Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – March 9, 2015

It appears that the marriage between the Atlanta Falcons and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is coming to an end.

Reports emerged over the weekend that the Falcons would not be re-signing the fifth-year linebacker before Tuesday’s start of free agency. That after earlier reports indicating that the Falcons saw keeping the veteran leader as a priority.

Weatherspoon was among the core defenders the team added in the early part of the Mike Smith regime to try and build the foundation of a strong defense. Obviously those efforts proved fruitless by the play of the Falcons in 2014, where they were the ninth-worst defense in NFL history.

Weatherspoon likely had everything to do with that. No, not because of his poor play on the field, but from his absence. He missed all of the 2014 with a torn Achilles tendon, which opened a major hole in the middle of the defense. Not only did the Falcons miss his on-field play, but they also missed his leadership.

Along with safety William Moore, another one of those core defenders drafted early on by the Falcons, the defense suffered enumerably in 2014. Getting Weatherspoon and Moore back healthy was likely a huge part of new head coach Dan Quinn’s plan to jump-start the Falcons defense in 2015.

Spoon Could Have Returned to Peak Level Under Quinn

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Sean Weatherspoon

Unfortunately, at least part of that plan won’t be coming to fruition. Weatherspoon will be a hard player to replace, not just because of his leadership but because of his athleticism. While the torn Achilles was likely going to cost Spoon a step or two, he’d still be light years ahead of where many of the Falcons’ current linebackers are in terms of athleticism.

Spoon should have shined in Quinn’s defensive scheme because it was a lot more reminiscent of the scheme he played in 2011 under former Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. That year he finished fifth in premium website Pro Football Focus‘ grading of 4-3 outside linebackers. VanGorder’s scheme was a lot more of a “vanilla” one, allowing a player like Weatherspoon to utilized his best asset, which was his ability to make plays in space and pursuit.

In 2012, with the Falcons hiring defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Weatherspoon was asked to play more in confined space inside the box, taking on more blockers at the point of attack and suffering because of it. In 2012, Weatherspoon ranked 23rd among 4-3 outside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus, and then fell to 30th in 2013 among 35 players.

Quinn’s scheme is going to be a lot more reminiscent of that of VanGorder, which would utilize Spoon’s ability to patrol the second level of the defense from sideline to sideline.

But now with Spoon expected to take his talents to Arizona, the Falcons will have a large void to fill at the position. While the Falcons could sign a free agent like Malcolm Smith, who could offset the loss somewhat, he isn’t going to be that difference-maker that Spoon could have been. Smith has been a backup the past two seasons in Seattle, and expecting him to morph into an impact performer isn’t likely in the cards.

Money Like Cause of Falcons and Spoon’s Split

Entering the realm of speculation, I can only imagine that money was the main reason why the Falcons and Weatherspoon couldn’t come to terms. Given Spoon’s significant injury history, the Falcons likely had set a firm price tag on what they were willing to commit to him. That likely precluded the Falcons from giving Weatherspoon the sort of long-term security and guaranteed dollars that he was probably looking for.

This past weekend commenced the three-day “legal tampering period” for NFL free agency, allowing players and their agents to put feelers out into the ether about where their respective market values are. It’s very likely that once Spoon’s camp did so, they found out the market for his services was better than what the Falcons were offering. And apparently, the Falcons weren’t willing to come too far off that price point.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the Cardinals will sign Weatherspoon to a one-year deal worth less than $4 million. Hard to understand if the Falcons couldn’t match that deal. Although ESPN’s Vaughn McClure reports a two-year deal for Spoon that averages about the same money annually. If the latter report is true, perhaps the Falcons were firm in not offering Weatherspoon more than a one-year deal.

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Sam Baker leaves the field in 2014 with knee injury

It’s somewhat understandable if the Falcons were a bit hesitant to match what other teams were offering. They are not that far removed from the Sam Baker deal, in which the team made a long-term commitment in 2013 to another oft-injured player. The Falcons signed Baker to a six-year deal that guaranteed him $18.25 million and paid out $22.5 million over the first three years of the deal. Since signing that deal, Baker has played in just four games and should he become a post-June 1 cut by the Falcons this week, won’t play in any more.

Should the Falcons opt to not cut Baker and keep him for 2015, the only compelling reason to do so will be simply to save face and recoup some sort of value back from that disaster of a deal.

Given that Baker experience, it’s understandable that the Falcons would be a bit gun shy about committing long-term to Weatherspoon. But there lies a key difference between two players, in that one is good and the other is not.

Baker Contract Not a Distant Enough Memory for Falcons

The reality is that the Falcons should have known better than committing long-term to Baker. While he was coming off a solid 2012 campaign, the team saw just one year prior that they could survive without him. In 2011, Baker was injured early in the year due to a back injury and saw Will Svitek step into his vacated left tackle position. While Svitek was by no means great, he was a competent replacement, essentially embodying the term “replacement level” as a player that the Falcons picked up off the street two years prior. Svitek’s performance should have made Baker a lot more expendable to the Falcons, making them reluctant to commit long-term to a player that had only played well for one season in five. Especially consideing that in at least three of the other four seasons, Baker had played poorly.

Had players like Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo stepped up and ably filled Spoon’s shoes at linebacker in 2014, the same argument could have been made that Weatherspoon was an equally expendable piece moving forward. But those players proved disastrous in 2014, and it only went to show how valuable a player like Spoon still remains.

While one can argue that like Baker, Spoon only had one standout year in Atlanta, at least his 2011 season was one where he was among the best players at his position. In Baker’s “standout” 2012 campaign, he was only the 18th highest graded left tackle by Pro Football Focus and graded 29th among all offensive tackles. That essentially meant that even at his best, Baker was still just an average player for his position. Unlike Baker, Weatherspoon did not play poorly in his other seasons in Atlanta despite less-than-glowing grades from Pro Football Focus.

It all begs the question of whether or not the Falcons are going to continue to pay for past mistakes by the old regime despite having swept them clear this offseason. It’s just another example of how personnel mistakes can have lingering ripple effects for years and years. Essentially because the Falcons’ screwed up the Baker contract, it could prevent them from keeping Weatherspoon.

It’s not to say that the Falcons cannot successfully replace Weatherspoon this year, but it’s likely going to have to wait until the draft since there aren’t any obvious standouts in free agency. If the Falcons can nab a solid prospect in the second or third round of April’s draft, they can potentially nab a linebacker to build around for years to come, as the team once envisioned when they drafted Spoon with their top pick in 2010.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Kendricks

UCLA’s Kendricks a Prime Candidate to Fill Void

In past columns, I’ve mentioned several candidates that could be on the team’s radar including UCLA’s Eric Kendricks. Having played under new Falcons linebackers coach and former UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, Kendricks makes a lot of sense as a Falcons target.

Kendricks is a player a lot like Weatherspoon in that he should thrive playing in space, making him a good fit to play outside linebacker in Quinn’s 4-3 scheme. But having played inside linebacker in UCLA’s 3-4 defense, he could also make a smooth transition to middle linebacker in Atlanta.

Whether Kendricks or another young draft prospect, a key goal of the Falcons’ offseason is going to be adding several foundation pieces at linebacker and across the defense. Rebuilding the Falcons defense is going to take time, but Quinn will be looking to lay a solid foundation of talent to kick things off this offseason.

Smith-Dimitroff Regime Whiffed Too Often on Early Defensive Picks

When Smith and general Thomas Dimitroff first arrived in Atlanta in 2008, they tried to do the same over their first three offseasons. First-round picks were used on Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, along with second-round picks on Moore and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. The team also tabbed prospective starters in the third and fourth rounds with selections including cornerbacks Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens, free safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive tackle Corey Peters and defensive end Lawrence Sidbury.

Those picks represented up to nine of 11 possible starters for the Falcons’ defense to build its future around. But alas, such plans failed to come to fruition as Jerry proved a first-round bust. Lofton was a solid, but limited starter that left as a free agent after four years. Jackson failed to stick in Atlanta beyond his third summer with the team. Owens was an effective special teams player, but failed to make the necessary strides as a starter or nickel cornerback in four seasons with the Falcons. Sidbury flashed ability from time to time, but failed to earn enough playing time over four years to make a lasting impact.

Among the rest of the group, the Falcons got productive starters, but none outside Weatherspoon and Moore would be labeled as the caliber of players that you could build around. And in the cases of both Weatherspoon and Moore, they spent far too much time injured. Combined, they have missed 60 of a possible 176 games due to injury over the life of their collective NFL careers.

If the Quinn Era in Falcons history is going to have a more profound impact long-term, it will need many of the early defensive selections that are likely to occur in 2015 and future drafts fare better.

It just reiterates a point I stressed throughout the 2014 regular season, that the Falcons’ problems don’t start and end with the coaching. Ultimately, should Quinn prove more successful than Smith in Atlanta, the personnel is going to be a very important part of it.

But there’s little doubt that if Quinn proves a more adept developer than Smith, he should find greater success. But before anybody condemns the previous regime as one that couldn’t develop talent, let’s thoroughly examine if that is really true.

Smith Unjustly Criticized Over Lack of Player Development

Jerry’s lack of success could be linked to the knee injury he suffered at the outset of his rookie season. He just never was the same player after that and thus it’s hard to blame the coaching staff too much for his inability to impact.

Lofton didn’t leave Atlanta and become a better player in New Orleans. So it’s hard to say that he wasn’t developed to his fullest extent over his first four years in the NFL. Lofton’s main weaknesses were that he wasn’t particularly fast nor was he good in coverage, two issues that had more to do with physical limitations that coaches have little effect on.

Jackson failed to make another team’s roster after leaving Atlanta. Both Owens and Sidbury have turned into journeymen since departing the Falcons, suggesting that they reached their ceilings in Atlanta as well. Outside of defensive tackle Vance Walker, there just aren’t many players that the Falcons drafted that they didn’t get more out of than other NFL teams have.

I think one of the unfair criticisms of Smith’s coaching staff is allegedly their inability to develop talent. I think a more accurate criticism should be that Smith and Co. were overly faithful in their ability to develop talent, leading them to make several personnel mistakes.

Prime examples of this include mistakes made along the offensive line, where veterans like Harvey Dahl, Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo were let go in favor of younger players like Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes. The Falcons expected that they could develop them into becoming better players than they were capable of being, and the offensive line suffered for it. It wasn’t until they got legitimate talents like Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah in 2014 that the Falcons saw positive results along the offensive line.

Several more mistakes were made a year ago including the team’s faith that young players at linebacker and safety could step up and fill voids left by Weatherspoon and Moore when they went down with injuries. The team’s decision to go with Levine Toilolo as Tony Gonzalez’s replacement at tight end is another prominent error.

Smith’s regime put too much stock in their ability to “coach up” players of an average talent level to fill holes left by some of the Falcons’ best players.

It’ll be interesting to see if that sort of philosophy changes under Quinn. To a certain extent, it probably won’t. However, one key difference may be in the amount of time that Quinn’s regime gives those players to be developed.

As I’ve discussed before, Quinn comes from a team like the Seahawks that doesn’t waste as much time waiting for guys to step up as the Falcons have over the years. If a player isn’t working out, the Seahawks have been a lot less hesitant to move on and plug in someone new. I think you’ll see quite a bit of that philosophy make its way down to Atlanta.

The expression of that newfound philosophy could lead to a large number of players that could become surprise cuts this summer during training camp. We’re less than a year removed from a point in time where players like Worrilow, Bartu and Shembo were potentially considered long-term starters for the Falcons. Now in 2015, all three might be poised for backup roles and it’s possible that more than one of them may find themselves on a different team by the end of training camp.

That could especially come true if the Falcons are successful in upgrading the linebacker position this offseason. Losing Weatherspoon, will make that harder to do, but it won’t be impossible.

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Aaron Freeman
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