With less than a week of free agency on the books, the Atlanta Falcons have not “won” the offseason. Far from it, but that may not necessary be a bad thing.
In an exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff discuss the notion of “winning” free agency. Quinn had this to say:
“Again, I’m not concerned about winning free agency. What’s best for our team is having the right group of guys and how they can best connect and how hard they play for each other. Specifically, what can we have a guy do on our team? All these guys we’re adding, that’s just it. We’re not asking them to do something different. So I’m not too concerned about the outside. … I can’t wait for people to see how we play. There’s a real style and attitude about how we’re going to play. It’s not about the one guy. It’s not about pass rusher, it’s pass rush. It’s not done with one man, it’s done with the style and attitude that we play to affect the quarterback. And (critics) need to wait a while, too. It’s still March.”
Dimitroff followed with this nugget:
“By the way, we have the eighth overall pick. Everyone needs to keep that in perspective. We have the whole other side of team building in the next couple of months.”
Both men are right and it’s far too early to get a full appreciation of what the Falcons have done so far this offseason. They have made several moves with the idea of improving the defense, signing linebackers Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and O’Brien Schofield, as well as made additions along the defensive line and secondary with defensive end Adrian Clayborn and cornerback Phillip Adams. The Falcons haven’t ignored the offense, signing wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and guard Mike Person as well.
As far as “winning” free agency, the Falcons clearly have not done that. That term “winning” often goes to the teams that make the most headline-grabbing moves. Those are often big-named players that get the biggest contracts. But that is not a good definition for winning. The team that wins free agency, is the team that makes the most moves to improve their roster. Often this is done by low-key signings that are often not made within the first week.
April Is Good Month For Free-Agent Bargains
Last season, two of the better moves the Falcons made came 28 days after the start of free agency when they signed cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Dwight Lowery. Wilson became an effective nickel cornerback for the Falcons in the latter half of 2014, while Lowery carved out a role as a starter at free safety.
Other notable free-agent moves that occurred last April were the New York Giants signing defensive end Robert Ayers. Ayers served as a valuable situational pass-rusher for the Giants a year ago. He ranked fifth in Pro Football Focus‘ pass-rush rankings of 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, outpacing the likes of Cliff Avril and Robert Quinn.
Another notable situational pass-rusher added during the month of April was George Johnson, when the Detroit Lions signed him on April 22. Johnson hadn’t been on an NFL roster since October 2013, when the Minnesota Vikings cut him. But he managed to finish third on the Lions in 2014 with six sacks.
The St. Louis Rams added wide receiver Kenny Britt the day before the Falcons signed Wilson and Lowery. Britt went on to lead the Rams in receiving in 2014 with 748 yards.
Another big-time receiver that was signed in April, mainly because he was released in late March, was DeSean Jackson. Jackson was scooped up by the Washington Redskins after the Philadelphia Eagles unceremoniously dumped him and went on to also lead the Redskins in receiving with 1,169 yards.
But perhaps no team had a better April a year ago than the Baltimore Ravens, who added running back Justin Forsett and tight end Owen Daniels. Forsett was expected to be a third-string tailback behind Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, but wound up leading the Ravens with 1,266 rushing yards, the fifth most in the NFL in 2014. Daniels’ 48 catches and 527 yards ranked third on the team, adding valuable depth when tight end Dennis Pitta was lost for the season in September with a hip injury.
With such moves in mind, a certain amount of patience must be expressed when considering the Falcons’ offseason so far. However even with that in mind, there isn’t a ton to get exciting about in terms of what the Falcons have done.
Not because they haven’t made any headline-grabbing moves, but one can still question how much improvement the team has actually made. Especially in regards to their pass rush.
Additions like Clayborn, Reed and Schofield certainly help but none are difference-makers. All are the type of players that can be complementary rushers, meaning if they’re playing alongside difference-makers like Gerald McCoy, J.J. Watt or Avril, they can be expected to contribute.
But it’s very clear that the Falcons lack said “lead” pass-rusher. Unfortunately, there weren’t as many of those types of players available this offseason. Outside of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, there were really no standouts that the Falcons could have realistically pursued. Edge-rushers like Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Pernell McPhee certainly aren’t of that caliber, although they are probably a lot closer to it than the additions the Falcons did make. Orakpo at one point was that sort of player, but concerns over whether the numerous injuries he’s suffered the past few years have sapped that ability are valid.
Morgan was more of a complementary rusher to Jurrell Casey in Tennessee, while McPhee complemented the likes of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil the past few years in Baltimore.
Falcons Avoided Making Big Splash At Defensive End
One area where I can certainly give the Falcons credit is that they didn’t go out and splurge on complementary guys like the aforementioned free agents. That is a stark change from a year ago when the team paid a premium for complementary run-stoppers like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. Soliai and Jackson’s contracts combined to equal $57 million in total compensation with $25 million guaranteed money.
Those combined contracts were comparable to the pay-out the Falcons gave cornerback Dunta Robinson at the outset of the 2010 free-agent signing period: $57 million with $22.5 million guaranteed. Clearly, the team had a history of making the “big splash” right from the jump.
In past takeaways columns, I opined that the Falcons would likely do the same in 2015 in regards to addressing their pass rush. But they did not this year, avoiding the big splash move. While the terms of Schofield’s contract have yet to be released, Reed and Clayborn are making relative pennies compared to past contracts.
Per reports, Reed’s contract is worth a total of $22.5 million over five years, with only $9 million of it guaranteed. Clayborn signed a one-year deal worth little more than $3 million, with $1 million of that being dependent on playing time due to per-game roster bonuses. Presumably, Schofield is unlikely to get a massive deal since he’ll likely serve as either players’ backup this season.
Altogether it appears that the Falcons committed as much in combined guaranteed money to Reed, Clayborn and Schofield that they did to Soliai alone ($14 million) a year ago.
When looking at the history of free agency, one easily sees how often the “big splashes” rarely work out in favor of the signing teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a prime example of this phenomenon.
Tampa Bay Bucs Epitomize Free-Agent Failures
Over the past three offseasons, the Bucs have signed a number of players to large contracts including wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks, offensive tackle Anthony Collins, defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerbacks Eric Wright, Darrelle Revis and Alterraun Verner and safety DaShon Goldson.
Collins and Johnson were released this offseason, each playing one season with the Bucs. The same fate awaited Revis a year ago. Also, Wright was traded after a single year with the team. Nicks was limited to just nine games over two seasons due to a rare infection before retiring lasts ummer.
Jackson was put on the trade block last season during his third season with the team, but appears to be safe to play a fourth for now. Goldson has recently been put on the trade block as well after two seasons with the team.
Verner is entering his second year and appears safe for now. But even if he manages to play five more years with the Bucs, Verner would be the lone among eight major free-agent signings over three offseasons that the Bucs didn’t sour on quickly. The Bucs may represent an extreme example of free-agent spending gone wrong, but it’s not that far out of the norm.
History Says Free Agency Is Hit and Miss
It is common that a three-year window is used to look back at the draft and if the same was applied to free-agency, things would not look too promising.
If we go back to the 2012 offseason and look at the free agents that signed contracts for four or more years, we would see very few of them are still with the same teams. Of 29 free agents that signed contracts of four years or longer with new teams, 19 are no longer with the respective teams that signed them.
One would assume that teams would fare better when it came to keeping their own players and re-signing them to long-term contracts, but that is not the case. Of the 28 players that signed contracts of four or more years with their own teams, 17 are no longer with them. DeSean Jackson was among those players, signing a five-year, $48.5 million extension in March 2012, but found himself out of favor within two years.
At least in 2012, three out of five players that signed long-term contracts, did not make it past three seasons with their respective teams. Which means that when signing free agents to l0ng-term deals, teams are essentially renting them for two, perhaps three years.
Included among those “successes” from 2012 are players like Evan Mathis, Lardarius Webb, Brandon Carr and David Hawthorne that entered this offseason on the bubble. The Eagles are reportedly in the process of trading Mathis to another team. The others are expected to have to take significant pay cuts in order to stay with their respective teams.
Other so-called “successes” from 2012 include Stephen Tulloch, Robert Mathis, Arian Foster and Pierre Garcon, who all have missed significant time over the past three years due to various injuries.
Altogether, the number of true “home runs” from three offseasons ago is small. The $96 million deals that Mario Williams and Peyton Manning signed with Buffalo and Denver, respectively, in 2012 would be considered successful. Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Nelson and Marques Colston were all re-signed to long-term deals with their respective teams that offseason also.
This offseason, the Titans signed both Orakpo and Morgan to four-year deals worth roughly $30 million. But there’s a good chance that three years down the road, at least one of them will be no longer with the team. Thus, there’s a high likelihood that the Titans will once again be looking to add a prominent edge-rusher to their defense in the near future.
Free agency isn’t really designed to solve long-term problems. It essentially is about adding stopgaps given that most of the players signed are in their late 20s, and NFL teams generally sour on players once they eclipse age 30. Unless you’re landing a rare talent like Suh, Williams or Manning, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend big money.
That’s one area where you can say that the Falcons have “won” because they haven’t fallen into the trap that other teams so often do. However, that still doesn’t mean that the Falcons can yet call their offseason a success, especially in regards to addressing the pass rush.
More Steps Needed to Improve Historically Bad Falcons Pass Rush
Quinn is inheriting what amounts to a historically bad pass rush. The 2014 Falcons finished the year with just 22 sacks with only the Cincinnati Bengals registering less (20) a year ago.
If you go back to 1978 when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule and discount the two strike-shortened seasons of 1982 and 1987, there have only been 33 teams that have finished a season with 22 or less sacks.
In the time since, 1,016 teams have had more sacks in a season than the Falcons did in 2014. Put another way, 97 percent of the teams that have fielded a pass rush over the past 37 seasons have put one on the field that was better than the Falcons in 2014.
While adding players like Clayborn, Reed and Schofield are steps in the right direction, they don’t add enough to affect significant change. The three of them have combined for 41 sacks in their NFL careers over the course of 162 games. Thus the trio each average about four sacks per 16-game season, meaning that the Falcons may have added about a dozen sacks to their lineup. Even if you assume that Quinn can make them collectively 25 percent better, it results in just about 15 sacks added to the roster. Looking at the players that the Falcons have already lost this offseason or are currently unsigned free agents, they lost 13 sacks from their 2014 total.
So from that perspective, the Falcons have made only a minimal gain in regards to their pass rush. Clearly, much more work must be done to get the Falcons’ pass rush out of the basement.
Unfortunately, the number of notable free agents has dwindled through the first few days of free agency. Greg Hardy is the most prominent player among those left unsigned, but it’s already known that the Falcons will still clear of Hardy thanks to dark cloud hanging over his head from his involvement in a domestic violence case. There may come a time in the next few months where an NFL team might risk the media and public backlash by signing Hardy, but it’s extremely doubtful that team will be the Falcons. At least for now, that’s certainly not part of the team’s plan to upgrade the pass rush moving forward.
The Falcons will have to look at other avenues. And one of those certainly will be the draft. Various mock drafts around the internet expect that the Falcons will take the best pass-rusher available with their top selection of the eighth overall pick. This expectation appears spot on based off Dimitroff’s previous quote about holding that pick. That comment came in the context of talking about the team’s need to address the pass rush.
But that raises the question of whether the moves the Falcons have made so far, coupled with a high draft pick is going to be enough. History is not only unkind to the quality of the Falcons’ 2014 pass rush, but also to the chances that the Falcons are successful in landing a difference-maker at the top of the draft.
Rookie Pass-Rushers Rarely Make Impact
Looking back over the last decade of drafts, there have been a total of 16 players that have recorded eight or more sacks in their rookie seasons. Twelve of those players were first-round picks. That strongly suggests that if the Falcons want to get an immediate impact pass-rusher, it will most likely come with their initial selection.
However, over the past decade there have been 108 players that have been selected in the first round there were defensive linemen or linebackers. Removing 3-4 nose tackle and non-edge-rushing linebackers leaves 83 first-round players that potentially could have been impact pass-rushers as rookies.
With only 12 proving successful, that equates to 14 percent or one in seven. Coincidentally, there are seven players that are often mocked as potential first-round picks in this 2015 draft class: Vic Beasley, Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Dante Fowler, Randy Gregory, Eli Harold, Shane Ray and Leonard Williams. Thus from a statistical perspective, odds are that one of these seven players will make an immediate impact and have eight or more sacks as a rookie in 2015. Unfortunately, the Falcons really have no better a chance statistically of finding that player than any of the other potential six teams that will select them.
Interestingly, when you look at the 16 players that had eight or more sacks as rookies since 2005, the majority of them were drafted by teams that already had an established pass-rusher and/or fielded solid to good defenses.
Impact Rookie Pass-Rushers (2005-14)
|Player||Year||Round||Sacks (rookie yr)||Prev Yr's Sack Leader||Sacks (prev yr)||Defense Rnk (prev yr)|
|DeMarcus Ware||2005||1||8.0||Greg Ellis||9.0||27|
|Shawne Merriman||2005||1||10.0||Steve Foley||10.0||11|
|Kamerion Wimbley||2006||1||11.0||Alvin McKinley||5.0||11|
|Tamba Hali||2006||1||8.0||Jared Allen||11.0||16|
|Elvis Dumervil||2006||4||8.5||Trevor Pryce||4.0||3|
|Mark Anderson||2006||5||12.0||Adewale Ogunleye||10.0||1|
|Brian Orakpo||2009||1||11.0||Andre Carter||4.0||6|
|Clay Matthews||2009||1||10.0||Aaron Kampman||9.5||22|
|Ndamukong Suh||2010||1||10.0||Cliff Avril||5.5||32|
|Carlos Dunlap||2010||2||9.5||Antwan Odom||8.0||6|
|Von Miller||2011||1||11.5||D.J. Williams||5.5||32|
|Aldon Smith||2011||1||14.0||Justin Smith||8.5||16|
|Jabaal Sheard||2011||2||8.5||Marcus Benard||7.5||13|
|Bruce Irvin||2012||1||8.0||Chris Clemons||11.0||7|
|Ezekiel Ansah||2013||1||8.0||Cliff Avril||9.5||27|
|Aaron Donald||2014||1||9.0||Robert Quinn||19.0||13|
If using the same benchmark, 10 of those 16 teams had a veteran player that the previous season recorded eight or more sacks. That indicates that those impactful rookies often went to teams where they essentially filled the mantle as a complementary rusher.
Also, 11 of those 16 teams finished 16th or higher in scoring defense the previous season, indicating that those players were being drafted by teams that already had relatively well-established defenses.
Obviously, the Falcons fit neither category. Kroy Biermann’s 4.5 sacks topped the Falcons stat sheets last season, and their defense ranked 27th in points allowed.
And several of the rookies were going to teams that already had an established pass-rusher, they simply did not produce the previous season. Von Miller went to a Broncos defense in 2011 that already had Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil missed the entire 2010 season with a pectoral injury, making linebacker D.J. Williams that team’s top returning sacker in 2011 with 5.5 sacks. But in 2009 when Dumervil was healthy, his 17 sacks led the entire NFL.
Orakpo had 11 sacks as a rookie in 2009, joining a team that already had Andre Carter. Carter only had four sacks in 2008, but had recorded 10.5 in 2007, again indicating that the Redskins’ cupboard wasn’t bare when Orakpo joined the team.
Dumervil himself had an impactful rookie season in 2006 with 8.5 sacks. He was joining a team that already had Trevor Pryce, who only had four sacks in 2005. But that drop in production likely had to do with Pryce still recovering from a back injury that caused him to miss most of 2004. Prior to 2004, Pryce had recorded seven or more sacks in six consecutive seasons.
Only one example stands out among the impactful rookies when looking for one that wasn’t joining an already established defense with an established veteran pass-rusher. That is coincidentally the biggest prize in the 2015 free-agent class: Ndamukong Suh.
Falcons Looking For Next Suh to Get Big Rookie Impact
Suh was drafted by the Lions with the second overall pick in 2010, joining a team that had finished dead last in scoring defense in 2009. In fact, the Lions had been the league’s worst scoring defense for three consecutive years prior to Suh’s arrival. The chief holdover on that 2009 Lions’ pass rush was Cliff Avril, who finished with 5.5 sacks. Avril has since blossomed into one of the league’s top pass-rushers, but his rise probably had more to do with Suh than the other way around.
In his first two seasons without Suh, Avril had recorded a combined 10.5 sacks. Over the next three years playing alongside Suh, Avril recorded a total of 29 sacks. And since leaving Detroit in 2013, he’s come a little bit back down to Earth, with a combined 13 sacks the past two years playing with Dan Quinn in Seattle.
That’s not a knock of Avril who is rightly considered one of the league’s better pass-rushers today, just an even further illustration of the rare sort of player that Suh is. He is the rare sort of player that can join a bad defense with few established playmakers, immediately shine as an individual, as well as make other players around him better as he did with Ziggy Ansah in 2013. It’s also worth noting that Suh is the only one of the 16 impactful rookies that was an interior pass-rusher and not an edge player.
If you haven’t quite gleaned it yet, the point I’m trying to make is that Suh is an extremely rare, unique, once-in-a-generation sort of draft prospect. The chances that the Falcons land that sort of player in the 2015 draft is very low. If the Falcons plan to stand pat with the additions they’ve made thus far coupled with a first-round pick, it’s unlikely there is going to be a significant leap forward in their pass rush based off this evidence.
Yet, the word if must be stressed. Because it is still early in free agency and as noted before, there is still the possibility that the Falcons could land their very own versions of players like Ayers and Johnson in the coming weeks.
Lions RFA George Johnson Offers Potential Option for Falcons
Johnson himself could potentially be on the Falcons’ radar. He entered the league in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, when current Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris was the head coach in Tampa Bay. Now Johnson is a restricted free agent with the Lions, who tendered him at the lowest level. As a former undrafted free agent, the Falcons would owe the Lions no compensation in the form of a draft pick if they signed Johnson.
However, teams don’t often pursue restricted free agents. And certainly not to the degree that they once did. From 2003 to 2008, 20 restricted free agents changed teams. In the six years since, just two have. Last year, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was signed by the Cleveland Browns away from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Falcons also tried to lure safety Rafael Bush away from the New Orleans Saints, but the Saints exercised their “right of first refusal” by matching the deal and keeping Bush in New Orleans.
That’s one of the main reasons why restricted free agents are largely ignored by teams. At least in recent history, the vast majority of the deals are matched. Besides Hawkins, the only other player to change teams as a restricted free agent was running back Mike Bell in 2010, when he went from New Orleans to Philadelphia. However to be fair, Hawkins, Bush and Bell are three of just four restricted free agents that have been tendered offers over the past four full offseasons, which disregards the lockout-shortened offseason of 2011. The lone other example was when the New England Patriots tried to nab wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in 2013.
Therefore, the perception that teams are likely to match offers may not meet the reality. One potential boon for the Falcons if they choose to pursue Johnson may be that the Lions don’t have a lot of cap space. As of Saturday, the Lions have roughly $6 million in cap space according to website Over the Cap, the fourth lowest in the league. The Falcons on the other hand sit just south of $25 million in cap space, the sixth most in the league. The Falcons could potentially front-load an offer sheet to Johnson that would make it prohibitive for the Lions to match.
However, the downside of the restricted offer sheet is that teams have seven days to make a decision to match or not. That would give the Lions some time to move money around, potentially restructuring the deals of wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matt Stafford in order to try and fit George Johnson under their cap. Additionally, there is a certain threshold where the Falcons would make the deal so prohibitive to the Lions that it would also be fiscally irresponsible to their own cap situation. It’s a careful game that teams have to play if they pursue restricted free agents, and it’s understandable that teams tend to choose not to play.
But due to their attempt to sign Bush a year ago, at least there is the precedent that the Falcons might go down that path once more with Johnson. No one would quite confuse Johnson for Jared Allen or Robert Quinn in their primes, but he would offer another step in the right direction for the Falcons’ pass rush.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that if the Falcons intend to make a great leap forward in their pass rush in 2015, they’re going to need more help than what Clayborn, Reed, Schofield and a first-round pick potentially provide.
But perhaps the Falcons aren’t intending to make huge strides in 2015 and are instead building towards their long-term future. That would be an interesting development, given some of the peripheral concerns that team ownership may have.
The desire to “put butts in seats” often overlaps with the desire to make those headline-grabbing splashes in the offseason. If Falcons owner Arthur Blank has bought into a slower and steadier approach, it’s certainly a positive sign that he is buying whatever Quinn is selling.
And while many Falcons fans, including myself, may not be as thoroughly convinced, that can be counted at least as a small victory so far this offseason.