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Takeaways From Last Week – March 18

March 18th, 2013 Comments off
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

My initial reaction to the moves the Falcons made this week weren’t overly positive. I thought the team overpaid Sam Baker and wasn’t a huge believer that running back Steven Jackson would help that much. After a few more days to mull it over, I’m singing a different tune about Jackson but still don’t love the Baker signing.

I believed re-signing Baker was the smart move for the Falcons. Baker is coming off his best season, and his solid performance in the NFC Championship Game proved that he was worth investing into. I just wish the Falcons had invested a little less. While Baker signed a six-year deal worth slightly more than $41 million with $18.25 million guaranteed, the deal really translates to be a three-year, $22.75 million contract. That is because after the third year, the contract is structured to a level where the team could potentially cut Baker. It’s not something I root for, but it’s hard to justify paying an offensive linemen $8.05 million (Baker’s 2016 cap hit) unless he’s a Pro Bowl player. Baker probably won’t be that due to his physical limitations: lack of strength and short arms. What we saw from him in 2012 is probably the best we can hope for and that wasn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber performance.

Baker got market value for his deal, as his three-year payout is comparable to those of Jermon Bushrod ($22.5 million) and William Beatty ($24 million). I didn’t think the Falcons made the right call when they gave Justin Blalock a six-year, $38 million deal following the lockout. Similarly, that was a market value at the time. I just wish the Falcons had only made a more modest two-year commitment to Baker. Blalock’s contract is structured similarly, and come 2015 he is set to count roughly $7.9 million against the Falcons cap. It will be hard to justify bringing a competent guard like Blalock back at that level unless he plays better in 2013 and 2014. It would have been a bit more congruous in my mind if both Baker and Blalock could have potentially been pushed out the door in the same year. I’ve never really thought the left side of the Falcons offensive line was a strength of theirs, and thus committing that sort of money to it doesn’t make great sense.

While I’m not sure Jackson is really going to be an impact runner as a lead back, I do think he will help the Falcons out as a situational back. The Falcons were terrible last year in short-yardage and goalline situations, and Jackson should be an upgrade there. He hits the hole a lot quicker and harder than Michael Turner did. The downside of Jackson is that he’s probably not going to be that valuable outside those situations. He can better help keep the Falcons offense on schedule by giving them far less 2nd & 8 situations that seemed to be the staple with Turner as the lead back. But he doesn’t quite have the skillset to make defenses pay for focusing too much of their attention on the Falcons receivers. He won’t generate big runs on the second level, which I believe could be extremely valuable for the Falcons offense as they continue to try and become more explosive. But if Jackson can be more effective at wearing down defenses between the tackles, that could open up greater opportunities for Jacquizz Rodgers as a change of pace runner. Quizz doesn’t possess great speed to run away from defenders, but his exceptional quickness can be dangerous when he gets outside. Jackson certainly will bring needed toughness to the Falcons offense.

Neither re-signing Baker nor adding Jackson were bad moves by any means, they just weren’t perfect.
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Steven Jackson joins Falcons

March 14th, 2013 Comments off
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

Adam Schefter of ESPN first reported that the Falcons have agreed to terms with former St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, which has been confirmed by the team to be a three-year deal. Jackson becomes the first new player to join the Falcons in the 2013 off-season. He will likely supplant Michael Turner as the Falcons’ new starting running back.

Jackson is coming off his eighth consecutive 1000-yard season, rushing for 1,042 yards and 4 touchdowns last year with the Rams. Jackson is one of eight NFL players to rush for 1000 yards in at least 8 of his first 9 seasons. Five of those players are current Hall of Famers, and two more (not counting Jackson) in Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson are likely to get inducted in due time. Jackson has been voted to the Pro Bowl three times in his career, most recently in 2010.

Jackson was the Rams top pick in the 2004 draft out of Oregon State, where he spent a year as the understudy to Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk before taking over duties in his second season. He has missed a total of just 11 games over the subsequent eight seasons, showing good durability for a player at his position. Known for his toughness and strong character, Jackson was looking to join a winning team. The Rams made the playoffs during Jackson’s rookie season, but have failed to finish above .500 in any subsequent year with him as the lead back. Jackson is also a significant factor in the passing game with 407 career receptions and 3324 yards, which leads all active running backs in the NFL.

UPDATE: D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC reports the deal with Jackson is worth $12 million over three years with $4 million guaranteed.

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Palmer doesn’t get tendered

March 13th, 2013 Comments off

On the league’s official list of free agents published Tuesday afternoon by the Associated Press, Falcons tight end Michael Palmer’s name was listed among the restricted free agents who were not tendered offers from their respective clubs. That makes Palmer an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team. As a restricted free agent, if the Falcons had tendered him, they would have received the right of first refusal, the ability to match any offer that Palmer may have signed with another team. That ability to match would have extended to a 7-day period. If the Falcons did not match the deal, they would be entitled to draft pick compensation based on the original round that the player was drafted. Since Palmer was an undrafted free agent in 2010, the Falcons would have needed to tender him at the second round level. Then they potentially would have received a second round in the unlikely event that another team tried to sign him.

Palmer’s lack of a tender doesn’t preclude his return to the Falcons in 2013. But he’ll likely have to accept a near-minium deal that pays him substantially less than the $1.323 million he would have received had he been tendered.

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 4

March 4th, 2013 Comments off
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think Flacco needs to be too concerned over car payments now.

With much of the details of Joe Flacco’s new record-breaking $120.6 million contract being released on Sunday night, we now have a blueprint for what Matt Ryan’s new deal will look like. The only real question is at what point does Ryan sign on the dotted line.

I wrote earlier that I figured that Ryan would be signed sometime this summer because I did not expect Flacco’s deal to get done so quickly. Kudos to Ozzie Newsome & Co. for speeding up the process. The Ravens have a number of good free agents that they need to re-sign this off-season, and avoiding the monster $20 million franchise tag that Flacco would have incurred should allow them to keep many of them. Now, Flacco’s cap hit in 2013 is reportedly around $6.8 million, essentially freeing up $13 million in cap space.

When the Ryan deal gets done, it’s likely that the Falcons will also reap cap benefits, although I’m not sure as much. Ryan is set to count $12 million against this year’s salary cap, but I would expect the first year cap hit of his new deal to be in the ballpark of Flacco, which probably means somewhere around $5-6 million savings.

The interesting things about Flacco’s deal are the payouts in Year 1 ($30 million), Year 2 ($51 million) and Year 3 ($62 million). The latter two figures exceed that of Drew Brees, although Brees was paid $40 million in the first year of his new deal. $52 million of Flacco’s contract is guaranteed, while the number was reportedly $60 million for Brees. Remember, Brees is represented by Tom Condon, who also represents Matt Ryan. It’s in Condon’s best interest to try and reclaim the biggest contract awarded to a quarterback, although that clearly may not be in the Falcons’ best interest. So likely a middle ground will need to be reached. And that could take time. Which makes me believe that we will see Ryan comes to terms later rather than sooner. It may not last until July at this point, but I’m not optimistic that a deal will get done before March 12, when those cap savings could be very beneficial to the Falcons as they shop for new players.

As of Friday, reports were that the Falcons had yet to engage in serious talks with Ryan.

The other news that the Falcons made on Friday was the release of three veterans in John Abraham, Dunta Robinson, and Michael Turner. The Turner move was expected, and was a long time coming. I was not convinced the Falcons would dump Dunta, as it leaves a pretty large hole at cornerback. Instead, I expected the Falcons to restructure Dunta’s deal to have him return in 2013 at a more cap-friendly price. Abraham was the surprise move, as it had been hinted at but I don’t think anybody expected the Falcons to actually part ways with him. Abraham was the team’s entire pass rush practically, and the team has already proclaimed that improving there will be an off-season priority. So on Friday, the Falcons essentially took a step back in order to take several steps forward.

I really don’t know what the Falcons “plan’ is going forward. I suspect they will be targeting pass rushers early in the draft, but does it mean that they will also be looking for free agents to sign?

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Matt Ryan’s new deal will be tied to Flacco

February 18th, 2013 Comments off
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Flacco

I think it’s a foregone conclusion that at some point in the next six or seventh months the Falcons will sign a long-term extension with quarterback Matt Ryan that makes him one of the highest paid signal callers in the NFL.

If the Falcons can get a deal done with Ryan prior to the start of free agency on March 12, it could free up much needed cap space. Ryan is set to count $12 million against the Falcons cap this year. Given the nature of large contracts that are heavily backloaded, it likely means that cap figure will decrease dramatically in the first year of Ryan’s deal. We’re talking about perhaps $6 million the Falcons could reap immediately. Given how tight the Falcons cap situation is, that $6 million could really come in handy when it come to re-signing their own free agents or signing guys from other teams.

Ryan will likely be joined by Super Bowl MVP and impending free agent Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys in terms of getting brand new contracts this off-season. What is interesting is that Ryan and Romo share the same agent, Tom Condon.

Flacco’s agent Joe Linta made headlines a year ago discussing that he believed his client was then a Top 5 quarterback, which most laughed at. Well a year later now his client is sporting some serious bling, and he certainly has the last laugh. It is now expected that Linta will seek to make his client the highest paid quarterback in the league.

The player who currently holds that title is another Condon client by the name of Drew Brees. Brees signed a five-year deal that averaged $20 million last year with $60 million guaranteed, including $40 million paid at the outset.

When the Falcons drafted Ryan in the final years of the whopping rookie contracts, they gave him a deal that averaged $12 million a year with roughly $35 million guaranteed, then the highest ever given to a quarterback. The following year, No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford got $50 million guaranteed on a deal that average $13 million a year. That was followed up in 2010 by Matt Stafford’s contract that averaged about $12 million and had $42 million guaranteed, but also included an additonal $17 million option bonus paid in the second year which was not technically guaranteed, but about as close as you can get. By the way, Condon also represents both players.

Another Condon client, Peyton Manning signed a five-year deal with the Broncos last March that averaged $19 million per year with guarantees that will reach $60 million assuming Manning doesn’t fail a physical between now and March.

I’m trying to illustrate the landscape in which Ryan comes in for his future contract negotiations. Ryan has more regular season wins than any other quarterback in the last five seasons with 56. In fact, that is the most ever for any quarterback in NFL history in his first five seasons. That is certainly going to be a point that Condon makes during negotiations. Flacco isn’t far behind him with 54 regular season wins, but throw in his 9 postseason wins, it pushes him to 63 total over the past five years, the most in the league.

But Ryan isn’t far behind when you factor in postseason success, tying with Aaron Rodgers for 57 total. That outpaces Brees (56 total), Tom Brady (53), Ben Roethlisberger (53), Eli Manning (52), and Peyton Manning (51). Again, these are going to be key points for Condon in negotiations.

Brees was 33 when he signed his deal, and Manning was 36. Ryan will be 27 or 28 when he signs his deal. His current success coupled with his age that assumes continued success in the future is going to cause Condon to seek deals that exceed those of his two previous clients.

So it all brings us back to the question of whether this will help the Falcons get a deal done with Ryan sooner rather than later in order to reap the immediate cap benefits.

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Falcons FA Focus: Linebacker

February 12th, 2013 Comments off
Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Jon Beason

I know I skipped over the defensive line positions in terms of looking at prospective free agents that could help the Falcons, but there are a lot of players to watch to drink it all in. So I’ll just instead skip ahead to the linebacker position won’t take a huge amount of effort to break down.

The Falcons need at linebacker centers around their desire to get better in coverage. It arguably cost them a chance at the Super Bowl after tight end Vernon Davis carved up the Falcon defense in the NFC Championship Game, following a year where tight ends seemed to do the same every week.

The Falcons are expected to challenge Stephen Nicholas for his role in the team’s nickel subpackage. The primary challenger probably will be middle linebacker Akeem Dent, but with Mike Peterson hitting free agency and unlikely to return, there is a definite void that could be filled this off-season. And it makes the most sense if that is a player that also can help out in coverage.

It makes sense if the Falcons wait until the draft to address this position. One of the many issues with the Falcons’ coverage at the linebacker position is a lack of speed. While Sean Weatherspoon, the unit’s best player does not lack in that arena, he too struggled at times to match up. Particularly with New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles, who worked him over in Week 13 last year. Upgrading in that area makes a lot of sense to try and give the team a linebacker that can deal with Sproles. That way, the Falcons can utilize Weatherspoon more effectively to cover tight end Jimmy Graham in those Saints matchups, which may prove ultimately more fruitful than previous attempts.

The simple fact is that linebackers in the draft are going to be younger, sprier, and ultimately more explosive than any veterans that have already accumulated wear and tear in the league. If the Falcons want someone with speed that can potentially match up with Sproles, their best options likely lie in the draft.

But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons can’t find veterans worth signing. With Peterson likely departing, the Falcons have a need for depth. Currently their backups are Robert James and Pat Schiller due to the release of Matt Hansen over the weekend.

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Falcons Needs: Safety

February 12th, 2013 Comments off
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

DeCoud congratulates Moore

The Falcons do have some questions at safety, most of which linger around the looming free agent status of strong safety William Moore.

Moore is probably the team’s most likely candidate to land the franchise tag if it comes to that. That will carry a cap hit of roughly $6.8 million. Recent reports suggest that Moore probably won’t be too pleased to receive such a tag as it would conflict with his desire to test the market. For the sake of both the Falcons and Moore, it will work best if they can come to an agreement before the deadline of March 5, after which teams can no longer tag players.

Moore is one of the better players on the Falcons defense. Along with former college teammate Sean Weatherspoon, he represents the young core of the Falcons defense that is expected to succeed players like John Abraham, Asante Samuel, and Jonathan Babineaux as regular playmakers. Moore is an opportunistic run-defending safety that managed to make a lot of plays in coverage this past year. He seemed to really find a home in Mike Nolan’s defense. The two major weaknesses of Moore’s game are his struggles when facing quality tight ends and his lack of durability. Saints TE Jimmy Graham abused him so badly in the Week 10 loss this past year, that Nolan made concerted efforts to avoid that matchup in the Falcons in Week 13 win over the Saints. Moore has missed a quarter of the games in each of the past two years with thigh and hamstring injuries. He also sat out his rookie year in 2009 with a hamstring injury, and was often nicked up throughout college. Moore’s physical playing style contributes to his injuries coupled with the fact that players at his position tend to have the shortest careers of all defenders. I doubt that is a big enough issue to make the Falcons let Moore walk, but it may become an issue that may prolong contract negotiations. The Falcons may not want to pay top dollar to a player that already has a long injury history and may only be effective for just another three or four years given the nature of his position.

The Falcons drafted Charles Mitchell last year in the sixth round, probably with the mindset of having him add depth at the position but also to provide an insurance policy in case Moore walked. Well, it doesn’t seem likely that the Falcons will roll the dice with Mitchell as a starter going forward after a lackluster rookie season. But he’ll likely be expected to supplant free agent Chris Hope for the No. 3 safety position. Shann Schillinger is returning from sitting out the year with an injury and will be expected to contribute on special teams. But don’t be surprised if the Falcons look at more options in the draft or free agency to solidify their depth. Again, safety is the most injury prone position on defense, thus it pays to have good depth there. That’s what prompted the team to sign Hope last summer before camp. Hope had his moments filling in for Moore late in the year, but he wasn’t a great fit in Nolan’s scheme and probably won’t be back next year. The Falcons have featured a revolving door in terms of veteran backups the past three years, starting with Erik Coleman in 2010, James Sanders in 2011, to Hope last season. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons go for a fourth, although again it’s more likely that they will give Mitchell every opportunity to take over that spot.

When the Falcons signed Thomas DeCoud to a five-year deal last spring, the deal was structured in a way that suggested that the Falcons weren’t completely satisfied with him at free safety. The first two years of his deal had modest cap hits (both under $2.5 million), with a jump to nearly $5 million in 2014. If DeCoud is on the roster on the fifth day of the league year in 2014, $2.25 of his $4.2 million base salary will become guaranteed. The Falcons could potentially reap savings of $3 million against their 2014 cap if they were to cut him at before that point.

But DeCoud is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and it’s increasingly less likely that the Falcons will explore other options at the position in the near future. DeCoud would have to have a very underwhelming 2013 season in order for this upcoming year to be his last in Atlanta.

Like Moore, DeCoud really took to Nolan’s scheme. Already blessed with very good speed and range, he was much more disciplined in coverage this year allowing him to make more plays there. He’s still underwhelming in run support due to his lack of size, which will always be an issue. But he often can make up for it with his closing speed. Despite his 2012 accolades, he’ll probably never be considered one of the best safeties in the league but he can be a productive and effective starter moving forward.

The further solidify depth, the team could tinker with Dominique Franks playing here. It certainly was something they tried late in the year as they mixed in more of their dime subpackage. Franks may struggle to make the roster next year as a cornerback. He’s the biggest of the team’s corners. The Falcons may tinker with the notion of featuring more dime next year, especially as they face teams like New Orleans and New England that present matchup challenges for the Falcons personnel. Similar to Franks, that player might be styled as a big corner that can play the run effectively.

Don’t Expect a Falcon Off-season Spending Spree

February 5th, 2013 1 comment
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Is John Abraham in danger of being cut?

D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC posted the upcoming 2013 salaries for every player under contract, confirming his earlier report that the Falcons salary cap space will be tight. The Falcons are expected to be slightly less than $2 million under next year’s projected $120.6 million salary cap. The Falcons have about $120.2 million collectively due to the top 51 players on their off-season roster, and get to carry over an addition $1.3 million from last season to squeeze in at around $1.7 million under the projected 2013 salary cap.

The salary cap in 2012 was in fact $120.6 million, but there is no expectation for a significant increase for 2013. The Falcons will need to clear some cap space in order to tender a pair of restricted free agents in tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith. Based on the projected restricted free agent tenders for this year, the Falcons will have to commit to each a minimum tender of $1.323 million if they intend to keep either. That represents the original round tender. Since both Palmer and Smith were undrafted rookies, tendering them at that level would mean that the Falcons would receive no compensation if they were to sign offers with other teams. The Falcons could then have the option of tendering the pair at the second round level, worth $2.023 million. That way, the Falcons would receive a second round pick if either free agent was to sign elsewhere. Cornerback Robert McClain is not a restricted free agent, as Ledbetter’s contract information confirms he is under contract for 2013.

Given the current projections, the Falcons only have enough cap space to tender one of the two. In order to clear more space, the Falcons could renegotiate the contracts of several veteran players, and possibly release a few.

One candidate for release is running back Michael Turner, who per Ledbetter, would create $4.4 million in cap space if released. Defensive end John Abraham is also a potential candidate for release, who Ledbetter indicates could free up $6 million in next year’s cap space. Scott Carasik of Bleacher Report indicates that the Falcons could also save at least $6 million against the 2013 by releasing cornerback Dunta Robinson.

The Falcons are also expected to sign Matt Ryan to a long-term extension this off-season. Ryan carries the team’s biggest cap hit of 2013 at $12 million. That number could reduced as part of a lower first-year salary on a new multi-year deal. Last year, the five-year $100 million contract signed by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was able to lower his 2012 cap hit by roughly $6 million. Brees and Ryan are represented by the same agent, Tom Condon.

Other highly-paid veterans that might be asked to re-work their deals are wide receiver Roddy White ($9.125 million 2013 cap hit); guard Justin Blalock ($7.66 million); tackle Tyson Clabo ($6.05 million); cornerback Asante Samuel ($5.7 million); defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux ($5.2 million) and Peria Jerry ($2.01 million); linebacker Stephen Nicholas ($3.5 million); and kicker Matt Bryant ($2.9625 million).

While these moves could potentially create a significant amount of space for the Falcons, much of that opened space will be used to retain the team’s own free agents. The Falcons are expected to re-sign offensive tackle Sam Baker to a long-term deal, and also will be looking to keep safety William Moore. The team may be forced to place the franchise tag on Moore if they cannot work out a long-term deal before the end of February. The franchise tender for safeties is expected to be around $6.8 million. Based off contracts signed by free agent tackles Eric Winston, Demetress Bell, and Jared Gaither last spring, a multi-year contract with Baker could average between $5 and $7 million annually. Per contract information provided by Spotrac.com, their first-year cap hits for that trio’s respective deals averaged about $3 million.

Factoring in tenders for Palmer and Smith, it suggests that the Falcons will need to create roughly $12 million in cap space just to retain those four free agents. Other players that become unrestricted free agents this off-season include: tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes, center Todd McClure, fullback Mike Cox, cornerback Chris Owens, defensive tackle Vance Walker, offensive tackle Will Svitek, guard Garrett Reynolds, quarterback Luke McCown, linebacker Mike Peterson, and defensive Lawrence Sidbury.

Falcons Needs: Quarterback

January 30th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons have needs at every position, or at least they have room to improve their roster across the board. I want to look at every position group to see what areas where the Falcons can improve. Let’s start first with quarterback.

It is expected that the Falcons will begin contract extension talks with Matt Ryan at some point this off-season. Ryan is signed through the 2013 season, and thus the Falcons don’t want to get into a situation next off-season where they are in a protracted contract stalemate with Ryan. If the Falcons can get Ryan locked up to a long-term deal, then it will alleviate many of the issues they have at this position.

Next on the Falcons to-do list is going to be addressing the No. 2 spot on the roster. Luke McCown was signed just before the start of the regular season to replace Chris Redman and John Parker Wilson, both of whom struggled in the preseason. McCown can be a competent reserve when the conditions around him are ideal, namely when he has a ground game, playmakers at wide receiver, and doesn’t have to play from behind. Those conditions could be met in Atlanta if the Falcons can get their ground game back on track but they don’t want to be in a situation where McCown will be asked to start multiple games in the event of a Ryan injury.

McCown is a free agent, and he could be retained fairly easily. It’s unlikely he’ll get anything more than a one-year, near-minimum deal on the open market, so if the Falcons offer the same it’s likely he’ll remain in Atlanta. But the Falcons need at quarterback will be bringing in more competition. Dominique Davis will represent the third quarterback on the roster and will be in the competition, but the team needs a fourth arm. Traditionally the Falcons have relied on undrafted talent to fill this part of the depth chart, but it might be time that the team delves into free agency or the draft to try and find more than your run of the mill undrafted prospect.

The ideal fit for the Falcons will be someone that is somewhat familiar with Dirk Koetter’s scheme. But also from a skill standpoint, they probably want to look for someone that is comfortable with a vertical passing game. It remains to be seen whether or not the Falcons running game makes significant strides next year, and thus the team may still be reliant on the explosiveness of their passing game to potentially win games if Ryan were to go down. There’s an obvious candidate that fits both requirements: David Garrard.

While the Falcons could look for talent in the middle to late portion of the draft, the presence of Davis on the roster probably mitigates their desire for another young, developing quarterback. Davis possesses a big arm and mobility, which if he can polish up his mechanics and become more comfortable making his progressions could develop into a capable No. 2.

Whether the Falcons choose to retain McCown or move in another direction, the key is that they bring in some arms that can bolster competition in camp. Whoever fills the backup spot in 2013 should be in for an open, intense competition, and settling for retaining an average McCown and green Davis won’t be enough to provide that.

Takeaways from Championship Weekend

January 23rd, 2013 2 comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan deserves a new deal.

I was late in posting the recap of the Falcons-49er game partially because of my attendance at the game didn’t really give me access to a computer afterwards. That was followed up by my car breaking down Monday on my return trip to North Carolina, which consumed all my energy then and the following day. All in all, it was not a great weekend for me.

But I really needed some time and energy to digest the loss. I was never distraught over it, but it was highly disappointing. While some may label the Falcons as chokers, I don’t see it that way. Did they blow the game? Yes. They had a lead, didn’t hold it, but they had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it. They just didn’t. I’m not going to sit here like many have done over the past 72 hours and try and find a scapegoat. The 49ers were widely considered to be a better team than the Falcons, and thus their win over the Falcons is not a surprise. The Broncos were 10-point favorites over the Ravens. Their loss was a chokejob especially given the outright impossibility of the now infamous Rahim Moore blown coverage. The Broncos played uncharacteristic in that game. Peyton Manning looked a little gun shy, Champ Bailey looked old, and they even got a pair of special teams touchdowns, which had never happened in a playoff game. Teams with a pair of special teams touchdowns since 1970 are 31-7 in games. That was a chokejob.

With the Falcons being the underdogs in the game, I don’t think they choked. They had ample opportunities to win the game, they did not.

It’s more disappointing because of what I wrote about in mid-November. This was likely the Falcons best chance to be in the Super Bowl in the foreseeable future. I still believe that. Matt Ryan played the best football we’ve seen him play. What’s interesting to me is that after posting that piece, I think we started to see a significant decline in Ryan’s game, and he sort of “reverted” back to his older self as opposed to playing at the MVP level he was for the first half of 2012. I think that reversion began with his 5-interception performance against the Cardinals. Now don’t get me wrong, a “reverted” Matt Ryan is still a Top 10 quarterback, so if you hear or see any Falcon fans complaining about Matt Ryan, then my suggestion is to punch them in the face. Matt Ryan may not be as good as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, but anybody that is unsatisfied with his performance over the past five years or this past season is a lunatic. Anybody that is still questioning Ryan’s ability to win in January, should only look at those four quarterbacks and their recent playoff success (or lack thereof). Even the great ones play poorly in January, and Ryan certainly outperformed those elite guys this past January.

Ryan certainly deserves to get a big-time extension this off-season. And my expectation is that it will make him one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. That likely will exceed $16 million per year, and possibly approach $18 or $19 million per year, which would put him just behind Drew Brees ($20M/yr.) and Peyton Manning ($19.2M/yr.) (per Spotrac) as the highest paid QBs in the league. His guaranteed money will probably be in the $40 to $50 million range. It’s a very high premium, but when you think about the stability it potentially provides the Falcons for the next 5-7 years it is well worth it in my opinion. And it actually should help alleviate cap space for the Falcons as Ryan’s cap hit of $10 million in 2013 could potentially be cut in half if the Falcons structure the new deal appropriately.

The downside of such a deal means that the Falcons cap space will be limited in future years, and thus they will have to recommit to the draft which they have not done in recent years. They have traded a first or second round pick in each of the past three drafts. That can’t happen, as the Falcons won’t be able to spend as much on the open market in future years due to the high price that will be annually paid to Ryan. But that is not too much of a downside, because I think that’s exactly how Thomas Dimitroff likes it. It just means that the margin for error grows even smaller, and the Falcons can’t have any more Peria Jerry picks.

As for what the Falcons do in the off-season, nothing really has changed in terms of assessing how the year ended. We’ve known all year long that the Falcons need to become a more balanced offense by improving the ground attack. Michael Turner is likely gone. The Falcons should look to replace him with some fresh legs in the draft. The offensive line held up better down the stretch than I certainly expected after a fairly lackluster regular season. So the Falcons don’t need to make sweeping changes there. They should look to get a new right guard, as I still think Peter Konz is better suited to playing center. Maybe they can find someone in free agency, such as Buffalo’s Andy Levitre. They need to find a young replacement for Tony Gonzalez, which we’ve known for several years was a move that was inevitable.

Defensively, the Falcons need to upgrade their pass rush. Their inability to cover tight ends probably also means they need to look into getting a good coverage linebacker. Stephen Nicholas did an admirable job, but similar to Curtis Lofton he’s just not cut out to be an everydown player. But ever since Darren Sproles made Sean Weatherspoon look silly, we’ve known we needed upgrades there. And the Falcons will need to make a decision about the relative futures of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Grimes is a free agent and Robinson is due a high $8 million salary, $3 million of which becomes guaranteed if he’s on the team as of the fifth day of the new league year (approximiately March 16). Do the Falcons want to keep either one or go in a new direction with another young corner? I think Robert McClain had a good season, but I don’t think the Falcons should turn over a starting position to him just yet. Considering that Asante Samuel is also up there in age, I think McClain instead should be groomed as his long-term replacement. McClain is a restricted free agent following 2013, and dependent on his performance this upcoming season will determine if he’s in the long-term plans of the team. Again, given Samuel’s age, probably the smart strategy is try to get younger. The free agent market isn’t overly strong, so it probably behooves the Falcons to look for a corner on either the first or second day of the draft come April.

Of their own free agents, William Moore and Sam Baker are the two guys that they probably cannot afford to let walk. Alongside Spoon, Moore is the only impact player on the defensive side of the ball that is in the prime of his career. Baker has played well enough to earn a new contract. I’m not 100% sold that he won’t revert back to his subpar pre-2012 form, but I think his play certainly merits a new deal. And the Falcons can still develop Lamar Holmes as an insurance policy, and give him the much-needed time I believe he needs before he’s ready to be a starter.

Those are basically the needs the Falcons need to address this off-season. Will they be able to solve all of those problems this off-season? Probably not. I personally would prioritize upgrading the offensive line at right guard, but it would not surprise me if the Falcons instead opt to make additions at running back and tight end bigger priorities offensively given they could probably live with a combination of Konz, Hawley, and/or Mike Johnson at center and right guard next year. Defensively, their priority is going to be upgrading the pass rush which could be either by adding a young edge rusher as the heir apparent to John Abraham, or an interior presence to succeed Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux and Corey Peters are both entering the final years of their contracts, while both Abraham and Biermann have two years left. So don’t be surprised if the Falcons are more interested in defensive tackles this spring in the pre-draft process than edge rushers.