Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – March 2, 2015

Last week marked a significant one for the regime of new Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn because it represented the initial roster moves that the team had made.

Upon Quinn’s hiring at the start of February, he indicated that he would begin to evaluate the team’s roster and eventually begin to make decisions. That occurred this past week as the Falcons re-signed a trio of impending free agents and released four notable veterans.

Most notable of the re-signees was kicker Matt Bryant, who has put together five-and-half strong seasons in Atlanta. Bryant has been the model of consistency in that span, especially when it comes to kicking within the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome. Bryant is among the league’s most accurate kickers at home, connecting on 91 percent of his field goals.

Bryant was re-signed to a three-year deal that makes him one of the 10 highest-paid kickers in the league, but is modest enough that should the Falcons feel compelled to get out of it, they can. Bryant will turn 40 at the end of the May, and even by kickers’ standards is practically ancient.

Bryant Could Retire as Falcons’ Best Ever

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Matt Bryant (right)

Yet, Bryant could be able to play out his contract should he continue to be productive and consistent kicking inside the Georgia Dome. Bryant is nearing the point where he could break Morten Andersen’s franchise records in terms of field goals, extra points and points scored. At his current pace, all three records should be broken by the middle of the 2016 season.

And ultimately that’s a worthwhile goal for both Bryant and the team to shoot for: having him retire as the team’s best kicker ever.

The two other two players that were re-signed were fullback Patrick DiMarco and defensive lineman Cliff Matthews. Both players signed modest, two-year contracts to remain in Atlanta.

DiMarco has been an effective lead-blocker for the Falcons the past two years and should continue to be productive, although nothing about his contract prohibits the Falcons from upgrading that spot in the future. More than likely, the team will bring in an undrafted free agent to push him for the job. Extending DiMarco’s contract doesn’t preclude the Falcons from finding a better option at fullback, but simply gives them a stopgap until they actually do.

With Matthews, he’s a high-effort player that adds depth and versatility to the defensive line rotation along with special teams ability. Matthews has one of the better motors of any Falcons defensive lineman, and it’s likely that sort of toughness and effort endeared him to both the old and new coaches. More than likely Matthews will return to play defensive end under Quinn, after spending the past two years primarily playing inside at defensive tackle.

If the season started today, he would be the fifth player in the defensive line rotation. But it’s likely that the Falcons will add multiple other players to that position group before the season actually begins, meaning that Matthews will likely enter the summer on the bubble much like he did a year ago. But he has what it takes to stick on the roster despite that.

Most notably, the Falcons released or waived four veterans this past week, among them being: running back Steven Jackson, wide receiver Harry Douglas, guard Justin Blalock and defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi.

Departures of Steven Jackson and Douglas Clear Path For Younger Players

The release of Jackson was by far the least surprising. His impending release was predicted as far back as before last year’s draft. And while it’s easy to chalk up the whole two-year “Jackson Experience” as a failure, there are still some positive vibes that Jackson brought to Atlanta. He was one of the team’s more consistent offensive players last year and hopefully some of his work ethic and character rubbed off on on some of the young running backs, including Devonta Freeman, who is being pegged as the team’s next lead tailback.

Jackson’s release has minimal effect on the Falcons’ plans moving forward. They were always going to seek to bolster the running back position, but Jackson’s departure now makes that plain to all observers. The only real question is whether the Falcons are seeking a player that can complement Freeman or one that can potentially take the job as the lead runner. More than likely the Falcons will seek to add a physical runner in the draft that is more effective between the tackles than Freeman or any of their current tailbacks appear to be. How high that player is drafted should be a good litmus test for how much confidence the team has in Freeman being “the guy.”

The release of Douglas was more of a surprise, but by no means did it blindside anyone. Douglas had a polarizing career with the Falcons, meaning fans either loved him or they hated him. Those that loved him focused on his ability to step in and produce over the past few years whenever a starter such as Roddy White or Julio Jones was out with injury. Those that hated him focused on the drops, stumbles and times he was bullied in traffic over the years.

Like Jackson, it opens up a pathway for the Falcons to get younger at the position. Likely looking to invest a young draft pick that can come in and push for the third wide receiver job. The team is looking for a long-term replacement for White as a starter opposite Jones, and an early-to-mid-round pick would perfectly suffice.

Blalock’s release was even more surprising than that of Douglas, given that he has been a fixture in Atlanta over the past eight years, missing just three games in that span. However, given his high salary and advance age, his release wasn’t completely out of left field but certainly surprised me.

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Justin Blalock

Blalock’s Release Opens Larger Void Along Offensive Line

The Falcons’ interior offensive line was the strength of that unit a year ago and was instrumental in helping the Falcons winning a couple of games in 2014. Dumping Blalock threatens to disrupt that and it will be imperative that the Falcons find a suitable replacement.

But questions abound whether the Falcons will seek to find a veteran in free agency or take a chance on a developmental option in the draft. Which method the team attacks this newfound hole on the roster will determine in retroactively what was the main reason why the Falcons decided to cut Blalock.

Of the team’s five projected starting offensive linemen, Blalock was easily the worst fit in the team’s new zone-blocking scheme. If that was the primary onus behind why the Falcons opted to part ways, then it would make sense for the team to target someone that is a better fit via free agency.

Options To Replace Blalock May Be Limited

Unfortunately, this year’s free-agent class doesn’t feature a ton of players that are proven and experienced zone-blocking guards. Seattle Seahawks’ James Carpenter is one of the few qualifiers, but he has been an underwhelming starter through four years in Seattle. He’s never been graded positively by premium website Pro Football Focus, and has missed a lot of time due to injuries.

Over his four years as a Seahawk, Carpenter played in just 59.1 percent of that team’s offensive snaps. Comparatively, Blalock appeared in 97.6 percent of the Falcons’s snaps over that same span.

Carpenter’s durability has improved each year, coming off a 2014 campaign that saw him play in 80.6 percent of the Seahawks’ offensive snaps. But even in what would be considered an “injury-marred” season for Blalock this past fall, he still appeared in 89.9 percent of the Falcons’ plays.

So even despite the fact that Carpenter is roughly six years younger than Blalock, has started off and on for four seasons in a zone-blocking scheme and is familiar with new offensive line coach Chris Morgan, who helped coach him in Seattle, it seems like an odd gamble given the durability concerns.

Which points to the possibility that the Falcons instead plan to replace Blalock with a draft pick. Ideally, the Falcons will find the next Joel Bitonio, who graded out as a top five guard by Pro Football Focus this past year as a rookie under then current Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when he was with the Cleveland Browns. Bitonio was selected last year at pick No. 35, near where the Falcons are potentially picking the second round: No. 42 overall.

Whether there is a prospect worth that pick remains to be seen. Players like South Carolina’s A.J. Cann and Duke’s Laken Tomlinson are highly rated guards, but may not be quite considered on that Bitonio level. Bitonio was considered a potential late-first round pick by some a year ago, that saw his draft stock rise due to a brilliant performance against first-round edge-rusher Anthony Barr to start his senior season.

It’s possible that the Falcons could opt to wait until the third or fourth round and still get a quality guard in the draft. But the concern rests on whether or not the Falcons just created a major need where there wasn’t already one. Blalock’s age and salary probably meant that 2015 would mark his last in Atlanta, but he was still a known commodity. And despite not being an ideal fit in the new zone-blocking scheme, one still could have suspected at least average guard play in 2015.

Now his release opens up the potential that his replacement gives the team considerably less than that. Obviously, there’s also the potential that the Falcons could get much more. But considering how problematic offensive line play has been in Atlanta over recent seasons, it’s a bit disheartening to have such a large question mark looming over the position group once again.

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Sam Baker

Sam Baker’s Fate Yet to be Decided

Another question that still needs to be answered along the offensive line is whether the team plans to keep offensive tackle Sam Baker in 2015. Baker could potentially be an option to replace Blalock as according to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Baker is open to the possibility to moving inside to guard.

Unlike Blalock, Baker is a better fit for the zone-blocking scheme since that was the scheme he played in during his collegiate days at Southern California. However, Baker has played nothing but left tackle throughout his career, with his one appearance as a right guard in 2011 proving disastrous. So automatically slotting Baker in as a left guard is a question mark.

Should Baker be pegged as the new starting left guard, then he’ll almost certainly have to re-work his contract. His 2015 cap hit of $7.3 million almost matches that of Blalock before his release: $7.91 million.

The Falcons can still cut Baker, but if they do, he will almost certainly as a “post-June 1″ release. That means the remaining portion of his signing bonus he received in 2013 becomes “dead money” on the Falcons’ salary cap and gets spread over two years instead of one. If the Falcons cut Baker normally that would equal a dead money hit of $9.2 million, indicating that the Falcons would have to take on an additional $1.9 million to their salary cap in 2015.

However, if designated a post-June 1 cut, Baker’s dead money hit reduces to $2.8 million this year and then $6.4 million in 2016. That means that the Falcons actually save $4.5 million against this year’s salary cap instead. However, that extra space only becomes available to the Falcons after June 2.

If the Falcons do cut Baker with the post-June designation, they’ll have to wait until the league year begins on March 10. It was the same situation with Thomas DeCoud a year ago. While it was leaked much earlier on that DeCoud would be cut, the move didn’t become official until later when the league year began.

At the start of the league year in March, teams are allowed to designate up to two players as post-June releases. If used, Baker will certainly be one, and defensive end Tyson Jackson is the best candidate for the other potential spot.

Tyson Jackson Also on Bubble

Cutting Jackson under normal rules would force the Falcons to take on another $2.55 million in cap space this year due to a dead money hit of $6.4 million. But as a post-June release, Jackson’s dead money in 2015 reduces to $1.6 million, saving the Falcons $2.25 million, with the remainder hitting in 2016.

Of the two, Jackson’s release is less likely since his $3.85 million salary cap in 2015 isn’t that prohibitive. The Falcons could play him as a two-down defender in Quinn’s scheme, comparable to how Red Bryant was used there.

But even if Jackson remains safe for the next week until the league year begins, he certainly won’t enter training camp entrenched atop the depth chart. He’ll have to compete with players like Matthews, Malliciah Goodman and possibly Ra’Shede Hageman to play the base defensive end spot. Even if he manages to survive the next week as a Falcon, that potential competition means that Jackson could also find himself on the roster bubble this summer in training camp.

The bubble burst for Massaquoi, who was the most surprising of all the team’s releases.

Massaquoi’s Waiving a Surprising Goodbye

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Jonathan Massaquoi

Even for someone such as myself, who considered Massaquoi a bit overrated, it was a huge surprise to see him waived. He was one of the few competent pass-rushers already on a roster that was practically devoid of many.

The story behind Massaquoi’s release may prove far more interesting than anything he did on the field. After having two promising performances against the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens in consecutive weeks this past season, Massaquoi barely saw the field afterwards.

Much of that can be blamed on the fact that he suffered a foot injury the week following the Ravens performance and would be limited for the next month. But when finally healthy, Massaquoi didn’t see increased reps during the team’s Week 14 contest against the Green Bay Packers.

And Massaquoi made his thoughts on that situation known publicly, and that simply didn’t sit well with the Falcons’ coaching staff. He did not play the following week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and did very little with limited playing time in the last two games of the season.

Massaquoi’s 2014 season was a very polarizing one. When focused on his two best performances against the Bears and Ravens, one saw a promising player with starting potential as a pass-rusher. But when focused on the other 14 games played in 2014, there was nothing of note. A large part of that can be blamed on his foot injury as well as limited reps, but Massaquoi simply didn’t perform, particularly during the second half of the season, when given his limited opportunities.

The same couldn’t be said to other Falcons pass-rushers such as Stansly Maponga and Matthews, who both had strong performances on limited reps against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13. Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann each had solid performances at various points in the second half of the season, especially in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints. Hageman too began to flash more and more as a disruptor in the second half of the season.

Questionable Work Ethic May Have Hurt Massaquoi

If I take a moment to speculate, I think Massaquoi ultimately rested on his laurels. Thinking that his performances in Weeks 6 and 7 were more than enough to merit the brunt of playing time, he might not have put as much effort thereafter as the coaches had hoped. And by the time he was self-described as healthy in Week 14, it had been nearly two months since the team had seen positive performances from him.

And it boiled down to being “out of sight, out of mind.” In the time since Massaquoi’s performance against the Ravens in Week 7, Umenyiora had had a strong game against the Lions in Week 8, Biermann had performed at a high level against the Buccaneers in Week 10, and Maponga and Matthews had produced in Week 13.

I suspect Massaquoi expected that once he was recovered from his foot injury in Week 14, the clock would simply rewind and he’d be rewarded for his earlier performances back when he was healthy. The nature of the NFL is such that rarely do starters lose their jobs because of injury. But the overlooked part of the equation was that Massaquoi wasn’t a starter. One could have argued that he should have been one from the get-go, but he simply wasn’t. And he  needed to go out there and prove himself once more. And according to former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons simply weren’t seeing that in practice.

Now all of that being said didn’t preclude Massaquoi from getting a fresh start with the Falcons’ new coaching staff. Although unfortunately, it’s not quite a clean slate because holdover assisatnts like Keith Armstrong and Bryan Cox had ample opportunity to work with Massaquoi last year and might have soured him as some have opined.

Ultimately, Massaquoi’s tenure in Atlanta should draw comparisons to another former edge-rusher in Lawrence Sidbury. Like Massaquoi, Sidbury saw limited snaps over four years with the Falcons despite showing a level of production and potential that should have demanded more. Sidbury walked via free agency at his first opportunity in 2013, and I’ve heard from two separate second-hand sources that the split was mutual.

Sidbury felt underutilized by the Falcons thanks in part to favoritism shown to players like Biermann, despite the former showing better production on the field. That exact same case and claim could be easily made this past year in regards to Massaquoi.

And both were very similar players on the field, both from a physical standpoint and how they played the game. They even have nearly identical measurables based off the Combine:

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Replacing Massaquoi Won’t Be Insurmountable

And ultimately, this similarity is one of the reasons why I’m not sure anybody should be too broken up about the loss of Massaquoi. Like Sidbury, he may be relatively easy to replace. Arguably, a player like Stansly Maponga is not far off from being that replacement, and he’s already on the roster.

The Falcons have shown that they can consistently find developmental edge-rushers late in the draft, as they did with Sidbury (fourth round), Massaquoi (fifth), Maponga (sixth) and even Matthews (seventh).

At best, the Falcons were envisioning Massaquoi as a rotational player and backup, and unlike the other players released in Blalock, Douglas and Jackson, who all had starter minutes.

But it also means that the Falcons have a larger void to fill this offseason in terms of their pass rush. Maponga, Tyler Starr and Jacques Smith stand as the team’s sole edge-rushers currently on the roster. It’s by no means a news flash, one can certianly expect the Falcons to try and quickly rectify that situation on the open market.

And with all these moves, the Falcons will have the cash to do it. Their current cap situation shows that the team has in excess of $30 million available to spend towards the 2015 salary cap.

Falcons Cap Space Points to Active Offseason

All told, the Falcons will almost certainly be active this offseason in free agency. Looking over their roster, their most pressing needs are at tight end, left guard, defensive end and free safety, where the team has no viable starter currently under contract. The Falcons probably will quickly seek solutions at the majority of those positions in free agency.

They could also address needs at running back, wide receiver, linebacker and nickel cornerback on the open market. But as noted above, most of those are positions that may wait until the draft to be addressed.

The excess of cap space doesn’t automatically indicate that the Falcons are prepared to fork out multiple top-dollar contracts, but if they do it will probably be at tight end and defensive end, where there are several quality free agents that might demand it.

Similar to how it was in 2008 when Mike Smith was a new head coach, the Falcons may instead seek to bring a litany of mid-level free agents to give the roster a quick makeover.

As noted before, the Falcons should see significant roster turnover between now and the start of the 2015 season and the large amount of cap space will help facilitate it.

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Aaron Freeman
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