physical nickel cornerback, but that’s only if he can use his size to get the jam, something that doesn’t happen often. David Irons hasn’t gotten much work on defense this year, which is a shame, since we need to know if he can be a decent nickel back down the road. But right now, in truth, the team has only one starter. Houston would be a nickel back on most NFL teams. Antoine Harris has gotten a lot of reps this year, but he’s not a playmaker. He’s really just a body that takes up space in the secondary. At safety, Chris Crocker started the season fairly well, but has been forced into too many coverage assignments as of late, something he is not suited for. If he can focus mostly on stopping the run, he’s solid. Milloy had a rocky start this year, but has really stepped up his play the past few weeks, showing me that he’s one of the few players that quit. Jimmy Williams showed something at the midpoint, but seemingly has dipped back into the doghouse somehow. I’m not too down on Williams, it is only his first year back at safety after a three-year layoff, but he needs to start to show something next year. I really think the Falcons have to look at him as run-stopping strong safety instead of a potential coverage free safety if they want to maximize his abilities. Unfortunately, Crocker is the same style of player (and at this point significantly better), meaining that getting a safety that can help in coverage remains a need.
My Recommendation: If a team offers it, I would trade Hall for a first round pick and not give it a second thought. Yes, he’s one of our best players, but for the money he’s likely to receive and the attitude he brings on the field (that has been more negative than positive as of late), he’s not worth breaking the bank for. Otherwise, my recommendation is to let the new coach get a crack at him and see what he thinks before making a long-term decision about Hall’s future. Whether Hall is traded or not, the Falcons should be very interested in the free agent market this spring. If Zimmer sticks around, then 29-year old Terrence Newman would be an obvious option at replacing/complementing Hall. Marcus Trufant and Drayton Florence are two other players I would look hard at. But frankly, if the Falcons are going to spend big money this off-season, it should be at this position and not involve DeAngelo Hall. I’d also look at using one of my early picks on a cornerback, particularly at the top of Round Two. At safety, this team needs to find a free safety that can cover. This likely will come in the draft, in the middle rounds. At this point, 2008 is likely Milloy’s last year here, and I think Crocker or Williams can adequately replace him by then. Crocker should be resigned for that reason alone, just as insurance in case Williams doesn’t progress between now and then. The rookie at safety can be a backup at first and hopefully be ready to start in 2009 or 2010.
My Assessment: The Falcons really need to try and address the kicker position long-term. The team is on the verge of wrapping up Michael Koenen (a restricted free agent) to a long-term deal, and should do the same at kicker. The fact that we have little chance of making a field goal beyond 43 yards is pathetic. And Jerry Rosburg needs to find a way to get some of these special teams guys to cut down on their penalties. Otherwise, I think we would have a pretty solid unit. Guys like Irons, McIntyre, Taylor, etc. make plays on special teams. Unfortunately, penalties neutralize almost everything we do that is positive. In the return game, Norwood doesn’t belong on kickoffs. He’s just a stopgap. Hopefully Jennings can show progress next summer and handle both spots like he was supposed to this year. But right now in the return game, we lack a reliable option there.
My Recommendation: We need to sign a kicker. Stopping being cheap and make an investment in that position. I’m thinking of pursuing a guy like Josh Brown. And if you still want to be frugal, then go out and sign two or
three journeymen kickers and actually give them more than two days to earn a position in camp. Have a real competition, something the Falcons haven’t had since the epic Arians-Feely battle of 2001. Koenen needs to be wrapped up long term as well. We also need to bring in a rookie or a cheap veteran that can push for time in the return game. Give Jennings some competition at the least. And if you have to go out and sign more players like Marcus Wilkins and Corey McIntyre to help improve those units.
The Falcons have a lot of areas that need to be addressed, so it would be unreasonable to expect them to fix all their problems in just one off-season. But I think with a proper plan, this team can solve major issues at QB, RB, OT, MLB, CB, and K this off-season. And those are the positions I feel are the biggest needs and areas that really need to be secured for the future. There really is no reason to go out and spend huge amounts of money in free agency like the Bills and 49ers did last year. Look at the Bills, the main reason why their team has improved is because of two draft picks: Edwards and Lynch, not because of any big moves made in free agency. Focus on the draft, and don’t spend too much on free agents. Frankly, I think with the way free agency has come the past few years, you tend to get much better value in the trade market. But of course, you have to be wary of giving up too many draft picks, which is something the Falcons need right now. But if you can get a guy that you already know is a top player and can immediately add a lot to your roster, then I think it might be worth using a 2nd or 3rd round pick to acquire him. But do your homework. The fact that a team is trading the player should be the first red flag.
Obviously a lot of the Falcons moves will be dependent on who is the next head coach. I don’t have any real specific recommendations on that one other than hire a guy that you believe will be good at motivating. And the second criteria should be someone that has already compiled a short list of candidates that he wants to coordinate his offense and defense BEFORE he has even arrived at the interview. Preparation and organization are too key, yet underrated aspects of being an NFL head coach. Head coaches are also made and broken by their coordinators. The guy on the offensive side of the ball will be key since it will be he who has the potential to shape our rookie passer’s future success.