Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – January 18, 2016

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsBruce Irvin highlights a crop of Seattle Seahawks free agents that the Falcons could pursue in 2016

The Carolina Panthers’ thrilling 31-24 victory  over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday was another highlight in the 2016 postseason but also ended what had might have become a remarkably historic postseason run for a Seahawks team that was trying to become only the third team ever to go to three consecutive Super Bowls.

Only the 1971-73 Miami Dolphins and 1990-93 Buffalo Bills were able to achieve that feat in NFL history since the advent of the Super Bowl 50 years ago.

The Seahawks loss may mark the end of an era, given how difficult it is to build dynasties in today’s parity-driven NFL. Many thought that the Green Bay Packers, upon winning their first Super Bowl five years ago, were the start of a new dynasty. Since then the Packers have sported a 3-6 record in the postseason and only been to the NFC Championship Game once.

The Seahawks now have paid many of their top players such as Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas and have been dealing with others not as highly paid being disgruntled in the past year such as Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor. A team that was successfully built via the draft in the early days of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider has largely abandoned the draft in recent years by trading away multiple first-round picks for wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Jimmy Graham, which has produced minimal results over the past three years.

Harvin played in just eight games with the Seahawks (including the postseason), producing a total of 27 catches and a single touchdown as a returner in their Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos two years ago. Graham had an underwhelming and injury-plagued first year with the Seahawks in 2015, appearing in 11 games, catching 48 passes and scoring twice. For the sake of comparison, a year ago in New Orleans before injuries began catching up to him down the stretch, Graham had 65 catches and nine touchdowns in his first 11 games.

Seahawk Trades For Harvin and Graham Mirror Falcons Trade For Jones

It’s an interesting development for the Seahawks because it mirrors what occurred in Atlanta during the Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith era. As I’ve written about several times before, the Falcons took a shortcut in their attempts to get over the hump in 2011 by trading numerous assets for wide receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons gave up their second and fourth-round picks in 2011 along with first and fourth-round picks in 2012 to move up 21 spots to select Jones in 2011.

That trade had a crippling effect on the Falcons’ ability to acquire talent in the 2011 and 2012 drafts and contributed significantly to the downward trend of the team in 2013 and 2014 given that they had to rely on a number of late-round picks and undrafted players to make up for the missed opportunities in the previous years.

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Jimmy Graham had a subpar first year in Seattle

The Seahawks gave up first and seventh-round picks in 2013 for Harvin, along with a fourth-round pick in 2014. This past year they dealt a first-round pick and center Max Unger to get Graham along with a fourth-round pick from the Saints.

Curiously that latter “throwaway” pick acquired in the trade was used by the Seahawks as part of a draft-day trade up to get wide receiver Tyler Lockett in the third round. Ironically, Lockett may very well turn into the player that the team was hoping they were getting in Harvin in 2013. Lockett finished his rookie season with 51 catches and seven touchdowns, including two on special teams. He also snagged a spectacular 33-yard touchdown grab in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers in the Seahawks’ attempt to come back from a huge halftime deficit.

One can already look at the Seahawks 2013 and 2014 drafts with similar disappointment as one might look at the Falcons’ 2011 and 2012 groups.

Poor Drafting in 2013 and 2014 Could Prompt Seahawks Decline

Their top selection in 2013: running back Christine Michael was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in September, before being cut and brought back to Seattle a month ago. Three of their next four picks: wide receiver Chris Harper, defensive tackle Jesse Williams and cornerback Tharold Simon, played exactly zero snaps for the Seahawks this past year. Although in the case of Williams and Simon that was mostly due to injuries. The only other positive picks from that 2013 draft class are third-round defensive tackle Jordan Hill and fifth-round tight end Luke Willson. Hill has been a solid rotational player, tallying 5.5 sacks a year ago but having none in 2015. Willson proved to be an effective replacement for Graham as a starter once he was sidelined for the year. But both would be considered role players at this point in their careers rather than blue-chip starters.

The 2014 draft netted the Seahawks little as well, but at least those players are getting snaps. Fourth-round picks in defensive end Cassius Marsh and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis were able to fill valuable depth roles this past year. Second-round offensive linemen Justin Britt has started 32 games since joining the Seahawks, as a right tackle in 2014 and a left guard in 2015. But Britt’s production has been underwhelming regardless of position. He ranked 80th out of 84 tackles in 2014 according to premium website Pro Football Focus and 81st out of 82 guards this past year.

The Seahawks’ top selection in 2014: wide receiver Paul Richardson, missed all but one game this past year due to injury. If the Seahawks don’t get a bigger return on their 2013 and 2014 investments in the coming years, there is going to be the inevitable dip.

However don’t expect the Seahawks to dip as much as the Falcons did, where the latter became one of the league’s worst teams in 2013 and 2014. After all, the Seahawks still will have players like Wilson, Sherman, Wagner and Thomas to form the backbone of their team. And despite their gripes over their contracts, the Seahawks still hold the rights to players like Chancellor and Bennett moving forward. Not to mention other playmakers like Doug Baldwin, Cliff Avril and K.J. Wright still form a core group on their football team.

The Falcons on the other hand were mostly made up of an older core of players in Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, Asante Samuel and John Abraham when the team began to decline. Every single one of them was at least 30 years old at the time of the team’s 2012 NFC Championship Game loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Upon those players being pushed out the door due to age, declining play or retirement in subsequent years, it left the Falcons devoid of a group of young players ready to step into the void.

Of the aforementioned Seahawks, only Bennett and Avril will be 30 years old when the 2016 season kicks off. The others will be mostly between the ages of 26 and 28, meaning that the Seahawks can rely on that core to keep them treading water for at least a few more years, buying them enough time to potentially rebuild via the draft.

What is the most notable difference between the Falcons and Seahawks is that despite the whiffs on the trades for Harvin and Graham, the Seahawks managed to get their Super Bowl title in 2013 when the Falcons did not in 2012. So even if the Seahawks do slide into mediocrity in 2016 and beyond, their coaches and front office will still have the bling that should buy them a much longer leash to get the team back on track, something that Smith was never afforded in Atlanta.

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Days of “Beast Mode” might be over in Seattle

One potential departure that would cement the reality that a new era is upon the Seahawks, would be running back Marshawn Lynch. It’s hard to come up with a player that has more embodied the first six years of Pete Carroll’s tenure in Seattle than Lynch. The veteran running back arrived in Seattle via a mid-season trade as a reclamation project, and the enigmatic personality blossomed as the workhorse and embodiment of a physical Seahawks offense over the past few years.

No pun intended, but Lynch has been the linchpin of much of the team’s success in recent years and it’s hard to imagine the team being nearly as successful without “Beast Mode” accounting for roughly a quarter of their offense.

If the Seahawks should fall on harder times in the coming seasons, it’s certainly possible that the Falcons could find a way to benefit. One way may be simply from Atlanta signing a number of Seattle castoffs to strengthen its own roster this offseason.

The Falcons will need to build up their own core of players via the draft over the next several years, but they can supplement that in free agency.

Irvin Among Ex-Seahawks Falcons Could Target in 2016

A number of players might be exiting Seattle this offseason via free agency and it’ll be interesting to see how many land in Atlanta. The biggest name is probably linebacker Bruce Irvin, a player I wrote about last May when the rumors first surfaced that he had his eyes on Atlanta in 2016.

But as I noted then, I don’t think there’s a high probability that Irvin lands with the Falcons this offseason. That is mostly because of the presences of Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley already on the roster. While Reed’s injury-plagued performance in 2015 was considered a huge disappointment in the eyes of most, it’s unlikely that the Falcons are going to pull the plug on him after one year.

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Brooks Reed’s presence might preempt Falcons adding Bruce Irvin

Reed’s 2015 performance is also not nearly as bad as many probably think, especially those that only look at his 17 tackles and zero sacks in comparison to a player like Irvin, who is coming off a year where he recorded 38 tackles and 5.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus’ run stop metric, Reed and Irvin were nearly identical in their ability to make stops against the run when you measure Reed’s 2015 performance against Irvin’s in 2013, his first year playing linebacker in Dan Quinn’s scheme. Reed recorded a run stop on 3.1 percent of his snaps against the run in 2015 while Irvin recorded one on 3.2 percent of his plays. Irvin’s production then doubled in 2014 in his second year, and there’s likely a belief that Reed could see a similar uptick in his production in 2016, especially if he can remain healthy.

As I noted last May, Irvin’s ability to land in Atlanta will likely come down to price. If the Falcons can sign him for a cheaper, below-market deal, it makes sense for them to make a strong push for him. In that vein, he’ll be like the signings of Avril and Bennett were for the Seahawks in 2013 when they signed cheaper two and one-year deals, respectively, that offseason.

But it’s unlikely that the Falcons will make a push for Irvin if he’s seeking a deal comparable or higher than the five-year, $22.5 million deal the Falcons gave Reed a year ago. There’s no reason for Irvin not to try and get such an offer on the open market given that his fellow Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner ($43 million) and K.J. Wright ($27 million) have received lucrative deals over the past 13 months.

The Falcons simply already have too much money with Reed tied up in the strong-side linebacker position in 2016. Reed’s status won’t last forever since it’s highly likely that he’ll be released in 2017. But by then, the Falcons may decide to move Beasley to strong-side linebacker. Beasley’s permanent position is not yet known, whether that will be as a “LEO” defensive end or linebacker, but the Falcons would lose any flexibility if they went out and gave Irvin a large contract.

Not to mention the team also has quality reserves like O’Brien Schofield (if re-signed) and Nate Stupar behind Reed, making the strong-side linebacker, relatively speaking, an area of little concern on defense.

Falcons Could Target Seahawks to Bolster Defensive Line and Secondary

Instead of Irvin, it’s more likely that the Falcons will pursue Seahawks castoffs like defensive tackle Brandon Mebane or cornerback Jeremy Lane.

Mebane is an older player, having turned 31 this past week, but was still productive this past year. The Falcons currently have Paul Soliai playing Mebane’s nose tackle spot in the defense, but the Falcons could easily part ways with the 32-year old run-plugger this offseason. Soliai is set to count over $6.8 million against the Falcons’ 2016 salary cap and the team could free up roughly $2.6 million in space by releasing him this offseason.

The Falcons could try to sign Mebane to a deal comparable to those signed by Domata Peko and Vince Wilfork the past two years, which were two-year deals worth $9 million. Wilfork’s deal had a first-year cap hit of $3.5 million, which is roughly half of what Soliai is set to count, resulting in the Falcons getting arguably a better player for potentially half the price.

Lane would be a considerable upgrade in the secondary given his ability to play in the slot. Given his frequent appearances on the injury report, ideally the Falcons could sign him to a one-year “prove-it” deal comparable to what they brought Adrian Clayborn in on this past year. Lane would give the team a great insurance policy at nickel cornerback in case Jalen Collins doesn’t take that next step forward in 2016. If the Falcons were willing to sign Lane to a long-term contract, he could slide in nicely into the slot role in 2017 if/when Alford isn’t re-signed and Collins assumes a starting spot on the outside.

Other ex-Seahawks castoffs the Falcons could look at this offseason are defensive tackles Jaye Howard and Tony McDaniel, defensive end Red Bryant, cornerback/safety Walter Thurmond and cornerback Will Blackmon.

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Tyson Jackson (94) and Paul Soliai might be done as Falcons

Howard played for Quinn at the University of Florida and was drafted by the Seahawks in 2012. He is coming off a breakout year in Kansas City where he played both defensive end and nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme. He would be a versatile signing that could potentially replace either Soliai in the middle or Tyson Jackson at strong-side defensive end. The only issue with Howard is that his relative youth (age 27) could command a higher price tag on the open market, especially if he seeks to be compensated similarly to his Chiefs teammate Allen Bailey, who signed a four-year, $25 million contract in 2014.

McDaniel is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played the same role in Seattle under Quinn that Ra’Shede Hageman plays now. If Hageman was to kick outside to defensive end as a replacement for Jackson, should the latter be released this offseason, then McDaniel could slide easily into his vacated role in the base defense.

Bryant would be another candidate to replace Jackson. Bryant hasn’t had much success over the past two years since leaving Quinn and Seattle, and thus signing with Atlanta might be a nice “homecoming” for him. Given the lack of production the past two years, he’d also probably be a lot cheaper option than Jackson, who is set to count $6.35 million against the Falcons’ 2016 salary cap. The Falcons can save $1.55 million in cap space by cutting Jackson, which isn’t a ton of money, but if the team can sign a capable replacement like Bryant for a third (or less) of Jackson’s cap hit, then it makes sense to move on.

Thurmond previously filled the role as slot corner for the Seahawks prior to Lane nabbing the gig in 2014 before being moved to safety this past year by the Philadelphia Eagles, a role that he played fairly well at. If the Falcons want to sign Thurmond to secure their nickel cornerback spot, they’ll have to compete financially with other teams that might be planning to keep him at safety.

Blackmon might be the cheapest option for the Falcons as far as their nickel cornerback goes. Blackmon spent time with the Seahawks in preseason both in 2013 and 2015, before managing to catch on with the Washington Redskins this past year as a mid-season injury replacement. Blackmon was by no means special, but was competent at times playing in the slot. Certainly more so than Phillip Adams was at various times throughout in 2015 in Atlanta. He would only be a fourth cornerback here, but would arguably give the team stronger depth in the slot than either Adams or Collins provides in the event that Robert Alford goes down with an injury. Not to mention, Blackmon was a competent return specialist earlier in his career, giving the Falcons added insurance in case they part ways with wide receiver Devin Hester this offseason.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Falcons might pursue right guard J.R. Sweezy from Seattle. The Falcons need to bolster their interior offensive line, and while Sweezy won’t exactly do that, he’ll at least add some youth on the interior. Sweezy will turn 27 in April and is considerably younger than the 33-year old incumbent Chris Chester and arguably equal in ability. Sweezy could potentially be signed for a relatively cheap deal and compete with Chester and/or Mike Person at right guard next season in the hopes of buying the Falcons more time to bolster their front via the draft.

Given that the Falcons have already brought in a number of ex-Seahawks last offseason including Schofield, Adams, Person, Jared Smith and Allen Bradford, it makes sense that the team will dip further into that well in 2016.

Outside the unlikely signing of Irvin, none would be headline-grabbing news, but the Falcons could benefit from the Seahawks’ attempts to transition into a new phase of their development. It is also a new phase for the Falcons as they try to build upon the style and identity of Quinn.

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