Takeaways from Last Week – March 4
With much of the details of Joe Flacco’s new record-breaking $120.6 million contract being released on Sunday night, we now have a blueprint for what Matt Ryan’s new deal will look like. The only real question is at what point does Ryan sign on the dotted line.
I wrote earlier that I figured that Ryan would be signed sometime this summer because I did not expect Flacco’s deal to get done so quickly. Kudos to Ozzie Newsome & Co. for speeding up the process. The Ravens have a number of good free agents that they need to re-sign this off-season, and avoiding the monster $20 million franchise tag that Flacco would have incurred should allow them to keep many of them. Now, Flacco’s cap hit in 2013 is reportedly around $6.8 million, essentially freeing up $13 million in cap space.
When the Ryan deal gets done, it’s likely that the Falcons will also reap cap benefits, although I’m not sure as much. Ryan is set to count $12 million against this year’s salary cap, but I would expect the first year cap hit of his new deal to be in the ballpark of Flacco, which probably means somewhere around $5-6 million savings.
The interesting things about Flacco’s deal are the payouts in Year 1 ($30 million), Year 2 ($51 million) and Year 3 ($62 million). The latter two figures exceed that of Drew Brees, although Brees was paid $40 million in the first year of his new deal. $52 million of Flacco’s contract is guaranteed, while the number was reportedly $60 million for Brees. Remember, Brees is represented by Tom Condon, who also represents Matt Ryan. It’s in Condon’s best interest to try and reclaim the biggest contract awarded to a quarterback, although that clearly may not be in the Falcons’ best interest. So likely a middle ground will need to be reached. And that could take time. Which makes me believe that we will see Ryan comes to terms later rather than sooner. It may not last until July at this point, but I’m not optimistic that a deal will get done before March 12, when those cap savings could be very beneficial to the Falcons as they shop for new players.
The other news that the Falcons made on Friday was the release of three veterans in John Abraham, Dunta Robinson, and Michael Turner. The Turner move was expected, and was a long time coming. I was not convinced the Falcons would dump Dunta, as it leaves a pretty large hole at cornerback. Instead, I expected the Falcons to restructure Dunta’s deal to have him return in 2013 at a more cap-friendly price. Abraham was the surprise move, as it had been hinted at but I don’t think anybody expected the Falcons to actually part ways with him. Abraham was the team’s entire pass rush practically, and the team has already proclaimed that improving there will be an off-season priority. So on Friday, the Falcons essentially took a step back in order to take several steps forward.
I really don’t know what the Falcons “plan’ is going forward. I suspect they will be targeting pass rushers early in the draft, but does it mean that they will also be looking for free agents to sign?
They’ve already been linked to Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora, but neither move really makes a ton of sense now. Both are still capable pass rushers, but are basically the same player as John Abraham as guys that are still capable but really should be reduced to situational rushers that fit best in a 4-3 scheme.
Could this mean that the Falcons are moving away from the 4-3? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Firstly, the reason why the Falcons stayed with the 4-3 last year was because most of their personnel is optimized for that scheme. Cutting John Abraham doesn’t change that. Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux, the team’s two best remaining players in the front seven still are better fits in a 4-3 than they are in a 3-4. Had the Falcons been looking to revamp their defense, I think you would have probably seen expensive players like Babineaux and Stephen Nicholas get cut as well.
Instead, I think the plan is to basically be the same defense they were a year ago, which was to be as multiple in their fronts and looks as possible to keep offenses off-balanced. One of the reasons why I believe Mike Smith hired Mike Nolan in the first place was because he knew he could incorporate this style of defense. That was a significant change from the more conservative defense run by Brian VanGorder, and the style that Smith himself preferred to run in Jacksonville. The Falcons might eventually move to a more 3-4 base defense in the future, but I don’t think that will be the case this year.
The Falcons have been mum on their defensive plans as well, which makes me believe that the status quo will be maintained. Typically, changing defensive schemes is not a closely-held state secret for NFL teams. If the Falcons were embracing the 3-4 as their base defense, we probably would have heard something by now.
Thomas Dimitroff suggested that the onus behind the moves was so the team could keep their own free agents. That suggests to me that William Moore, Sam Baker, Tony Gonzalez, and/or Brent Grimes will be priority re-signings for the team. Gonzalez’s return is really up to him. While I’m somewhat optimstic that he will return to the Falcons in 2013, it’s still about 50/50 on whether he’ll come back in my mind. But I know the Falcons wanted to free up room just in case.
I always expected the Falcons to re-sign both Moore and Baker. Moore is arguably the second-best defender under the age of 30 alongside Sean Weatherspoon. While Moore is not an elite safety because of his struggles in man coverage, he’s a very good one that alongside Thomas DeCoud blossomed in Nolan’s scheme. It would be shocking for the Falcons to not try and reward that with a substantial contract offer. The big concern is that Moore appears willing to test the market, so a deal may not get done before free agency kicks off on March 12. The positive thing is that it’s not a strong safety group. Kenny Phillips, Patrick Chung, and LaRon Landry top the list, but similar to Moore all three have durability concerns. It likely will lead to most of them not getting the potentially lucrative deals that they would normally get. Following the lockout, both Eric Weddle and Michael Huff signed deals that averaged $8 million per year. Last year, Michael Griffin was tagged by the Tennessee Titans got a long-term deal that average $7 million/yr. It’s possible that some safety needy team could opt to pay Moore that much, but the injury potential probably mitigates that cost somewhat. Moore has missed a total of 8 games over the past three years. Comparatively, in the three seasons prior to signing his deal, Weddle only missed three, while Griffin and Huff both missed none. If I had to guess, I think the Falcons will offer Moore something in the range of $5-6 million, which given the lesser market should be enough to keep him.
Baker I think will be back for similar reasons. The Falcons showed an inordinate amount of patience with Baker last year, and it seemed to pay off with him having his best season. The issue here is going to be whether or not Baker gets a lucrative offer elsewhere. We’ll have to see today if players like Jake Long and Branden Albert get tagged today, although as of this writing it looks doubtful. Such moves will dramatically affect the market, as did the deal already signed by William Beatty (averages $7.5 million per year). Duane Brown, who was drafted five slots after Baker in 2008, has signed an extension last year that averages close to $9 million/yr.
If Baker is seeking a comparable deal, I think the Falcons would be hard-pressed to keep him. They did draft Lamar Holmes last year in the third round. Personally, I’m not comfortable tossing the keys quite yet to Holmes, to protect the soon-to-be $100-plus million investment that is Matt Ryan, but it’s obvious that the Falcons planned for this contingency when they drafted him. I’d like to give him at least one more year working as the team’s swing tackle before I trusted him to be a starter. Right now, I think the hope for Atlanta is that Baker is willing to accept a deal that is only slightly north of the five-year, $25 million deal they paid Tyson Clabo after the lockout in 2011.
The big question mark now is what does the team make of Brent Grimes’ future. Grimes is coming off an Achilles injury, and if he has the typical 9-month recovery time, he should be ready to go by the time camp opens up. I remember hearing former NFL Network analyst and current Cleveland Browns GM Michael Lombardi say a year or so ago about it’s not just about paying the best players on your team, but paying the right players. Meaning that you reward guys that do the right things, as it sends a signal to the rest of the players in your locker room.
Many think Grimes hasn’t been doing the right things, which is why a large minority of Falcon fans have soured on him. Much of this stems from the misinterpreted report coming a year ago when Grimes missed the Giants game. Many fans interpreted the report to mean that Grimes opted not to play in the game, as opposed to the simple truth that he was not cleared to do so. If Grimes had done what so many accuse him of doing, then the Falcons would have never tagged him. Would you commit over $10 million of guaranteed money to a guy that chose not to play? Given how Dimitroff and Mike Smith have treated malcontents in the past (e.g. DeAngelo Hall, Michael Boley, Ray Edwards), if Grimes had pulled that then he would have been sent pac.g just as quickly.
Grimes is one of those right players. He’s worked extremely hard to get to this point in his career, working from a Division II camp body to NFL Europe to a practice squad player to nickel cornerback to starter. It’s time for the Falcons to reward that with a new deal.
But of course the Achilles injury threw a wrench into the machinery. And now it appears it will come down to price tag. I would be shocked if Grimes was to receive a deal on the open market more lucrative than that signed by Terrell Thomas a year ago, who at the time was coming off a second ACL injury. That is a far cry from the deal Grimes was likely looking for a year ago, which could have averaged $10 million or more per year. A deal similar to Thomas would be a relatively cheap one-year commitment. If Grimes doesn’t rebound with a strong 2013 season, then the Falcons can probably part ways with him and move in another direction. If he does, then the Falcons should be content to have him and Asante Samuel man the starting cornerback spots for another year or two. I’ve always wanted to see what the Falcons would look like with a pair of ball-hawking corners on the outside. They haven’t had this since the heyday of Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan more than a decade ago. In this Golden Age of passing, you need corners that can make plays. That was something that Robinson could not do, but Grimes can.
But at the same time, the Falcons also need an infusion of youth. Robert McClain looks promising, but there’s no guarantee that he doesn’t go the same route of Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens, and Dominique Franks all of whom have looked promising at points. Owens is a free agent, and Franks is far from a lock to make the team this year. Which basically leaves the Falcons with just two corners for sure in 2013. And Samuel isn’t the safest bet either. He’s a gambler, and at some point gamblers always get cleaned out. Samuel will be 32 this year, the same age as Buchanan in 2003 when he seemed to lose it. As long as the balance for Samuel is more plays made (19.5 combined pass breakups and interceptions in 2012) than plays given up (13.5 blown coverages), then he’ll be fine. But at some point in the near future, that balance will get off-kilter and it will be time for the Falcons to move on.
But I don’t think the Falcons want to go into the draft needing a cornerback. So I think they’ll try and re-sign Grimes, which should be cheaper than trying to sign another team’s free agent. I don’t think the Falcons want to go back down the same road they went with Robinson, and overpaying a player because of need. It’s just not a good market for top level corners. The free agent class is headlined by players like Sean Smith, Chris Houston, Aqib Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cary Williams, and Antoine Cason. All capable starters, but not exactly representing a group that you feel comfortable committing huge contracts to. If the Falcons can get Grimes on a deal that pays less than $20 million, it makes a lot more sense than paying one of those guys more than $30 million. Not to mention, that a healthy Grimes is probably better than all of them.