Contrary to what I wrote a week ago, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t quite done in free agency this week as they signed a pair of linebackers in Philip Wheeler and Courtney Upshaw.
Bringing Wheeler back made a lot of sense given that he was a fairly known commodity to the coaching staff at a position full of question marks. In 2015, heperformed well in nine appearances for the Falcons, including two starts as a replacement for injured weak-side linebacker Justin Durant.
Wheeler turned 31 at the end of 2015 but he at the very least gives the team a reliable veteran backup behind Sean Weatherspoon.
Weatherspoon has missed a total of 35 games over the course of six seasons due to injury, which averages out to be nearly six games a year. To be fair to Spoon, that average is somewhat inflated due to him missing every game in 2014 due to a torn Achilles tendon. But even discounting that lost season, he’s missed 19 games in five other years. That basically means it’s a good bet that he’ll miss a quarter of the 2016 season, thus why it’s important to have a capable reserve like Wheeler on the roster.
There’s a chance that Wheeler could outright beat Weatherspoon if they are involved in an open training-camp battle for the starting spot on the weak side. Weatherspoon was hardly anything special last year for the Arizona Cardinals, primarily working on special teams rather than defense because of it. However the second year back from an Achilles tear usually allows a player to regain some of the steps lost in the first year, so a more recovered Weatherspoon should be able to hold off Wheeler. But nothing is guaranteed.
As for Upshaw, he’ll probably also add depth at outside linebacker, but on the strong side behind starter Brooks Reed. Upshaw could be considered a “poor man’s” O’Brien Schofield in terms of what his role might be in Atlanta this year.
Despite Solid Play in 2015, Schofield Out of Team’s 2016 Plans
Meaning that like Schofield, he could be asked to play both as a linebacker and defensive end. Schofield started out last season playing left defensive end in the team’s nickel sub-package. But by midseason, the Falcons opted to shift rookie Vic Beasley into that role. That relegated Schofield to spending the bulk of his time thereafter playing strong-side linebacker.
After the Falcons’ Week 10 bye week Schofield earned more reps, playing 188 snaps in the final six games versus Reed’s 127.
That made it notable when the Falcons weren’t eager to re-sign Schofield. While they haven’t completely closed the door on his return according to reports, the writing is clearly on the wall that Schofield’s price tag has to come down for that to happen.
However if you’re in Schofield’s shoes, you’re unlikely to submit to lowering your demands. He played last year under a one-year contract worth $1.7 million, making less than Kroy Biermann ($1.925 million) and Reed, who netted $6.9 million in the first year of his four-year deal.
While Biermann saw more playing time down the stretch (201 snaps over the final six weeks) than Schofield, it’s fair to say that the latter outperformed him. When Schofield was primarily playing as a defensive end in the nickel, he had two sacks in the first eight games. It took until Week 15 while playing exclusively as an end last year for Biermann to surpass that total, finishing the year with 2.5 sacks.
And the fact that Schofield saw more reps than Reed down the stretch is another indicator that the coaching staff had a lot more faith in the former than the latter. Thus it made perfect sense for Schofield to want a raise, given his obvious value to the team based on his ability to outperform more highly paid veterans at two separate positions.
Yet the Falcons brass has yet to see eye-to-eye with the seventh-year veteran, which is where Upshaw comes into the equation.
Upshaw Signing Saves Falcons Money and Adds Bulk Up Front
Although terms of Upshaw’s contract aren’t known as of this writing, it’s likely that he signed a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum. If Upshaw qualifies for the minimum-salary benefit, that would mean the maximum his 2016 cap hit could be is $680,000.
That would be a savings of roughly $1 million from what the Falcons paid for a similar player in Schofield last year. Despite Schofield’s solid performance in 2015, the Falcons must feel that such a reduced role isn’t worth paying a premium. It’s hard to blame the team for wanting to minimize the amount of money they pay for backup linebackers.
Although it’s probably fair to say that there is a small price to be paid for those savings, which is that the team is getting a less effective player in Upshaw. That mostly comes from the fact that Upshaw is not as effective rushing the passer or playing in space as Schofield.
While the latter wouldn’t have been considered a strength of Schofield’s game either, he was certainly more effective than the heavy Upshaw, who is listed at 272, but could have easily tipped the scales north of 280 pounds last season.
Maintaining weight was always a struggle for Upshaw throughout his tenure in Baltimore, which is likely why that team began to sour on him pretty early on. After a solid rookie season as a starter, Upshaw’s weight ballooned nearly to 300 pounds before he was able to slim down ahead of training camp. At the time, Upshaw blamed dealing with “personal issues” as the reason why he wasn’t able to maintain his weight. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was more blunt, saying that “he eats too much.”
The weight was again a problem in 2014. The excessive bulk isn’t particularly problematic when it comes to defending the run for Upshaw, which is the biggest strength of his game. Upshaw is hard to move off the ball and does an excellent job setting the edge against the run, which is the primary duty of the strong-side linebacker in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme in run downs.
Upshaw could also play some defensive end this year on run downs, which is the role that Biermann performed last year in the base defense as opposed to Schofield’s more tailored role against the pass in the nickel sub-package. Even there, Upshaw’s ability to hold ground at the point of attack due to his excess mass can be considered an asset. But if the Falcons are hoping that Upshaw is going to be a more effective pass-rusher than either Schofield or Biermann, then they are likely barking up the wrong tree.
Upshaw’s inability to develop and improve as a pass-rusher led to a steady decline in his playing time over the course of his first three seasons with the Ravens. Despite starting 14 games in 2014, Upshaw was consistently getting yanked off the field on passing downs in favor of more effective rushers like Pernell McPhee and Elvis Dumervil, despite those two technically being reserves.
However Upshaw saw increased reps this past year in Baltimore thanks to Terrell Suggs suffering an Achilles tear early in the season. With McPhee playing in Chicago, the Ravens were forced to turn to Upshaw in lieu of relying on rookie fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith. However once Smith got his feet wet, Upshaw once again saw another more effective pass-rusher begin to steal snaps from him by year’s end.
Despite the downgrade on the field, signing Upshaw still makes sense for the Falcons given the money saved. From that standpoint, the Falcons can be confident that Upshaw might be 80 percent the player that Biermann or Schofield were last year, but is working at 35 to 40 percent of the price.
Falcons Looking to Go Cheap at Linebacker
If the money saved goes towards upgrading or shoring up another roster spot, it’s definitely worthwhile for the Falcons. It’s just a question of whether the Falcons are going to use those savings to upgrade another spot.
This has been the question plaguing their offseason, particularly when looking at their approach to revamping the linebacker position. The Falcons have employed the strategy of going cheap as they’ve replaced Schofield, Durant and Nate Stupar with Upshaw, Weatherspoon and LaRoy Reynolds, respectively.
Last year the Falcons devoted roughly $4.95 million of their cap space to Schofield, Durant and Stupar. This year their replacements are expected to count about $2.82 million against the 2016 salary cap. The savings are in fact even larger when you consider that Durant and Stupar’s salaries were set to increase, especially with the latter set to be a restricted free agent. If you assume that Stupar would have received the lowest restricted tender of $1.671 million and Schofield was paid the same amount from last season, the Falcons’ three incumbents would have counted roughly $6.55 million against their 2016 cap.
That’s a savings of nearly $4 million for what shouldn’t be a dramatic drop-off in performance on the field on both defense and special teams.
Again it’s a worthwhile tradeoff if that saved money is invested in improving another position. Until the offseason is over, it’s going to be hard to make a determination of whether that proved to be true and certainly only after the 2016 season is played out will we discover whatever the difference it might have made on the field.
Falcons Remain Vulnerable at Middle Linebacker
This price-cutting strategy certainly seems to be setting up the Falcons to make at least one major addition at linebacker in the draft. The moves to retain Wheeler and add Upshaw now give the team a worthwhile starting-caliber backup at both outside linebacker positions.
That likely leaves middle linebacker as the most vulnerable position heading into the April 28 draft. Wheeler did play middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in 2012, but his most natural position is the weak side.
If the Falcons are going to invest a high pick in a rookie at any of the linebacker positions, it makes sense to have cheaper reserves since they are unlikely to garner as large a role in the defensive rotation as Durant, Schofield and Stupar did a year ago.
Should the Falcons add a rookie at middle linebacker capable of starting from the outset, the team could potentially move incumbent Paul Worrilow to the weak side, which might be a role better suited for his abilities. Worrilow has spent the bulk of his time playing in the middle since joining the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2013, but did at least begin his rookie working behind Weatherspoon on the weak side before Akeem Dent’s poor play prompted his move to the middle for the final seven weeks of the season.
If Spoon should get hurt again and miss extended time, it might behoove the Falcons to play Worrilow as his injury replacement over Wheeler since the former’s youth (turns 26 in May) means that there’s a chance that he could be a long-term solution on the weak side rather than Spoon or Wheeler.
Falcons Could Undergo Major Turnover Again at Linebacker in 2017
All three are playing under one-year deals, as are Upshaw and Reynolds. Reed’s cap hit balloons to over $5 million next year, likely prompting the Falcons to cut him in order to save $2.22 million against their 2017 salary cap. It all means there’s a good chance that none of the top six linebackers currently on the Falcons roster could return a year from now.
Tyler Starr is also in a contract year but he’ll be an exclusive rights free agent next year, which means that he should be back if he manages to stick around that long. Starr is on the bubble entering this summer given the additions of Upshaw and Reynolds, who both can play strong-side linebacker.
And you can’t dismiss the possibility that Beasley might see significantly more reps at strong-side linebacker this year as a way to discover if his long-term future will be there as opposed to defensive end. That’s another player potentially blocking Starr’s ability to stick, meaning he too is not guaranteed a role with the Falcons in 2017.
That puts the Falcons in a position where the only linebackers that might be around one year from now besides Beasley will be whomever they add in the draft a month from today.
From one perspective, it’s extremely disappointing that the Falcons aren’t really any more secure at linebacker a year into Quinn’s tenure than they were at the start of it. The linebacker position group has been arguably the team’s weakest over the past two seasons and yet through his first 14 months on the job, Quinn hasn’t been any more successful at providing better answers than the previous coach staff.
That could of course all change in the draft, especially if the Falcons draft starting-caliber players at both middle and weak-side linebacker. If Beasley proves to be the team’s long-term option on the strong side that would mean that at least the starting positions at linebacker might gain clarity moving forward. Then depending on how the veterans currently on the roster perform this season will determine which guys might return in 2017 as reserves.
Whether the Falcons “double dip” at the linebacker position is going to be one of the unanswered questions going into the draft. If they do, it could be their first big step to solidifying the position group long-term since several years ago.
If they don’t and opt to only try and secure one starter during the draft, the trade-off might be so that they can solidify another position on their roster long-term such as tight end or offensive guard on offense or along the defensive line or at safety on defense.
Whatever the Falcons do decide, it’ll ultimately come down to whether or not they draft good player(s) or not. Frankly, that’s really what it always boils down to in the NFL.