Last Monday’s year-end press conference saw Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank speak for over an hour to gathered media and there were some interesting things said.
Blank averted most of the questions dealing with personnel, but did take an opportunity to address what in his view was one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses in 2014: the pass rush.
Even the better quarterbacks in this league, when they’re under tremendous pressure they make more mistakes than they do if they’re not. In my opinion, pressure is a really big deal. We have not had pressure. We just have not for a variety of reasons.
Last offseason, the overarching theme was “toughening up” following Blank questioning the team’s toughness in his year-end press conference a year ago. So the Falcons proceeded to beef up both lines of scrimmage to mixed results. While the team’s offensive line showed significant growth and potential in 2014, the defensive line took a step back.
Any improvements made against the run were marginal despite their pricey expenditures to add size with free agents Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson last March. And the pass rush saw a significant decline as the team went with a strategy to “scheme” pressure.
Blank: Falcons Pass Rush Woes on Coaches, Not GM
Blank made note in the press conference to suggest that both those ideas originated with Mike Smith and Mike Nolan respectively:
Smitty felt strongly about this and Mike Nolan felt strongly about this, I think Thomas [Dimitroff] was certainly supportive of it. Thomas had strong feelings that we needed to get more pressure. Smitty and Mike and others felt that we need to build from the inside out and be able to stop the run. And that in itself would create opportunities. I think coach Nolan felt that with his schemes that he would be able to put enough pressure on quarterbacks. Certainly against the Saints that was true, against probably a Hall of Fame quarterback. Didn’t carry over and wasn’t there consistently throughout the year for sure and certainly wasn’t there again [in Week 17].
Blank’s statement certainly deflected much of the heat for the Falcons’ pass-rushing failures from general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
All sounds plausible at first glance. Smith had been successful as defensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars with the most glaring feature of their defense being a pair of physical, beefy defensive tackles in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Throughout Smith’s time there, they were consistently among the better run defenses in the NFL. And Smith would not be alone among NFL coaches and defensive coordinators in preaching to his players the desire to stop the run first and foremost.
Nolan noted upon his arrival in Atlanta to suggest that he would prefer to have 10 four-sack players over one that feature four 10-sack players. That is very illustrative of his desire to “scheme” pressure.
The Falcons attempted to add edge-rushers this offseason but failed to procure one. They tried to move up in May’s draft to acquire Dee Ford, and also wanted DeMarcus Lawrence, who the Cowboys nabbed at the top of round two via trade. And normally, I’d be willing to offer support that the team attempted, but in this case, I remain skeptical.
Largely due to the fact that the pass rush was a glaring weakness for the entire seven-year tenure of Smith and Dimitroff. Frankly, their efforts to get a pass-rusher this past offseason were too little, too late.
Falcons Attempts to Improve Pass Rush Fall Flat Over Seven Years
Upon Smith and Dimitroff’s arrival in 2008, the team started out with an adequate group helmed by John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux. But as time wore on, both veteran players started to slow down and the pass rush became more and more sporadic.
The team signed Ray Edwards as a free agent in 2011, but Edwards fell flat on his face. While he added value as a run-defender over the course of his season and a half playing with the Falcons, his production as a pass-rusher was extremely limited.
That was also amidst several drafts that saw the team mid and late-round picks on edge-rushers. Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga were all selected between 2009 and 2013, none selected higher than the fourth round. All developmental pass-rushers that failed to develop, in part due to the team’s refusal to play them.
After releasing Abraham, their best pass-rusher, in 2013, the team signed Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora was at the tail-end of his career, and one of the things I noted when I was preparing a scouting report of Umenyiora that offseason was how perplexing it was to think that the Falcons’ brass could watch both Abraham and Osi in 2012 and think the latter was better.
There are thus really only two conclusions one could draw from that: either the team just completely whiffed on their evaluation or that the primary motivation behind releasing Abraham was financial.
And given the monster contract the team paid to quarterback Matt Ryan later that summer, coupled with the likelihood that Nolan was whispering that his scheme could make up for Abraham’s absence, you could see the reasoning behind the team’s decision to dump Abraham.
But it’s a decision that ultimately bit the team in the rear end, no different than it did for the New York Jets when they decided to trade Abraham to Atlanta in 2006. The Jets spent the next several offseasons looking to replace Abraham, particularly in 2008 when they paid a large contract to free agent linebacker Calvin Pace and then used their top selection in the draft on Vernon Gholston.
And it’s almost comical that the Falcons find themselves in almost the exact same circumstances. Two years after dumping Abraham, they too are likely going to pay a premium for an edge-rusher in free agency and potentially use their top selection on another one.
And there’s reason to hope that it turns out better for the Falcons than it did for the Jets. Particularly in free agency, since the team shouldn’t have to overpay for a player like Pace. Prior to joining the Jets, Pace recorded 14 sacks in five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, becoming just one more in a series of first-round busts for that organization. And it’s probably a sore subject for the Cardinals, who had the potential to draft Terrell Suggs with their top selection in 2003, but instead traded down and wound up with Pace.
The Falcons should have a much better crop of free-agent pass-rushers to pilfer through than the Jets had in 2008 when they signed Pace. It’s a veritable who’s who of top pass-rushers that could potentially find themselves on the open market come March 10 when free agency begins.
Falcons Have Plethora of Free-Agent Options
Justin Houston led the league with 22 sacks this past year and is set to be one of the premier free agents this spring. But it’s extremely unlikely that the Kansas City Chiefs would let him walk, meaning they will likely franchise tag him if a contract can’t be worked out before March.
New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul is the biggest name next on any free-agent list, coming off a season where he collected 12.5 sacks. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll hit the open market considering he’s the Giants’ marquee defensive player, but it’s by no means a slam dunk.
Jerry Hughes appears a lot likelier to hit the open market, as he’s coming off a 10-sack season. Hughes was a player that I thought the Falcons should make a play for before this past season’s trade deadline. Perhaps they will be able to get him on a second go-round in a few months.
Other notable edge-rushers that could hit the market are: Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland Browns), Greg Hardy (Carolina Panthers), Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins), Jason Worilds (Pittsburgh Steelers), Derrick Morgan (Tennessee Titans) and Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles) .
Sheard was another player that I thought would be worth trading for this past season. He only collected two sacks this past season, but such low production might keep his price down.
Hardy is a player that the Falcons are unlikely to touch. Their emphasis on character isn’t likely to have them seeking a player with the domestic abuse cloud hanging over him.
Orakpo is coming off another injury-plagued season, suffering his third torn pectoral muscle in four seasons. Due to that, Orakpo has many similarities with Abraham when the Falcons acquired him in 2006. At that time, Abraham had garnered a reputation as injury prone, having missed 13 combined games in 2004 and 2005. But there was never a doubt that when Abraham did get on the field he made an impact. Orakpo is the same way.
Worilds is a late-bloomer that has tallied a total of 15.5 sacks the past two seasons as a full-time starter for the Steelers. While he hasn’t quite made the Steelers forget about James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in their heydays, Worilds has been solid.
Morgan played college ball at Georgia Tech, so signing with the Falcons would represent a homecoming for him.
After reportedly shopping Graham last spring, the Eagles appear to have changed their mind and are seeking to sign him to an extension. Whether they are successful in that endeavor remains to be seen.
If the Falcons’ willingness to spend a year ago on Soliai and Jackson is repeated this year, it’s likely they will be able to land one of these players or someone that will signal to the fan base that the pass-rush is indeed going to be a priority moving forward.
Falcons Could Double Dip on Pass Rushers in Draft
As for their plans at the top of the draft, those remain to be seen. But it’s almost a certainty that the Falcons will select the best available defensive player, with a strong likelihood that player is slated to fill a role in the team’s front seven.
It’s slated to a be a good group of pass-rushers available for the Falcons, who hold the eighth overall selection in the first round. The consensus right now suggests that USC’s Leonard Williams and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory are the top two defenders in this year’s class and both will probably be off the board by the time the Falcons pick. But it’s still early in the process and any number of things can happen between now and April 30 that could change that.
At least Falcons should have an opportunity to take someone such as Missouri’s Shane Ray, Florida’s Dante Fowler, Clemson’s Vic Beasley or Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who are likely going to be jockeying all offseason for the right to be the next best pass-rusher off the board.
Ray appears to be the consensus’ pick for the top guy. But Fowler would be an interesting option, especially if the Falcons were to hire Seattle’s Dan Quinn as their next coach. Quinn helped recruit Fowler to Florida, when he was serving as the school’s defensive coordinator during Fowler’s freshman year in 2012.
It’s just one connection that could potentially be made this offseason based upon who the Falcons select as their next head coach. And that decision will have significant waves for the rest of the organization.
Much buzz has been made about the possibility that Dimitroff might soon be exiting the organization should the next head coach of the Falcons wish it.
Dimitroff Likely to Remain with Falcons
From my perspective, it seems doubtful that Dimitroff will get the heave-ho anytime soon. It’s just not very common for an assistant coach to have a hand-picked general manager at the ready. Generally speaking, the coaches that have the chance to select their general managers are ones with a lot more clout than many of the Falcons’ prospective targets seem to have. Recent examples include Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher and Andy Reid, who may not have hand-picked their respective team’s GMs in John Schneider, Les Snead and John Dorsey, but certainly had considerable influence. All three of those coaches have considerably more pedigree than any of the seven confirmed candidates the Falcons are currently targeting.
The other factor that weighs in Dimitroff’s favor is that his reputation outside of Atlanta still appears in good standing. Speculation is that Dimitroff would be quickly snatched up by another team should he be let go by the Falcons. Dimitroff won Sporting News’ Executive of the Year honor twice, and while that didn’t net great results for the Falcons personnel decisions over the years, it does look good on a resume to any prospective owners looking for someone to head their front office.
It would seem that all this speculation about Dimitroff’s status would indicate that his exit from Atlanta is inevitable. That could happen in the next few weeks, but would in all probability occur after the draft. Typically, that is a time of year when teams make front office changes as they don’t wish to disrupt the offseason too much with turnover beforehand. The Falcons’ personnel department and scouts have been hard at work since last summer preparing for this year’s upcoming draft and firing Dimitroff before then could potentially cause a disruption to their efforts to maximize such an important offseason.
I’d probably wager that Dimitroff sticks around at least through the end of the 2015 season. Should the Falcons new head coach have a successful first season in Atlanta, he’ll have a lot more clout to nudge Dimitroff and any other holdovers out the door a year from now.
It will be interesting to see who the Falcons hire. While there has been rampant speculation that Rex Ryan has been the apple of Arthur Blank’s eye the past few months, I question whether that will remain the case once Blank has gone through his first round of interviews.
The individual interviews will likely be the deciding factors for whom Blank ultimately hires. While the Falcons owner will certainly do his research and garner a number of opinions about all the candidates, in the end it’s going to be the face-to-face sit-down that decides things. Blank will have to decide which person he believes it best suited to front his organization and lead to this team to its ultimate goal and that’s a very personal decision by an NFL owner. Blank is ultimately going to hire the person that he feels is going to lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl, or at least that should be his goal. You never know if other factors won’t be leading him in certain directions.
I suspect I’ll probably be able to write at least one more takeaways column before the Falcons make that decision. If judging from the timeline the last time the team had a head-coaching vacancy, this week will likely be spent interviewing remaining candidates like Teryl Austin and Todd Bowles. Next week will likely involve bringing back Blank’s preferred candidates for a second interview. And then the week after that, Blank should have made his final decision.
In 2008, it was a 20-day process from when the first interview was conducted to when the Falcons announced Mike Smith as the team’s new coach. I suspect this year’s search will be the same, give or take a day or two. That probably means that we can expect the Falcons to hire their new coach sometime between January 19 and 23.