As everyone knows, the Falcons have fallen short of expectations the past two season and all indications from the postseason press conference are that there will be significant changes to not only the coaching staff but also some tweaking of the roster. With that in mind, here are some things to think about when next Tuesday arrives:
QUARTERBACK: The big question here is what direction will the team go for a backup quarterback. While Chris Redman has been serviceable, he’s also carried a rather large cap number ($2.55 million and previously $3.05 million). The problem lies with how few snaps he actually takes. Last season saw him take only 11 snaps due to injury (and they were brief injuries where Ryan returned in both the Detroit and New Orleans games) and 2010 saw him no meaningful snaps (other than mop up duty in blow outs). Perhaps the team will want to use those millions to pursue other needs and instead turn the backup job over to John Parker Wilson. While highly unproven, he carries a significantly cheaper cap charge and would do more than well enough in the situations described above. The other options are to sign one or draft one but again, I think the Falcons will try to go the cheaper route.
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: I was very surprised to see the team bring back Snelling. It’s definitely not a negative that he’s back but with Coach Smith indicating a larger role for Jacquizz Rodgers, I was unsure of where the carries would come from to support the move. The playing time may not come all at half back but he may see an increased role at fullback. It’s hard for me to envision Ovie Mughelli returning at a cap number approaching $4 million and also difficult to imagine any kind of extension considering he’s coming off a major knee injury and turning 32 in a few months. When looking at run blocking, Mike Cox proved to be equal to or maybe even better than Mughelli in the same amount of snaps. Further compounding the problem is that the Falcons used a fullback in only 25% of the plays last season. I’m leaning towards the idea that Cox will be in the backfield for the tough yards and true run blocking situations while Snelling will not only get some carries at running back but also be featured in two back sets with both Turner and Rodgers at times to give defenses multiple looks and also involve more screen options which is something that Coach Smith has foreshadowed. Not to mention that freeing up $3 million of cap space would do wonders for the Falcons free agency needs.
TIGHT ENDS: With Gonzalez and Palmer back, that only leaves the #3 spot open to compete with Palmer at #2. If you had asked me prior to the combine, I’d have really believed that there would be a 50% chance that the Falcons would be drafting Coby Fleener or Orson Charles with the second round pick. Fleener is still a possibility but Charles obviously shot himself in the foot with his DUI. I do expect the team to do something at tight end but it may be nothing more than signing one in hopes of striking gold and waiting for next year to find Gonzalez’s replacement.
WIDE RECEIVERS: The Falcons are set with White and Jones as the main starters for the foreseeable future. The question to ask is what happens with the slot receiver. Harry Douglas and Eric Weems are both free agents and Douglas understandably wants a chance to start. With the wide receiver pool deep in free agency, he may not get that shot and find himself back with the team. Meanwhile, Weems offers a diverse set of skills from not only as a returner but also as a tackler (second on the team to Akeem Dent) and is a capable receiver (targeted 12 times and catching 11 passes last season, the lone incompletion was not a drop). Kerry Meier returns along with Kevin Cone who was added to the team late last year. If both Douglas and Weems return then I would only expect a late round draft pick at most to be added. If only Douglas returns then you’ll see us draft one earlier that would most likely have return ability. A Travis Benjamin type receiver who could develop into the slot position while serving as a dangerous return man comes to mind. If Weems returns then he would man the slot and you might would see Dominique Franks take over return duties.
TACKLES: I do not believe that the starting left tackle is currently on the team. While Will Svitek is a valuable player to have, he’s not the bookend left tackle that the team will want to hitch their wagon to. With the struggles of Sam Baker and a cap number of $4.1 million, there’s an opportunity to shave $2.5 million off the cap and use that along with other moves mentioned to sign someone like a Marcus McNeil or Demetrius Bell. Tyson Clabo has the right side locked down. I would not rule out a draft pick, be it early or late, being used at tackle and almost expect it.
GUARDS: Likewise, I also don’t think the Falcons are done at guard. While Blalock is solid at left guard, right guard is wide open. Garrett Reynolds just isn’t a guard in my opinion and tends to play too high (and that’s largely due to his height). He’s much better suited to be a tackle but with Clabo on the right side, I don’t see that happening. Mike Johnson missed last season with an injury and will get a chance to compete for the position again this season. Last year’s draft choice of Andrew Jackson will be added to the mix again as will newly signed Vince Manuwai. Manuwai missed last season after being cut in camp due to conditioning and an ankle injury. If he returns to form of 2009/2010 then the Falcons problems at guard may very well be solved–at least short term. Manuwai will be 32 when season starts so a longer term solution will probably be sought. One player I would really love for the Falcons to snag is Geoff Schwartz. According to reports, he is not likely to be tendered by Carolina. Although he did miss last season with a hip injury he proclaims to be 100% healthy and ready to go. At 25 years old, he’s young and has a huge upside. Starting for Carolina in 2010, he graded out by Pro Football Focus to be the #7 right guard in the league and also started 5 games at right tackle and graded out well there too. That kind of versatility is very valuable and would come at a very reasonable price. The reward easily outweighs the risk. The draft is also very deep at guard this year and provides even more options.
CENTER: I don’t get the impression that the team will be re-signing Todd McClure. While thankful for all of his years of service, all signs and comments point towards taking a step towards the future with this position. I believe that Joe Hawley (drafted in 2010 for this very purpose) will be given the shot to man the position. I do expect the team to possibly re-sign Brett Romberg to backup or possibly draft a center to compete with Hawley. A great draft year for interior linemen, I find myself intrigued by David Mock who will most likely be around in the mid to late rounds.
While adding a player like Carl Nicks, Evan Mathis or other big name free agent offensive linemen are definitely appealing, I don’t get the impression that is the direction the team is going to go but I do think they will and have addressed needs as far as offensive line goes. With a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach, it will be interesting to see what direction the team goes in but signing Manuwai paired with Blalock shows that they may want to go a lot bigger than they have in the past.
Tomorrow, I’ll break down the defense and special teams as we continue to take a look at what the future might hold.