Free agency is entering its third week, which could mean that the Atlanta Falcons are mostly done with this phase of the offseason.
That conclusion is based in part off the slate of low-level roster moves the Falcons made to start last week as well as last year’s free agency period, during which the team’s last major signings before the draft occurred nine days after the start of it when the team added tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki.
If the Dan Quinn-led regime follows that same path, then it’s likely that the team will be mostly idle for the next 38 days until the 2016 NFL Draft. Although such a plan would seem odd given the current amount of cap space (roughly $5 million) and holes across their roster.
Those holes include tight end, right guard, nose tackle, defensive end, weak-side linebacker, middle linebacker, nickel cornerback and strong safety. It begs the question of why the Falcons would stand pat with so many lingering question marks on their roster?
That’s difficult to answer although one plausible explanation is that the Falcons don’t see several of those issues as overly problematic.
Falcons Brass Might Not See Current Roster As Needy
Jacob Tamme was very capable and effective at tight end for roughly the middle third of the 2015 season. Perhaps the coaching staff is confident that he’ll prove more effective thanks to a strengthening rapport between him and quarterback Matt Ryan, as well as the team being better versed in how to utilize him.
At right guard, the Falcons have Mike Person likely slated to start. Person struggled at center last season, but is a much more natural fit at guard where he has spent the bulk of his NFL career. The Falcons may also believe that with a capable starting center like Alex Mack beside him, Person is more than capable of getting the job done. Plus the presences of Ben Garland and James Stone give the team a decent amount of competition for the summer. Stone nearly nabbed a starting spot with the team last summer at left guard. This is also a year that features a fairly good group of offensive line prospect including several guards that might potentially fare well in the zone-blocking scheme that the Falcons employ.
Nose tackle is where the Falcons might be prepared to pencil Grady Jarrett into the starting lineup with the team is looking for someone to replace Paul Soliai in the base defense. With the addition of Derrick Shelby, who is expected to play inside at defensive tackle in the team’s nickel sub-package, it would appear that Jarrett might be the best candidate to replace Soliai. Late in 2015, Jarrett did earn reps in replacement for an injured Soliai and was competent in the role. Throw backup Joey Mbu into the mix and the Falcons aren’t in dire straits at the position, although you’d like to see someone else there with a bit more than two games of experience. But Jarrett might be viewed in the same vein as Brandon Mebane, as an undersized disruptor at the nose spot. Not to mention that given a strength of the 2016 draft class includes interior defensive linemen, waiting until the draft to add another defensive tackle makes perfect sense.
The addition of Shelby, retention of Adrian Clayborn and the continued development of Vic Beasley gives the Falcons further options at defensive end. While they also looked at Chris Long this offseason, they already have a decent rotation at the position that can provide some pressure off the edge. Obviously strengthening that rotation would help the team improve on their league-low 19 sacks in 2015, but if the team expects Beasley to make a significant leap, then it makes sense that they don’t see defensive end as an imperative hole that needs to be filled immediately.
Sean Weatherspoon gives the team a body at weak-side linebacker. They could of course be waiting to supplement this in the draft rather than seeing it as a position that requires another veteran addition in free agency. The same could be said at middle linebacker with Paul Worrilow likely set to start for a third consecutive season, much to the chagrin of many.
Nickel cornerback needs some more depth, but that doesn’t require the team to necessarily spend big in free agency. They just need someone that has some experience playing in the slot in case of an injury to Robert Alford. DeMarcus Van Dyke may have earned some reps in the slot during his rookie season with the Oakland Raiders, so he at least gives them another body there. They also could potentially do what they did last year and snag another cornerback prospect late in the draft (i.e. Akeem King) or afterwards in undrafted free agency (i.e. Kevin White).
Strong safety is another position that needs more help beyond the re-signings of Charles Godfrey and Damian Parms, which were moves the team made this past week. Neither Godfrey nor Parms are the caliber of player that are able to give Kemal Ishmael a real run for his money at the starting position, so at the very least they should add some competition via the draft.
Clearly the Falcons have plenty of room to supplement their roster in the draft with more competition at various positions. But that might be hard to do given their limited number of draft picks as things stand today. The Falcons only have five picks in the 2016 draft due to losing one due to the “NoiseGate” penalty from last year and giving up another one to trade for guard Andy Levitre last September.
If the Falcons do wish to supplement many of these roster spots in six weeks, they’ll almost certainly have to trade back at some point during the draft to acquire more picks. Yet trading back is anything but a forgone conclusion, especially where the Falcons are selecting in the draft.
Past Decade’s Drafts Show Trading Back is Option for Falcons in 2016
Each of the past 10 drafts have featured a team picking between picks No. 17 and 23 trading back in the draft. That bodes well for the Falcons, but equally as well for the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Washington Redskins, Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings. Chances are fairly high that at least one of those teams will have the option of trading down on April 28 when the first round commences.
Twice in the past decade, a team holding the 17th overall pick traded back. In 2007, the Jacksonville Jaguars agreed to move back four spots with the Denver Broncos so the latter could select defensive end Jarvis Moss. The Jaguars wound up selecting safety Reggie Nelson and picked up third and sixth-round picks from the Broncos as part of the agreement.
Then two years later in 2009, the Cleveland Browns swapped picks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to move back two spots. The Bucs wanted quarterback Josh Freeman, giving up a sixth-round pick to make that move up. The Browns would later trade the 19th overall selection for an additional sixth-round pick from the Philadelphia Eagles, who wanted to move up from pick No. 21 to get wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The Browns “settled” for Mack with their pick.
Two other comparable trades involved the 18th overall selection in 2008 and 2013. The first occurred between the Texans and Baltimore Ravens, the latter of whom were moving up to get quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens gave up third and sixth-round picks to move up from pick No. 26. The Texans wound up snagging offensive tackle Duane Brown with their pick.
Then in 2013, the Dallas Cowboys moved from 18 to 31, swapping with the San Francisco 49ers, who wanted safety Eric Reid. The 49ers forked up a third-round pick to move up, allowing the Cowboys to select center Travis Frederick at the end of the first round.
Trying to speculate this far out from the draft about what trade options might come the Falcons way would be foolish, but let’s try nonetheless.
Quarterback a Potential Needy Spot For Teams Looking to Trade Up
These past trades suggest that there is a decent chance that a team is going to be willing to jump up to snag a quarterback. If that were to occur again in 2016, it’s likely that Memphis’ passer in Paxton Lynch could be a target for a team looking to leapfrog others on draft night.
There are a few quarterback-needy teams picking after the Falcons, including the Jets (No. 20) and Broncos (No. 31). A problem stems from the fact that all of the teams picking after the Jets are playoff teams, which usually precludes those teams from having glaring holes at quarterback.
Although teams like the Buffalo Bills (No. 19), Redskins (No. 21), Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24), Kansas City Chiefs (No. 28) and Arizona Cardinals (No. 29) may not have long-term options under center already on their roster. If any of these manage to fall in love with Lynch in the next six weeks, it might give the Falcons additional trade options to explore.
Also, trading with a team picking at the top of the second round can’t be completely ruled out. Back in 2008, the Falcons themselves moved up from pick No. 34 to 21, exchanging picks with the Redskins to get offensive tackle Sam Baker. The Falcons gave up a pair of second-round picks along with a fourth-round pick, recouping a third and fifth-round pick in addition to the pick used to select Baker in that trade.
Notably the Browns also moved up from the top of the second round (pick No. 36) to nab quarterback Brady Quinn with the 22nd overall selection back in 2007. The Cowboys picked up a first-round pick in 2008 in part of that exchange, using it on running back Felix Jones.
In 2006, the Broncos moved down from the same 22nd overall selection so the 49ers could jump up from pick No. 37 to take outside linebacker Manny Lawson. That 37th overall selection was traded again and turned into former Falcons defensive back Jimmy Williams.
Obviously the teams picking at the top of round two are more likely to be looking at quarterbacks given that they are worse off. If teams like Browns (No. 32), Cowboys (No. 34), San Diego Chargers (No. 35), 49ers (No. 37), Chicago Bears (No. 41) and Los Angeles Rams (No. 43) don’t nab a quarterback in the first round, they might be eager to get one with their next selection. The desire to move ahead of a team like the Jets might facilitate a trade. If the Falcons can pull off a Brady Quinn-esque trade and acquire a first-round pick in 2017, it might be well worth moving back into the top of the second round.
Interestingly enough, most of these trades over the past 10 years involved a team trying to move up to get a player at premium position. 18 draft-day trades occurred over that span involving a team moving up for a pick between Nos. 12 and 23, with 15 of them involving a team selecting an edge-rusher, wide receiver, cornerback, quarterback or offensive tackle with the earlier pick, often considered the five premium or “pillar” positions in the NFL. The other three trades involved a safety (Reid) and two defensive tackles (Haloti Ngata and Phil Taylor).
Offensive Tackle Also Offers Value For Teams Looking to Move Up in 2016
Unfortunately this is not a particularly great year for edge-rushers or wide receivers. Cornerback isn’t bad this year and it’s certainly possible that one of the top three or four prospects might slip as far as the 17th overall selection.
But besides quarterback, it might be an offensive tackle-needy team that might be the best option if the Falcons are looking for a trade partner in the latter part of round one. There are plenty of teams picking after the Falcons that could use some help at offensive tackle including the: Colts (No. 18), Jets (No. 20), Vikings (No. 23), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 25), Seattle Seahawks (No. 26), Green Bay Packers (No. 27) and Carolina Panthers (No. 30).
How the top offensive tackles stack on the board still remains to be seen. Laremy Tunsil will be long gone, but it’s possible that the next tier of tackles including Ronnie Stanley, Jack Conklin, Taylor Decker and Jason Spriggs have at least one prospect remaining on the board that intrigues teams picking at the back half of the first round enough to move up to get them.
Ultimately the Falcons could have trade-back options in the first round when April 28 rolls around. But it’s far from a guarantee as the board has to stack just the right way with the right combination of player and need coming together to warrant another team trying to move up to snag the prospect of their choice.
Meaning that while trading back is a definite option for the Falcons, it’s not necessarily inevitable. Thus why it’s a bit perplexing if the Falcons decide to hold off on signing any other players over the next six weeks until the draft. Based off the past decade of draft-day trades, the Falcons are most likely to snag an additional third-round pick if they do manage to move back in the first round. While that will certainly help, one extra second-day pick won’t fill the plethora of remaining holes on their roster.
Thus why it’s difficult to believe that the Falcons won’t make anymore other significant additions in free agency over the next six weeks. While the Quinn regime has shown a tendency to get all of their free-agent shopping done within the first 10 days of free agency, past Falcons regimes were still able to snag players later in the process.
In 2014, the Falcons signed safety Dwight Lowery and cornerback Josh Wilson nearly a month (28 days) into the free-agent signing period. The year prior, defensive end Osi Umenyiora was signed on the 15th day of the offseason.
Given the aforementioned needs and capricious promise of a draft-day trade, the current Falcons regime would be smart to pull a page from their predecessors and continue to supplement the roster as much as they can with their remaining cap space.