Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – March 30, 2015

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY SportsRich McKay (left), Roger Goodell (center) and Arthur Blank

This week the NFL is expected to announce what sanctions it imposed upon the Atlanta Falcons, stemming from their “Noisegate” scandal.

The Falcons were caught illegally piping in crowd noise for home games over the past two seasons. The Falcons and their fan base have been waiting with bated breath for the league to impose its penalty.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, that penalty is expected to be “severe.” What exactly Schefter meant by severe is anyone’s guess, so this is the point where I’ll begin to speculate.

Whatever the punishment, it’s almost certainly going to entail hefty fines and the loss of at least one of the Falcons’ 2015 draft picks.

The immediate thought is that the Falcons could potentially lose their first-round pick, which would certainly qualify as severe. However, that seems doubtful since this “scandal” doesn’t appear to merit such a harsh penalty.

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Arthur Blank (left) and Patriots owner Robert Kraft

The New England Patriots lost their first-round pick in 2008 from their involvement in the “Spygate” scandal in 2007. Reportedly the league would have stripped them of their second and third-round picks instead had the Patriots not made the postseason in 2007, eventually losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.

It’s certainly possible that the league could strip the Falcons of their second and third-round picks in a similar capacity, given that they are coming off a year without making the playoffs. However again, this seems doubtful. There was arguably no bigger story in sports that year than the Patriots and their involvement in Spygate during their nearly perfect 2007 season.

“Severe” Punishment Likely to Less Due to Lack of Controversy

The Falcons “Decibacle” or “NoiseGate” scandal has hardly registered a blip on the national consciousness. There was a legitimate public outcry back in 2007 that the Patriots be punished for their alleged cheating, opening questions about whether or not Bill Belichick’s success and their early 2000s dynasty was “tainted.”

There is no taint in Atlanta. The years in which the Falcons were reportedly cheating marked two of their worst-performing seasons in the past decade. Frankly, the team’s on-field product did far more to taint the team’s reputation than any extraneous noise within the stadium.

The reports on the Falcons’ punishment will certainly draw more eyeballs and involve more ink than the scandal itself did. The reality is that there isn’t much that is controversial to this controversy, at least as far as the public consciousness goes.

Thus, it’s unlikely that the league will feel as compelled to send as strong a message to the Falcons as they did to the Patriots in 2007. Especially in light of the fact that the Patriots were once again embroiled in another controversy this January with “Deflategate.”

The league punishing the Falcons as harshly as the Patriots would seem out of whack given the string of controversies surrounding the latter team.

But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons should be expected to get off lightly. The key for the NFL and Roger Goodell is crafting a penalty that registers as severe, but also won’t draw too many accusations of favoritism towards the Patriots, the opposite towards the Falcons.

We’re approaching wild speculation on my part, but here’s my best guess as to what the league might decide is fair.

Falcons Could Be Hit With Three-Fold Penalties

Given that the Falcons’ transgressions occurred over two years, then it’s likely that their punishment could be meted out over the same period of time. That might involve the loss of two draft picks, but probably not in the same year. The Falcons might lose a pair of mid-round picks, perhaps a pair of third-rounders, a pair of fourth-rounders, or some other combination.

In addition, there should be heavy fines for key figures within the Falcons organization. Owner Arthur Blank is likely to see a large fine. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was forced to cough up $250,000 back in 2007 over Spygate. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was fined $500,000 for his arrest last offseason. Any fine levied at Blank should be a comparable amount, but could potentially be higher.

It would also not be surprising if team president Rich McKay and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were also hit with fines. McKay also serves as the co-chair of the league’s competition committee, which strives to adopt new rules and policies in the effort of competitive balance. Given McKay’s role within league circles, it makes the Falcons’ misbehavior look worse.

Dimitroff could also be considered culpable since he is the highest-ranking football person within the team’s front office, and it’s difficult to disassociate him if the team was aware of wrongdoing. It’s comparable to New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis being suspended as part of the 2012 “Bountygate” scandal, for being in a position to stop the bounties, but not taking suitable action according to the league. While suspensions would seem unlikely, imposing a fine of $100,000 to $250,000 on Dimitroff and perhaps more on McKay are plausible.

In addition to fines, the league may decide to enact salary-cap penalties. Such measures were taken in 2012 when the NFL penalized the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins for front-loading contracts in the league’s 2010 uncapped year.

If so, like the draft penalties, those cap penalties could be spread out over two years. I can only speculate as to the amount in which the Falcons were penalized, but $8 million would be a sensible number since it represents losing $500,000 in cap space for every home game played over the past two seasons. That’s the rough equivalent of losing one roster spot per game, given that the league minimum salary is currently $435,000.

I don’t believe that one of these measures on its own would merit Schefter’s expectations of the Falcons being severely punished, but all three collectively would suffice.

In total, I think these penalties would represent a “Goldilocks zone” for what the Falcons’ penalties may be. Anything more severe and it could easily be deemed an overreaction by the league. Anything less might be considered a slap on the wrist.

Whether or not these impending penalties affected the Falcons’ approach the offseason is difficult to say. The clearing of some extra cap space before the start of free agency might suggest they were worried about the possibility of receiving cap penalties. And their measured approach to spending thereafter also suggests having fiscal concerns moving forward.

But Dimitroff’s comments earlier this week to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggest otherwise. It appears that the team has been just as much in the dark as the rest of the world.

Not to mention, that the team’s measured approach in free agency may have just been simply due to the understanding that spending large amounts of money in free agency rarely work out for NFL teams, as I illustrated in a previous column.

Also, the team’s releases before the start of free agency didn’t appear to be purging salary for the sake of purging salary. Even if so, those moves could have been made more with the eye towards the impending contract extension of wide receiver Julio Jones than any league-imposed cap penalties.

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Julio Jones

Julio Jones’ Contract Possibly Bigger Concern than League Punishment

Along with players like A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, Jones is likely to join Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald as one of the league’s highest-paid wide receivers within the next 12 months.

Jones is set to make $10.176 million this year due to the fifth-year option the team exercised last year. Any extension could see a dramatic lowering of that cap hit in 2015 by pushing the big dollars towards the end of a long-term deal. But given the size of the deal that Jones may sign, the Falcons might instead opt to have a front-loaded contract.

It’s likely that any contract Jones signs will have guarantees north of $30 million. I’d wager it ultimately comes in around $40 million, but given we’ve recently come into an era where non-quarterbacks like Johnson ($48.75 million), Ndamukong Suh ($60 million), J.J. Watt ($52 million), Patrick Peterson ($47.4 million) and Robert Quinn ($41.2 million) receive guarantees greater than $40 million, it wouldn’t be totally shocking if Jones also joined that list.

But the Falcons gave Matt Ryan $42 million in initial guaranteed money in 2013, and for the sake of appearances probably don’t want to give Jones more than their franchise quarterback.

Ryan’s guarantees included a massive $28 million signing bonus in addition to his first year’s base salary ($2 million) and a $12 million option bonus paid out in 2014. An additional $17 million in Ryan’s 2014 and 2015 base salaries were guaranteed for injury.

Jones might see the structure of his guarantees being more reminiscent of the contract that wide receiver Mike Wallace signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. That deal included the first two years’ base salaries totaling $16 million being guaranteed along with his initial signing bonus ($11 million). Wallace also had a portion of his 2015 base salary guaranteed if he was on the roster at a certain date to bring his total guarantees to $30 million.

Such a structure is why the Falcons might instead opt to front-load the contract. As an example, if the Falcons wanted to give Jones $39 million in guaranteed, they could portion that as a $13 million signing bonus with $13 million in base salaries in each of his first two years. That $13 million signing bonus can be spread over five years, equalling $2.6 million in an additional prorated cap hit along with his base salary each year. So in this example, if you wanted to front-load a contract for Jones, you would need to keep a little less than $16 million in cap space to accommodate the deal over the first two years. According to the public report by the NFLPA, the Falcons currently have a little less than $18 million in cap space to work with.

I should again be clear that I’m speculating about Jones’ contract, just as I did with the league’s penalties. But for the sake of illustration, if the team decides to front-load the guaranteed money in Jones’ new contract early in the contract, then you see why clearing cap space now makes sense.

Not to mention, the way the new Collective Bargaining Agreement works, any additional cap space you have during the regular season can be carried over into the following year’s offseason. Maximizing their cap space heading into 2015 would help the Falcons avoid the need to purge salaries at the start of next year’s offseason if Jones were to have another hefty cap hit in 2016.

Players like William Moore, Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux that could all potentially be on the bubble next spring would certainly be grateful of that turn of events, so that they don’t find themselves like Justin Blalock this past year.

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Justin Blalock

Blalock’s Release Likely Prompted by High Salary

Blalock is the only one of the Falcons’ four releases that could be construed as the team purging salary for the sake of purging salary.

While there certainly were football-related reasons for why the Falcons to dump Blalock, given his age and the fact that he wasn’t an ideal fit in the team’s new zone-blocking scheme, it would appear more than likely that it was his $7.9 million cap hit that was the primary driving force as to why the Falcons cut him.

That conclusion is based largely off the fact that the Falcons haven’t really addressed the hole that was created at left guard when they released Blalock.

Even if the team was successful in signing free-agent guard Shelley Smith, who subsequently chose to play for the Denver Broncos, he didn’t offer a wealth of experience either. Smith has 13 career starts to his name, all of them as injury replacements.

The Falcons did manage to sign a pair of low-level free agents in Mike Person and Jared Smith, but neither player has gained extensive playing time in their short NFL careers. Person has logged a total of 69 offensive snaps during the regular season over the past four years, while Smith’s only action was 60 combined snaps during four preseason games in 2013. Given that lack of experience, it’s doubtful that the Falcons are realistically expecting either to replace Blalock in the starting lineup.

More than likely, both Person and Smith were brought into to bolster depth and competition in training camp. Instead, the player that the Falcons likely intend to replace Blalock in the starting lineup has yet to be added to the roster. It would appear that the Falcons are optimistic that they can solve their long-term issues at left guard via the draft.

However, given the possibility of losing a mid-round draft pick this year, addressing the need at offensive guard may wind up going by the wayside.

Falcons Need At Guard May Take Backseat to Other Needs

Reasons for that include the fact that the Falcons also have other pressing needs, namely their desires to add potential starters at defensive end, running back and free safety. The Falcons are almost certainly going to use their first-round pick on an edge-rusher and the team could presumably be content with the current options at running back and safety.

The Falcons have been very public with their praising of running back Devonta Freeman, who they believe is capable of being a lead back in the NFL. My personal belief is that the Falcons are exaggerating that to a certain degree. While I’m convinced that the Falcons believe Freeman is capable of being the No. 1 rusher on the depth chart, I highly doubt they see him as the guy that can tote the vast majority of carries (i.e. 200 or more).

More than likely, the Falcons want to add another running back that can push Freeman and potentially split reps with him this year especially given the utter lack of a “hammer” on the roster that can get the tough yards between the tackles. If the season started tomorrow, those duties would fall on Jerome Smith or Ronnie Wingo. The Falcons can certainly do better in the draft.

The positive about the Falcons’ fresh zone-blocking scheme is that they won’t be as compelled to use a higher pick on the position. But nonetheless, it would be extremely surprising if the fifth round arrived and the Falcons had not adequately addressed the position yet in the draft.

Safety is hole, despite the quasi-vote of confidence I gave incumbent Charles Godfrey last week. Yet, Godfrey will turn 30 this fall and the Falcons are likely to prioritize finding a long-term replacement in this year’s draft. It’s not a great safety class in the draft, but there may be enough viable options that the Falcons could pull the trigger if the right player comes along.

If the Falcons lose a pick in the third or fourth round this year, it’s possible that one of these needs is going to have to wait. And among the aforementioned positions, guard might be the best candidate.

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Sam Baker

Baker Gives Falcons An Insurance Policy at Guard

Part of that is because in addition to Person and Smith, the Falcons also have Sam Baker still on the roster. In the past week, both Dimitroff and Dan Quinn have acknowledged the possibility of moving Baker inside to left guard after spending the past seven years playing almost exclusively at left tackle.

However, no one should misconstrue those statements to indicate that moving Baker inside to guard is “Plan A” for the team. Instead, it’s likely one possible insurance policy that the Falcons may have in the event that they are unable to adequately address their need in the draft.

Right now, Baker is in the midst of rehabbing the knee injury he suffered last summer. Baker also has very limited experience playing guard, dating back to his days in college. Both of these factors make Baker a massive question mark as to whether he can adequately replace Blalock at guard.

However, Baker is still a smaller question mark than either Person or Smith would be if atop the Falcons’ depth chart to start 2015. Despite limited experience at the position, Baker’s wealth of experience as a starting left tackle makes for a far more reasonable projection on how effective a player he could be this year, if healthy.

But again, I should note that Baker is just one of many insurance policies the Falcons could take at the position. There are a few current free agents that played for the Redskins while Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was an assistant there. They include Will Montgomery, Chad Rinehart and Tyler Polumbus.

Montgomery has started 71 career games, mostly at guard and center. Rinehart was cut by the Redskins upon Shanahan’s arrival in 2010, but since then has gone on to start 43 games at guard for the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers. Polumbus notably played for the Seahawks in 2010 and 2011 and has spent the bulk of his career as a right tackle, logging 57 career starts.

The Falcons could also look into signing Paul McQuistan, who also played for the Seahawks for three seasons (2011-13) and played under Shanahan last season with the Cleveland Browns. He has 53 career starts at four of the five offensive line positions.

None of these players would be deemed a long-term upgrade over Blalock, but could be decent insurance policies to compete with Baker, Person and Smith in training camp should the Falcons not find said solution in the draft.

And ultimately, the biggest consequence of the league’s impending penalties on the Falcons may be that a position like offensive guard may have to wait another year before being addressed. If the team can find an adequate stopgap for 2015, then as far as on-field things go, the Falcons should be relatively unfazed by the league’s “severity” in their off-field transgressions.

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