Arguably the biggest priority for the Falcons this off-season is improving up front. This team got pushed around too much last year, and if they intend to make a championship run in the coming years that has to change. Their offensive line is going to have to go from a glaring weakness to an obvious strength.
The Falcons will first need to make decisions on whether to bring certain players back. Todd McClure is a free agent, and it appears he intends to keep playing. But McClure turns 35 in two weeks, and with the intense focus on improving in the trenches, the time seems ripe to move on and try to get younger here. The Falcons have Joe Hawley waiting in the wings. Hawley did not particularly shine at center early in the season, but the experience he added later in the year playing guard should help him improve there.
The Falcons will also need to make a decision on whether to bring back Sam Baker. Many are speculating that the Falcons will part ways with Baker due to his salary and the disappointing 2011 he had. Baker showed promise early in his career, playing well in his first two seasons, but has showed almost no improvement, if not regression over the past two seasons. The team tried him at right guard and as a blocking tight end late in the season, and neither position switch really worked. So it’s likely that the team will part ways, saving money and moving on.
If the team shows trust in Hawley to man the pivot spot, that will mean more than likely the team will focus on upgrading the left tackle position and right guard spot this off-season.
Will Svitek was a decent replacement for Baker at left tackle, but as he got more experience there he was exposed a bit more. The team should be on the lookout for a long-term solution at this position. But without a first round pick in the draft, it will be hard to find a good left tackle ready to start right away in the draft. That could mean the Falcons scour the free agent market looking for quality left tackle candidates.
A few players such as Jared Gaither (San Diego) and Demetrius Bell (Buffalo) rise to the top of the list. Although there is some talk that the Chargers could dump Marcus McNeill due to his high salary and his neck and back injuries, Gaither is probably not likely to return to San Diego. Back injuries also forced Gaither to miss all of the 2010 season and some of 2009. But prior to those injuries, he was considered one of the top young left tackles in the league. He signed with the Chiefs this past off-season to try and resurrect that reputation, but he did little besides serving as a third tackle and tight end. But when he was picked up by the CHargers in Week 13, he started to play well down the stretch.
Gaither’s past injury issues probably means that whatever team, Falcons included, should not break the bank for him. But he’s a big, physical player that if his strength is back is capable of going up against the better pass rushers in the league and a clear upgrade over what the Falcons have at the position.
Bell has also dealt with his share of injuries, missing a big chunk of this past year with a broken collarbone, before a knee injury put him on IR before the final game of the season. He also missed half of the 2009 season with knee problems. Bell looked like a player that was finally emerging into a capable left tackle this year before injuries sapped him. But he struggled in both previous seasons as the Bills left tackle. It appears the Bills want to keep him, but he may decide to move on because they intend to have him compete with second-year Chris Hairston for the starting job. Bell may opt to go to a team where he is more appreciated. Bell has always been noted for his athleticism, being the son of former NBA super star Karl Malone. The question the Falcons must ask is whether or not his issues with injuries are going to be a problem going forward, and whether he’s a one-year wonder that will pick up where he left off before getting hurt this season.
Another option to the Falcons may be to go after a player like Philadelphia’s King Dunlap. Dunlap has performed admirably in a handful of replacement starts for Jason Peters over the past few years. He’s a massive blocker that could be looking to emerge from the shadows as a legit starter. Because of his limited experience, he probably would be a much cheaper option for the Falcons to pursue.
Pittsburgh’s Max Starks might be worth a look, but he’ll likely miss most if not all of the spring due to suffered a torn ACL at the end of the year. Starks could be a cheap insurance policy if that injury drives his price down, that the Falcons could stash on the PUP until he’s healthy.
The Falcons could also try and go after a veteran like Jeff Backus who could be a decent stopgap for a year. The Lions appear to want Backus to return. But he too is coming off a biceps injury that may limit his ability to come in right away and man the starting spot.
Signing injured players is not really in the best interest of the Falcons because they’ll need their new linemen to be able to come in the spring and summer and begin to gel as a unit. So that would make it doubtful that the team would look hard at guys like Backus and Starks, although Bell should not be out too long.
That likely means the Falcons will have to make a serious play for Gaither, who could be a fairly hot commodity on the open market for all the left tackle-needy teams that won’t be picking at the top of the draft. Teams like Arizona, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Minnesota all might be making strong plays for a player such as Gaither. Which is thus why the Falcons may find themselves priced out of that sweepstakes, and a player like Dunlap more attractive to bring in to compete directly with Svitek.
In the next part, we’ll look at what the Falcons can do to upgrade their interior offensive line.