Takeaways from Last Week – February 10, 2014
You think like a fan, not like a man.
And I’m referring to the portion of the Atlanta Falcons fanbase that became critical of tight end Tony Gonzalez in light of the excerpts from Seth Wickersham’s article that appeared in this week’s ESPN the Magazine.
That article shed a light on the frustration that Gonzalez felt during the course of the Falcons 2013 season. It was supposed to be a year where the team was in contention for the Super Bowl. Instead, it became a year in which the Falcons were contending to be the worst team in the NFL.
Any man (or woman) would be frustrated in that scenario. Nothing Gonzalez expressed in Wickersham’s article was any more negative than what I myself have vocalized about the Falcons this year, or heard a litany of other fans say. Thus, being upset with Gonzalez probably makes you a hypocrite.
Gonzalez came out of retirement to win a Super Bowl, not for the glory of the Atlanta Falcons. And his venting over not being able to win that Super Bowl doesn’t make him a villain, but simply a human like the rest of us.
Frankly the only negative thing I can say about Wickersham’s piece is mistaking Jarrett Bush for Morgan Burnett.
I recommend picking up a copy of the magazine and reading it if you can. If not, Gonzalez went on CBS Radio with Doug Gottlieb on Friday and expressed the same sentiments during that interview.
Now if you read or listen and still come away upset with Gonzalez, then so be it. But the issue probably isn’t Gonzalez, it’s probably you.
Predicting the Falcons Offseason
I want to spend the rest of this space deciphering the Falcons offseason plans. It’s still early in the process and more than likely, I’ll probably look back on this article after the draft in May and shake my head at my own inaccuracy. But that won’t stop me from trying.
Using past draft tendencies, the Falcons are going to target a day-one starter with their top pick. Picking sixth overall, the team will want to find a player that is expected to start the moment he shows up in training camp. Looking at the current roster, there aren’t that many candidates for that role. Assuming the team is able to re-sign center Joe Hawley, the two more glaringly open positions on offense are tight end and right guard. Those two spots are currently manned by Levine Toilolo and Peter Konz, respectively, who probably inspire the least amount of confidence among the projected 11 offensive starters in 2014. But it’s doubtful that the Falcons would use that high a first-round pick on either a tight end or guard. Next on the priority would likely be offensive tackle since confidence in Sam Baker is at an all-time low, and Lamar Holmes has been less than inspirational on the other side.
The Falcons could find options at offensive tackle at the top of the draft in either Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Auburn’s Greg Robinson, should either player be available. Matthews probably fits better in terms of what the Falcons like to do offensively, since he’s a much more polished pass protector. He’s also played on either side of the offensive line, meaning that he could easily come in and start at right tackle right away and preserve Thomas Dimitroff’s dignity by allowing Baker to remain on the left side to better justify his $41 million contract. In contrast, Robinson is a dominant run blocker that would help beef up the team’s miserable ground attack. But Robinson played predominantly in a run-blocking offense at Auburn, and isn’t as proven when it comes to dropping back into a pass set like he would do often in Atlanta. The Falcons have attempted the fourth most pass attempts in the league over the past three seasons. It would represent a significant transition for Robinson, one that he might not be able to make. He too would likely start out at right tackle, but there’s no guarantee that he would ever make the eventual switch to the left side. That could result in a high premium being paid for a right tackle, even one as great as Robinson could be.
A Pass-Rusher Is Likeliest Target Atop Draft
On defense, the most likely positions that could make room for a first-year starter are at defensive end, defensive tackle and free safety. What openings occur at those positions will be determined by the team’s decisions in regards to keeping Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud and free agents Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. Safety could probably be scratched off the list since no safety is considered to be on that Eric Berry or Earl Thomas level that merits being selected that high in the draft even if the team dumps DeCoud. And all signs seem to point to the fact that both defensive tackles in Babineaux and Peters will be retained. Not to mention the lack of that elite defensive tackle prospect as well. That just leaves defensive end, or more accurately edge pass-rusher, as the likeliest defensive target at the top of the draft.
Players like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack are likely to headline the group. UCLA’s Anthony Barr is currently being projected as a top 10 pick, but the buzz on Barr is beginning to trend downward. He’s just not a polished enough pass-rusher to merit the sixth overall selection. When you’re picking a pass-rusher that high in the draft, you don’t want a player as raw as Barr is. That leaves the contrasting styles of Clowney and Mack, the former being the prototypical 4-3 defensive end, while the latter fits best in a 3-4 scheme at outside linebacker. Either could work for the Falcons as they employ a hybrid scheme under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Only a relatively minor adjustment would be made in the team’s base package on whether or not that weak-side rusher puts his hand on the ground or stands up the majority of the time. One imagines that Clowney would be the preferred option, not only because he’s widely considered a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher, but also because the 4-3 would be better suited to Umenyiora. Umenyiora will likely be retained as a situational rusher, a role he excelled at during his prime with the New York Giants, and one that he assumed towards the end of the 2013 season with the Falcons.
Thus the Falcons will enter the offseason beginning in March with Clowney atop their draft board, which should surprise no one. What is yet to be determined is whether or not the Falcons fall in love with Clowney to the degree that they attempt to move up to get him. There certainly is a possibility that Clowney falls to the Falcons at six, but it seems doubtful at this point. So many things would have to break right for that to happen, such as possibly needing four quarterbacks to get selected in the first five picks. Three seems a lot more realistic. It’d also probably require both tackles getting selected, which is probably pushing it since one seems a lot more feasible. And it might also require a team to like Mack more than Clowney, which is only likely to occur for a 3-4 team. Since there are only two (Houston and Cleveland) selecting ahead of the Falcons and both require quarterbacks, that also seems like a longshot. We’re a long way away from the draft on May 8 and a lot can happen between now and then, but it just appears the odds are unlikely that Clowney will fall to the Falcons.
Instead, the Falcons will likely need to trade up for him. Fortunately for the Falcons, there exist two good trading partners in the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars picking second and third, respectively. Both are headed by general managers that were once employees of the Falcons in Les Snead and David Caldwell, respectively. The Rams have made no secret about their willingness to move down since the end of the regular season. Given that the Jaguars are in rebuilding mode and thusly could use extra picks, they probably too will be willing to talk trade when the time comes. The major obstacle for the Falcons however are the Cleveland Browns, who select fourth overall. The Browns have added picks in the first (via the Trent Richardson trade), third and fourth rounds (both acquired on draft day of last year), giving them the much-needed fire power to move up and select the quarterback of their choice. With that extra trade ammunition, the Browns are in position to outbid the Falcons for either spot if need be. It could also drive up the price of either pick slightly just because the Rams or Jaguars know that the Browns are able to pay a higher premium.
Falcons Shouldn’t Be Too Eager to Move Up in Draft
Using the traditional trade value chart, a trade from six to three would likely require the Falcons’ second-round pick. I think that is too rich a premium for the Falcons to pay, especially given that Mack is a good player and much likelier to be available at pick six. He’s not quite in the same ballpark as Clowney. But I’d much rather have a second-round pick and Khalil Mack than just Clowney. It’s the same sort of attitude that one could have with the past Julio Jones trade, where in hindsight, taking Torrey Smith and keeping those picks would probably be more worthwhile than just having Jones, as great a player as he is.
And that’s going to be the interesting thing to see play out this offseason. I could see the Falcons wanting to move up, but are they going to get the same sort of tunnel vision they had in 2011 with Jones? Logic would dictate that the answer is no. Then, Dimitroff was so enamored with the idea of 1A and 1B Receivers that he paid and arm and a leg to make it happen. It also helped that the Falcons were coming off a 13-3 season then, and on the surface didn’t have a ton of glaring holes. Then, it was easier to delude yourself that the team was one big playmaker at wide receiver away from being a title contender. Coming off a 4-12 season in 2013, it’s unlikely the team would fall into that same delusion.
Instead if the Falcons are going to move up, a more likely scenario is probably jumping up to the fourth overall selection. That scenario particularly becomes likely if the Browns, in order to get their quarterback, swap picks with the Rams. Thus the Falcons could have a willing trade partner with the fourth pick in St. Louis. Moving up from six to four is a lot more palatable for the Falcons, as it would likely require only giving up their third-round pick (and possibly getting another third day draft selection back from St. Louis), or a combination of a fourth-round pick with other later-round selections to make up the difference. And if the Falcons get several compensatory draft selections as some are projecting, giving up three or so third-day picks won’t be a significant loss considering the plethora of needs the Falcons have to fill.
While free agency precedes the draft, often times the Falcons’ draft plans will determine how they approach free agency. Last year, the team showed very little interest in any free agent cornerbacks likely because they had seemingly determined early on that they would target one early in the draft.
Essentially, if the Falcons feel confident that they can get an edge pass-rusher early in the draft, then it’s unlikely they will be heavy suitors for any in free agency. Which means several of the big name free agents might pass the team by.
Free Agency Also Presents Opportunity to Upgrade Pass Rush
That would be a shame in my eyes. This offseason represents an excellent opportunity for the Falcons to make a significant upgrade in their pass rush by “double-dipping” in both free agency and the draft. One scenario could include the team targeting a free agent pass-rusher that has the ability to line up outside in their base set as well as inside in the nickel set, similar to what Justin Tuck has become known for with the Giants over the years. And interestingly enough, both Greg Hardy and Michael Bennett did that for their respective teams, Carolina and Seattle, in 2013. Oakland’s Lamarr Houston also possesses the skill set that could allow him to play such a role. Chicago’s Corey Wootton also have experience playing such a role and is impending free agent just like Tuck. In that scenario, the Falcons could potentially line up Umenyiora and their to be determined rookie on the edges, with Babineaux and the free agent signee on the inside in nickel sub-package to feature the best possible pass rush.
Under that scenario, young ends like Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman would get an extra year of developing under position coach Bryan Cox before being asked to play big roles. If retained, Umenyiora almost certainly will be playing his final year with the Falcons, as he becomes a free agent next spring. Massaquoi can get another year of development and be asked to replace him come 2015, the final year of his contract. Goodman would be able play most of his snaps on run downs, where he was at his best during his rookie campaign in 2013. Unlike Massaquoi, who flashed ability this past year as an injury replacement, Goodman probably needs another full year to develop before he should be expected to be an every-down player. Biermann and Peters are two more players that are also better run defenders than pass-rushers, and this plan would also put them in a better position to succeed.
Other avenues of attack in free agency would also be to add girth at defensive tackle. With Peters recovering from a torn Achilles, the possibility exists that he won’t be 100 percent by the time September rolls around. That means the Falcons should find a player that can be a stopgap at nose tackle in case his recovery is slow or suffers any setbacks. A player like Paul Soliai makes a lot of sense, if he makes it to the open market. He played under Nolan and Cox in Miami and won’t require a long-term commitment from Atlanta, thus lowering his price tag.
But if not Soliai, there are plenty of experienced nose tackles that the Falcons could bring in. Players like Linval Joseph, Earl Mitchell and B.J. Raji would likely require long-term commitments, which may not be necessary if Peters returns to form in the near future. Older players like Colin Cole, Ryan Pickett, Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers are also available, but all four might be on their last legs. Terrence Cody is a young player that never grew into the top player in Baltimore, which would probably mean that he could be signed to a lower, “prove it” deal. Or the Falcons can just scour the street to find a body. New assistant general manager Scott Pioli has a history with Anthony Toribio, who nearly started for the Kansas City Chiefs at nose tackle in 2012 instead of Dontari Poe and is currently an unsigned free agent.
Another question that needs to be answer comes at safety. If the Falcons opt to keep DeCoud, then that concern there is minimal besides depth. But if they do cut ties with DeCoud, then safety is likely going to be a high priority at the start of free agency. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward are two very promising young safeties. But both are likely to be expensive options and could also be prime candidates for their respective team’s franchise tags. After them, there aren’t that many safeties that are definitive upgrades over DeCoud. The next best approach may be targeting an older veteran to be a stopgap for a year or two, and hoping to find a better long-term solution in the early portion of the draft. That sort of uncertainty might wind up being the biggest reason why the Falcons decide to retain DeCoud.
Keeping DeCoud Signals Complacency
But that sort of decision signifies the air of complacency that seemed to surround the Falcons in 2013. This is a trend that has become habitual with the team over the past decade or more. In even-numbered seasons the team tends to play very well. It raises the expectations going into an odd-numbered season, and there is a significant letdown. It’s not only been a problem under Mike Smith, but goes back to Dan Reeves. After reaching the Super Bowl in 1998 with a 14-2 record, expectations were especially high the following year considering the Super Bowl site was the Georgia Dome. But the Falcons wound up being terrible, finishing with a 5-11 record. It happened again another playoff run in 2002, where an injury to Michael Vick ruined 2003. And ever since then, the Falcons have seen drop off from even season to the odd one. Up until 2013, it always involved winning two or three less games the following season. But the drop off from 2012 to 2013 was much more dramatic, with a nine-game slide.
The team is in a position to send a message to the rest of the roster, organization and fan base by cutting DeCoud that they won’t be settling for less any longer. Due to poor judgment a year ago with structuring his contract, the team isn’t in a position to cut Sam Baker, who would fall into that same category as expendable via mediocrity. And free agent signings Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora didn’t quite light up the world with their play in their first seasons with the Falcons. But there was at least a tangible difference in the offense down the stretch when Jackson was healthy and running. And there’s reason to believe that with improvements along the offensive line, things are looking up for him. And in the case of Umenyiora, a team that struggled to pressure the quarterback as much as the Falcons did in 2013, probably can’t afford to cut ties with someone that had 7.5 sacks.
But it’s hard to make those justifications with DeCoud. And thus it seems like he should be pushed out the door. But if the team is leaning in that direction, why is he still on the roster? They already cut Stephen Nicholas and Asante Samuel already, why not DeCoud? The team doesn’t have to make a decision until March 15 when a portion of DeCoud’s salary becomes guaranteed, so there’s no real rush. Perhaps the Falcons are waiting to see whether or not premier free agents like Ward or Byrd get tagged. NFL teams have until March 3 to designate their franchise players, and thus the Falcons have no real incentive to cut DeCoud until then since it tips their hand.
But what about the offensive line? Everything else is all well and good, but I haven’t discussed the real problem: the offensive line, in this forecast of the Falcons offseason plans. How will the team address what is widely perceived to be their biggest weakness?
Falcons Probably Won’t Make Big Splash on Offensive Line
Will they go out and sign a big-named free agent? Probably not, at least not at offensive tackle. That is where most of the big names are. But the Falcons spent $41 million to retain Sam Baker last offseason, and it would be extremely doubtful that they would spend just as much if not more to sign another tackle. So if you’ve been one of those Falcon fans pining for the team to add Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe or Michael Oher, you’re very likely to become disappointed a month from now.
Signing one of the premier free agent guards is a bit more feasible. This isn’t a great free agency class at guard, headlined by a pair of Chiefs players in Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. Both would be significant upgrades over what the Falcons have currently at right guard, which is nothing. Asamoah is the better player, but Schwartz probably fits best for what the Falcons want to do offensively. Asamoah appears a much better fit on an offense that features a lot of zone-blocking. Schwartz is a bit more suited to playing in a man-blocking unit like what the Falcons tend to have. The Falcons could certainly sign either player in March, but the problem with targeting one of the top players at their respective position in free agency is that other teams also will target them. And that drives up the price, and the Falcons traditionally have spurned getting into bidding wars over players and I don’t expect things to change significantly in 2014.
So if not either Chief guard then who will the Falcons sign? Willie Colon of the New York Jets was a pet favorite of Mike Tice back in his Bear days. He would be a short-term solution as he turns 31 in April. If the Rams cut Harvey Dahl, he could be welcomed back to Atlanta on a one-year deal as he approaches his 33rd birthday in June. Unless the Falcons go hard after either Schwartz or Asamoah, then it’s likely in the draft where they will address their most glaring weakness up front: right guard.
That could come in the second round, where the team will target a player that is expected to start in his second year as opposed to his first. By signing a veteran like Colon or Dahl, they could give that player much-needed redshirt year to develop. This draft doesn’t feature a ton of great guards, but a bunch a decent ones that could be had at the top of the second round where the Falcons could take the best available such as Xavier Su’a-Filo (UCLA), David Yankey (Stanford), Cyril Richardson (Baylor) or Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State).
As far as offensive tackle goes, other than taking Matthews or Robinson in the first round if a pass-rusher isn’t there, I don’t expect the Falcons to make a bold move at that position. They will probably bring in a veteran free agent that can compete for a starting position, but the team is likely to enter 2014 with Baker and Holmes penciled in as starters. Ryan Schraeder showed enough promise that he could also be in the mix for a starting position as well. The ideal player for the Falcons is someone that is experienced playing both left and right tackle. That way, the team maximizes their options at either position in the event of adversity. Free agents that fit that billing are Rodger Saffold, Anthony Collins, Charles Brown, J’Marcus Webb and Jonathan Scott. It’s worth noting that both Webb and Scott played for Tice in Chicago. Who the Falcons sign will likely be based on who is willing to sign the most agreeable contract that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
At center, the Falcons will probably re-sign Hawley and have Konz compete there. The winner of that competition will likely join Baker and Blalock on the left side, a newcomer at right guard and Holmes or a free agent signing at right tackle as the new starting five this year. Rather than trying to go out and get the best offensive line that money can buy, the Falcons still want to develop younger players like Konz, Holmes and Schraeder, while focusing on increasing competition for starting jobs rather than handing guys jobs as they’ve had a tendency to do in the past.
If you’ve made it this far through this article, then I applaud you, but also apologize since I’ve spent over four thousand words explaining what I’m about to summarize in roughly one hundred. But if I was a betting man, here’s a rough outline to the Falcons offseason plan laid out in eight stages:
1. Cut Thomas DeCoud, and pursue a free agent safety to replace him.
2. Sign a Right Guard that is expected to come in and start right away.
3. Add one major pass-rusher along the defensive line.
4. Add one run-stopper to beef up the defensive tackle position.
5. Re-sign key free agents like Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Joe Hawley.
6. Use the top pick on an edge rusher like Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack.
7. Use the second-round pick on a guard of the future if not acquired in free agency.
8. Use subsequent early-round picks to address needs at running back, tight end or safety.