Takeaways from Last Week – January 27

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s Zack Martin was one of the bright spots of the Senior Bowl

This past week represented a big one for the Atlanta Falcons, as they are fresh off coaching the North team in the Senior Bowl, the premiere college all-star game, in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday.

As mentioned in last week’s column, direct access to the Senior Bowl players should help the Falcons get a leg up on their evaluations of individual prospects for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

You have probably heard or will be hearing a lot about particular players the Falcons may have liked while spending time down in Mobile last week, but in reality it’s really inconsequential for the time being. At least from my perspective, it won’t be worth paying attention to until we get into March and April when the Falcons start traveling to pro days and working out individual players where any Senior Bowl connections will be significant.

I suspect the Falcons will be looking hard at several of the players they coached in the Senior on the second and third days of the draft. As noted a week ago, the Falcons have historically gone heavy on Senior Bowl players in the first round of the draft, but that doesn’t seem likely this May. Simply because there were no real prospects that merit as high a selection as the No. 6 overall pick. Perhaps Notre Dame’s Zack Martin will piggyback a strong Senior Bowl week and tear up the combine similarly to Eric Fisher did a year ago, prompting his rise from the latter portion of Round One to the No. 1 overall pick. But I doubt it, since Martin will struggle to overcome his subpar stature and short arms to climb into the top 10 picks. Perhaps if teams like Buffalo or Detroit, who pick ninth and tenth respectively this May, see him as an elite guard prospect he might be able to climb that high. But if the Falcons are looking to take Martin with their first pick, it almost certainly will necessitate a trade back.

It does seem that the Falcons are open to such a move. Although it’s very easy to say you’re open to a move in January, as I’m sure all 32 NFL teams are open to trading up or back at this point in the calendar. It’s still very early in the process and would be silly for any team to be eliminating options by saying they are against trading at this point in time.

Whether the Falcons should trade back remains to be seen. I’ve been contacted by many Falcon fans that seem to be of the mindset of “Jadeveon Clowney or Bust,” meaning that unless Clowney is there at No. 6 or the Falcons try to move up to get him, their next best strategy would be to trade back in the draft.

Firstly, I think it’s far too early to start to pigeon-hole yourself for one prospect or the other. A lot of things can and will happen between now and May 8 that can affect that opinion. And secondly, I think it’s overlooking two potentially excellent prospects in Matt Kalil Jake Matthews and Von Miller Khalil Mack.

I haven’t done my full homework on either player, but in the case of “settling” for them, it would not be a bad move for the Falcons. Matthews has all the symptoms of being a top left tackle prospect. And while selecting a left tackle is not nearly as sexy as a player at another position, if Matthews is all that and a bag of chips, then it’s not a bad move. Mack has the makings of being a top pass rusher, and could be an even better fit in Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme than Clowney, where he has the potential to play with his hand in the dirt or off the ground similar to Denver’s Miller.

Neither may open the flood gates for season ticket sales and renewals like Clowney would, but both have the potential to be very good players. And at this point, the Falcons should not discriminate against very good players.

Michael Johnson Could Be Returning To Georgia

Another thing that emerged from Senior Bowl week is the rumor that the Falcons may try and “lure” Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson back to the state of Georgia on a hometown discount.

It would be an interesting move if said rumor came true. I was praising of Johnson a year ago in my free agency primer, but he did not follow up a solid 2012 with as strong a 2013.

After an 11.5-sack season in 2012, his total fell to 3.5 in 2013, with the former being the only time in Johnson’s five-year career where he eclipsed six sacks in a season. I need to do more homework on Johnson in order to discover whether or not he’s truly a pressure player that just has been unlucky when it comes to racking up high sack totals.

But the lack of top-level production, impending price tag, and the fact that he’s similar in style to past Falcon free agent signees like Ray Edwards and Osi Umenyiora, as fairly one-dimensional and non-dynamic speed rushers, makes me skeptical.

Ultimately, any such move would come down to price tag to determine whether it was a good one or not. If the Falcons could get Johnson on a cheap below-market deal comparable to what the Seattle Seahawks got with Cliff Avril (2 years/$13 million) and Michael Bennett (1 year/$5 million) last spring, it would be well worth it.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas DeCoud fails to tackle Marshawn Lynch

It will be interesting to see if this year’s free agent market plays out similarly to last year’s, where a lot of players were forced to settle for below-market deals. That could play into the Falcons favor, as owner Arthur Blank stated earlier this month that the team would likely follow its usual path of being patient in free agency. Typically all the “splash” deals are made in the first 48-72 hours of free agency, and the Falcons have typically been quiet during that period the past few seasons, and I don’t expect that to change.

Falcons Have Things to Figure Out at Safety

That strategy would likely have to change if the Falcons intend to make a significant upgrade at the free safety position, which seems to be a real possibility as well. That significant upgrade would be Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, a player I championed this past summer as a possible target to replace Thomas DeCoud.

If I’m parsing Thomas Dimitroff’s words however, it doesn’t sound like he or the team is ready to move on from DeCoud quite yet.

“Do we need a safety? I think it’s always important to have good, experienced safeties and safeties that will make plays on the ball and be adept and consistent tacklers. So, we will always look to continue to improve depth, like we’ve always said. Improving our group of safeties, that’s always going to be an important thing for us.’’

Personally I think keeping DeCoud would be short-sighted by the team. While losing him could be a significant blow to the secondary in the short-term, I believe in the long-term it would be a smart move for the Falcons. Even if that doesn’t mean the acquisition of Byrd, who is likely to land a big money deal in the opening hours of free agency from some team if the Bills opt not to franchise tag him again.

At a 2014 cap hit of $4.8 million, DeCoud is just another average and overpaid player that overpopulates the Falcons roster. When trying to decipher who is the most overpaid player on the roster, there are numerous options to choose from. And keeping DeCoud at that number just is adding another one to the list.

DeCoud’s contract is structured so that on the fifth day of the new league year (March 15), over half of his $4.2 million base salary in 2014 becomes fully guaranteed. The problem with cutting prior to that point is that it creates another hole on a team that already has too many. Trying to find a veteran free safety that can quarterback the secondary is a relatively tall order, especially if you’re intending to draft one.

However, I do think the Falcons wouldn’t have much difficulty finding a suitable replacement on the open market. Outside Byrd, the market should be dotted with several older veterans that could be decent stopgap options such as Charles Woodson or Ryan Clark. That would allow the Falcons not to be forced to reach early in the draft for a young safety, and could wait until the middle rounds in hopes of finding a player comparable to DeCoud. Not in his style of play, but in the sense that he could “redshirt” his rookie year similar to what DeCoud did in 2008 before landing the starting job in his second season.

Girth Not Worth It

Another nugget that arose during the course of the week is the possibility that the Falcons will be seeking to upgrade their defensive tackle rotation with another widebody, stemming from Dimitroff’s comments that the team needs girth.

While I do think the Falcons do need to add another run-stuffing nose tackle in light of the injury to Corey Peters that puts the start of his 2014 season in jeopardy, I don’t think the team needs to bend over backwards to find one. Peters filled the role ably, finding a home as the team’s nose tackle in their hybrid front. Frankly, the wide-bodied nose tackle is one of the most overrated positions in professional football today.

Look around the league, and you’ll see several 3-4 teams are finding success with late round picks and virtual nobodies like Steve McLendon (Steelers) and Damon Harrison (Jets). Recent high picks like B.J. Raji, Terrence Cody, Torell Troup have struggled to carve out significant roles in the NFL. And whenever teams seemingly invest in free agency for one such as Philadelphia’s signing of Isaac Sopoaga this past offseason, it rarely works out. Sopoaga, who signed a three-year $11 million deal in March, wound up being the lone move at the trade deadline this past year after seven ho-hum starts for the Eagles.

It rarely pays to make significant investments in two-down players. Brodrick Bunkley got a five-year $25 million deal from the Saints in 2012, and is probably going to be a cap casualty this offseason because he lost snaps to rookie third-round pick John Jenkins on passing downs. And in all likelihood, at some point Jenkins is likely to lose those snaps on passing downs as well since he proved far from able in that role this past season.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers signed Colin Cole off the scrap heap, and got decent production from him on a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum. The Broncos signed Terrance Knighton to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million last spring and he performed very well this past year.

The premium should be on three-down players, as disruptive interior pass rushers are far more difficult to find than someone that can come in and play the run for 20-30 snaps a game, essentially all the Falcons need.

So I’m in favor of the Falcons adding girth this offseason, I just don’t want to see them spend any money or use picks in the first four rounds to do so.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com