After hearing general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the Rich Eisen Podcast this past week, I’m thinking that the Atlanta Falcons may not be as intent on upgrading the pass rush as much as they are with other areas of their roster, including their offensive line. Most of their conversation centered on the value of the Combine and how teams assess the things they see or don’t see in Indianapolis in the final evaluations of things.
Here are some interesting excerpts with my commentary. Editor’s Note: Dimitroff’s initial excerpted comments were taken from the middle of his conversation with Eisen, while the latter one was taken from the end. But since they are related, I feel they work together in context.
Eisen: Let’s talk about your Falcons right now. For the lack of a better way to put it, what in the world happened with the Falcons last year?
Dimitroff: Oh wow. 4-12. You think about that, going from 13-3 to 4-12, what an incredible decline. We know that. Someone mentioned that it was an historical decline. I believe there were a number of things that were going on with our season and no one wants to complain about the injuries. Everyone’s dealt with injuries. Interestingly enough we were handling the injuries to a spot and then when Julio went down, we dropped into a pit that we weren’t able to pull ourselves out of. That was unfortunate, that was something that was disheartening to me because I thought our resiliency and our ability to do something like that was much stronger given the five, six, and seven-year talent that we had versus the earlier years when we had first and second-year guys. So that was tough. I’ve also said and I’ve said this publicly, I really believe that it was a mis-assessment and a misevaluation of the readiness of that offensive line to come together for Matt. Because in the end we still have stuff to do on our D-line. But if we’re not protecting the guy spinning the ball, to our point earlier, we’re not going to be a prolific offense and we’re not going to be an elite football team. So we didn’t protect him properly and Matt was not able to step up in the pocket and throw. I thought he did an admirable job dealing with what he had to. He was waylaid many, many times as you know. But he is such a fantastic leader. I’m happy with how he responded.
Eisen: So in reading into your comments about the Falcons…offensive line? I know I don’t want you to show your cards here, because obviously there are many weeks to go before this May draft. Offensive line? Would that be an easy concept to target what you’re looking at in the draft this year?
Dimitroff: You know I looked at many and we have looked at many positions and many opportunities to look at free agency. I’ve always said this, you know that: free agency, look at the draft, see where we can get the best value and the best football player. Again, no mystery that we need to fortify both fronts. That’s going to be important for us. So, you look at O-line, you look at D-line, you look at our linebackers. You can rush the passer as a linebacker as well. You can do certain things that can protect our offensive threat, i.e. Matt Ryan in many ways. But we know as well as anyone if you don’t have stoutness in front of a quarterback and you don’t provide the pocket, you have little chance of being successful in this league.
It’s comments like these that make me think the Falcons using their top draft selection on a pass rusher is anything but a forgone conclusion. It’s very interesting that besides injuries, the first thing that Dimitroff mentioned in response to what went wrong with the Falcons in 2013 was offensive line play.
What that says is that the Falcons may see their pass protection as the bigger priority in regards to upgrading this offseason versus the pass rush. Now, that could manifest in a number of ways. But more than likely, it would appear that the team won’t simply settle on Gabe Carimi as the lone upgrade to the unit this offseason.
While I do believe that the team intends for Carimi to compete for a starting position, either at right guard or right tackle, this spring and summer, I don’t think the team has found its answer at right guard yet. I believe they will be active either in free agency to upgrade that position or early in the draft, most likely the second day of the draft.
But it also wouldn’t surprise me if the team’s top selection is an offensive tackle like Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) or Greg Robinson (Auburn) if either are available. The fact of the matter is that either are significant upgrades to anybody the Falcons sport on their starting offensive line currently.
Lamar Holmes May Have to Wait For Next Opportunity
I’m 100 percent certain that assuming he’s healthy, Sam Baker will open up training camp as the starting left tackle. But the right tackle position is much more in flux. While I believe the team would like to see Lamar Holmes step up and man that spot, I don’t think the Falcons are married to him. And if a player like Matthews or Robinson can come in and start at that position right away, the team will have no qualms about Holmes reverting back to being a backup swing tackle. Eventually he might get another opportunity to start down the road in 2016.
In that scenario, the interesting thing for Holmes is that his contract expires after the 2015 season. And it’s at that point when it also becomes financially feasible for the first time that the Falcons can cut Baker. If they part with Baker after this upcoming season, it will force them to eat an additional $1.9 million in dead money against their salary cap (per SpotRac).
Instead, what would likely happen is that Holmes is forced to sit the bench for the next two years while the Falcons monitor his development. And if he shows improvement, then he’ll be brought back on a one-year “prove it” deal in 2016 while the Falcons dump Baker. If Holmes plays well, then he’d get the chance to earn a long-term deal the following year. If not, then the Falcons move on and look at acquiring a brand new right tackle.
After all, if the Falcons draft a player like Matthews or Robinson this year, it’s likely he would be assuming the vacant left tackle spot after Baker is dismissed, assuming either play well enough between now and then to earn it.
But at the same time, it also wouldn’t surprise me if the Falcons stand pat at offensive tackle, and then only focus on upgrading the right guard spot via free agency or a second-day draft selection.
Falcons Will ‘Get After It’ This Offseason
How the Falcons approach free agency could be gleaned from some of these Dimitroff comments:
Eisen: So do you still consider the Falcons a contender for the NFC despite the four-win season last year?
Dimitroff: I’ve said this, Rich, I really believe that we can clean this up quickly, I believe with some adjustments. I have said my goal is to rectify with a vengeance, man. Let’s get after it. We’ve added people in our department as you know: Scott Pioli, Billy Devaney, Russ Bolinger, a new scout. We’ve changed some coaches that were some very important changes. Now is the time for us to really look at where we are, to calibrate our roster. That’s going to be a fun, respectfully fun part of this as well.
Rectify with a vengeance? Let’s get after it? It’s hard to tell from a transcript but in the way that Dimitroff said these words, it does sound like the Falcons will be aggressive upgrading their roster this offseason.
Even if the Falcons are able to upgrade their right guard position with a pickup such as Geoff Schwartz or Jon Asamoah, the two premier free agents at guard, it’s unlikely that addition alone will suddenly turn them into one of the better offensive lines. That potential improvement still rests largely on the current players stepping up their play. So essentially the biggest potential addition the Falcons could have made this offseason in regards to their offensive line is Mike Tice and/or Wade Harman, the new position coaches tasked with getting more out of the current crop of players.
Whether it’s Peter Konz, Joe Hawley, or someone else manning the center position, the team has to at least get average production from that position. Ideally, whatever addition made at right guard can take that position from the team’s biggest weakness to a relative strength on par with Justin Blalock. And if the Falcons don’t land one of the premier tackles at the top of the draft, then the camp battle that ensues at right tackle likely between Holmes, Ryan Schraeder and/or Gabe Carimi needs to produce a quality starter.
But Dimitroff’s comments do give me the sort of confidence that the Falcons will be aggressive in regards to upgrading their defensive front in free agency and that a significant portion of the cap space the team is expected to have (close to $30 million) will be invested in upgrading the defensive front.
The Falcons Need Multiple Pass Rushers
Last week, I suggested that the Falcons need to be aggressive with upgrading their defensive line to justify a later trade for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. I still stand by those comments. It’s going to take more than one good player on their defensive line to turn around that unit both in regards to the pass rush and run defense.
The Falcons have already been down the road where they had one top-end pass rusher and little else in all the years that John Abraham was here. Outside that lone year (2009) where Jonathan Babineaux tallied six sacks, Abraham never had a running mate. And while Abraham was a single outstanding individual, the Falcons pass rush as a whole was middling at best during his time in Atlanta.
Clowney is an excellent player and would represent a significant upgrade to the pass rush. I would compare him to ex-Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers both in his athleticism and approach to the game. But when Peppers arrived in Carolina back in 2002, the team already had Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, and Brentson Buckner in their front.
They all worked in conjunction to make each other better and formed one of the league’s most formidable pass rushes over the next five seasons that the foursome stayed largely intact. Over the first five years of Peppers, career the Panthers tallied 212 sacks, third-best over that span. Comparatively, the Falcons have tallied just 153 sacks over their past five seasons, third-worst in that span.
Granted, advancements in quarterback play and the passing game over the years have led to quarterbacks being sacked much less league-wide. But it’s still possible to achieve at a level on par with the Panthers of yesteryear.
Two teams over the past five seasons have reached that 212-sack benchmark: Minnesota Vikings (214) and St. Louis Rams (212). And they have accomplished this by having at least two top-end rushers: Jared Allen and Kevin Williams for the Vikings and Chris Long and Robert Quinn for the Rams. That pair has been surrounded by a number of complementary rushers such as Ray Edwards, Brian Robison, Kendall Langford, Fred Robbins, James Hall, etc.
Right now, the Falcons have a bevy of decent complementary options in Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Corey Peters, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi. All might be effective as the third or fourth options in a pass rush, but clearly the past few years as the first or second options they have come up wanting.
The Falcons clearly miss that Allen/Williams or Long/Quinn set of headlines and it should be their goal to acquire such this offseason. Their position in the draft and the quality of free agents potentially available make this offseason the perfect opportunity to find them.
Finding the Fits Among Free Agency’s Premier Edge Rushers
And while a player like current Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has been taken out of the mix with the franchise tag, it still potentially leaves four other top edge-rushers: Lamarr Houston (Oakland Raiders), Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins), Michael Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals) and Michael Bennett (Seattle Seahawks) available in free agency.
It’s possible that as I’m writing this (Sunday afternoon), that one or more of those players wind up being slapped with the franchise tag before Monday’s deadline, taking them out of the mix along with Hardy. But I truly believe that it would represent somewhat a failure on the Falcons part if they are unsuccessful in landing one of those four players this offseason if given the opportunity.
I can envision a scenario where all four players wind up becoming Falcons. And as I noted a few weeks ago, what the team’s intentions to do with their top selection in the draft could significantly color how they approach free agency. If the Falcons do intend to trade up for Clowney, as was the case with Julio Jones three years ago, the team has to make that sort of commitment early in the offseason. It’s not suggest that the Falcons should have already made that firm decision by now, but it does color the path you’re going to take.
Because if the team trades up for Clowney, it means they will have to give up some assets. What those assets exactly are probably won’t be determined until the day of the draft on May 8. But the team must move forward believing those assets will be significant. For instance, the Falcons might need to give up a second-round pick among other things. That’s a significant asset. Because that potentially means that you can’t get that guard like David Yankey in the second round. So that puts more pressure on you to address that need in free agency.
But if the Falcons currently feel like “settling” for a player such as Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack with their first-round pick, then it changes how you approach the offseason. You won’t feel as pressured to address all of your concerns in free agency because you should still have early-round assets to use. And it’s not to say that Mack will definitely be there with the sixth pick (although it seems probable). Instead the Falcons may find Mack off the board, or may seek to add one of these top-notch offensive linemen because they feel they can come back in the second round and still get a good edge rusher like Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech), Trent Murphy (Stanford) or Scott Crichton (Oregon State).
Oakland’s Lamarr Houston Should Be Top Target
But regardless of whether it’s Mack, Clowney or someone else in Round One, the free agent player that is probable the best fit for the Falcons is Oakland’s Lamarr Houston. Later this week, I plan to go further in-depth in why Houston fits what the Falcons do, but for now I’ll say that Houston really fits the Mike Nolan defense as it is currently constructed. Essentially, Houston would play the same role that Peria Jerry played this past year in the team’s defense.
If the Falcons are successful in re-signing Babineaux and Corey Peters, they can plug Houston into that other spot in their “three defensive tackle” looks, and then plug in either Clowney or Mack as the other edge rusher.
Then when the team goes to the nickel in their sub-package looks, Umenyiora would likely be employed as the other edge rusher opposite Clowney/Mack, with Houston kicking inside alongside Babineaux to feature a more formidable four-man rush in obvious passing situations.
So if Houston makes it to free agency, he should be the top target of the team because he is the best fit in Nolan’s hybrid defense.
The scenario where Orakpo is the top target in free agency is probably one where Clowney is not really in the mix at all. Instead, the team intends to target either Mack or one of the offensive tackles with their top pick. In that situation, Orakpo will likely be the team’s rush linebacker on the weak side. Then the team could potentially put Mack opposite him in the strong-side role currently held by Biermann. Or the Falcons draft one of the offensive tackles, and Biermann remains in that role.
In the nickel, Orakpo will put his hand in the dirt (something he did prominently as a rookie with the Redskins) and Umenyiora will once again see the field opposite him as the other edge rusher. Babineaux and Peters would then likely play inside, although the possibility exists that the Falcons could sign a veteran defensive tackle that could supplant Peters on passing downs such as Miami’s Randy Starks, who played under Nolan previously.
The scenario that lands Michael Johnson is probably one that also leads to Mack. That meshes more with the Nolan-style hybrid attack. In that scenario, Mack would be plugged into Biermann’s strong-side linebacker role and be asked to play in the Falcons base defense a role similar to what Von Miller does with the Denver Broncos. However, the issue is that in the sub-package, you’re probably going to wind up marginalizing him, Johnson or Umenyiora. Because it likely leads to Johnson playing inside or Mack dropping into coverage quite a bit, roles that they aren’t ideally suited for.
Johnson’s addition could lead to Clowney as well, but it would cause a more strict adherence to the 4-3 defense, largely eliminating the hybrid fronts that Nolan has regularly employed the past two years.
Instead, Bennett should be preferred over Johnson. Because unlike Johnson, Bennett has shown he can line up inside on passing downs. Thus if the team brought in Mack to play linebacker, in the nickel he could put his hand in the dirt and line up beside Bennett across from Umenyiora and Babineaux.
So if I was ranking these guys in terms of how they fit with the Falcons, I would say:
- Lamarr Houston
- Michael Bennett
- Brian Orakpo
- Michael Johnson
There’s by no means any guarantee that the Falcons will land one of these players. But it would represent a huge missed opportunity by the team if they don’t land one of them this offseason.