Despite heaping tons of praise on the Atlanta Falcons 2015 draft class in last week’s takeaways column, it was not quite a perfect draft. Largely thanks to the team’s inability to address some fairly prominent needs at left guard and free safety. This week, we gained a little bit more of further insight into the team’s plans for the latter position, but the left guard spot still remains somewhat problematic.
It would seem that Charles Godfrey is being penciled atop the team’s depth chart at free safety. But the team hasn’t been quite as forthright about their plans at left guard. Based off their offseason so far, free-agent signee Mike Person is the most likely candidate. At least until the team adds some clarity in determining the future of Sam Baker.
I’ll come back around to Baker’s future but let’s first put a button on the free safety position.
As I wrote a few days ago, the Falcons’ plan to start Godfrey at safety make a lot of sense as he fits what the team wants to do at free safety. While no one is going to consider Godfrey to be a great option at the position, he’s more than capable of getting the team through the 2015 season, similar to how Dwight Lowery served as a stopgap at the same position in 2014.
Lowery is a better overall player than Godfrey, but as I wrote several weeks ago, the latter is a much better fit for the new defensive scheme being installed by Dan Quinn. Again, the concern among Falcons fans should be less about Godfrey being the starter at free safety, but who is going to be his primary backup should he suffer an injury. Safety is one of the most injury-marred positions on a football team, and is second only to the running back position in terms of having the shortest shelf life.
Right now, the player that is most likely to get the call should Godfrey go down with an injury is Kemal Ishmael. Ishmael is slated to be the team’s third safety now that the team appears to be moving Dezmen Southward to cornerback. Although I should note that Southward’s move to cornerback may not be permanent. If Southward doesn’t take the new position, then it’s possible that the Falcons will move him back to safety to give him the best chance to make the team.
Even as Backups Southward and Ishmael Add Value in Atlanta
But Southward’s move to corner shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. I can’t help but recall that Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars staff was one of the two staffs coaching Senior Bowl teams a year ago when Southward was a participant. Yes, technically Southward was being coached by the staff under former Falcons head coach Mike Smith on the North squad, but I’m going to go ahead and believe that chief Senior Bowl organizer Phil Savage was listening to Bradley and the folks in Seattle that were looking at players like Southward as a cornerback rather than a safety.
The positive for Southward is that his chances of sticking at cornerback are fairly good. What he has going for him more than the others is that he’s a proven commodity on special teams. After starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and second-round draft pick Jalen Collins, the cornerback competition is fairly wide open. And Southward has as good a chance as anyone to earn what will probably be one of two remaining positions. Given the issues with the Falcons depth at safety and the fact that Southward offers versatility probably only increases his chances of sticking.
As for Ishmael, his roster position should be relatively secure. While Ishmael may not be an ideal fit as a free safety, he does fit the requirements the team is looking for in a strong safety. Given the injury history of starter William Moore, making sure the team has proven depth behind him is very important. Not to mention that Moore’s time in Atlanta may nearing an end and Ishmael represents a prime candidate to be his long-term replacement.
Moore turns 30 next week and will count around $5.4 million against this year’s salary cap. That number is by no means troubling for one of the team’s best defensive players and strongest personalities within the locker room. However a year from now, Moore will be 31 and counting $6.65 million against the salary cap. That certainly isn’t a back-breaking figure, but Moore is going to need a strong 2015 campaign to merit being kept at that price given his advancing age.
But even if the team keeps Moore through the 2016 season, it’s very unlikely that he’ll make to his age-32 season in 2017 when he counts $8.65 million against the cap. Ishmael will hit free agency after the 2016 season and if he’s shown enough to be given the opportunity to be Moore’s successor, there simply won’t be enough room for both on the roster anymore. At that point, the Falcons will be able to free up $7 million against the salary cap by cutting Moore heading into the 2017 season. That level of savings may be too good to pass up, especially when one considers that by that point, wide receiver Julio Jones and Trufant likely will have landed lucrative long-term deals.
Falcons Already Have Most of Foundation of Future Success
The Falcons have already stated that locking up Jones is a priority heading into the summer. Trufant will be the next player on deck to get a lucrative long-term deal. He’s signed through 2016 and the Falcons will have the opportunity to exercise his fifth-year option for 2017 next offseason. It would take an unfathomably unfortunate series of events to prevent the Falcons from exercising that option, making it a virtual certainty at this juncture.
Not to mention the Falcons by then could be gearing up for another big pay day towards offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who will be entering the final year on his rookie contract going into 2017. Also that could potentially be followed by this past year’s top selection Vic Beasley the following year. Quarterback, left tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback are considered the premium or “pillar” positions on a football team. And there are some that believe a No. 1 wide receiver like Jones should also be considered the fifth position. It’s not coincidental that Matt Ryan, Matthews, Beasley, Trufant and Jones are likely to become the highest paid players on the roster in the very near future should all be deserving with their play on the field.
They are set to be the players that form the foundation of the teams that constitute what will become later known as the Quinn Era in Falcons franchise history. And if you can find one positive about the job that general manager Thomas Dimitroff has done over his tenure with the team, he has managed to finally hit on those five spots after a few too many missed opportunities.
While those five positions may be the pillars for most other NFL teams, free safety might also be considered one for a team coached specifically by Quinn. Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas is arguably the most valuable player on the entire Seattle team and his ability to quarterback the league’s best secondary is the key reason why Quinn and Bradley’s defenses were so good the past several years.
Godfrey certainly won’t be Thomas, and there’s nobody currently on this roster that possesses that sort of ability. But the hope will be that Godfrey can get the team through the 2015 season, so that they will have another opportunity to find that player in 2016. Only time will tell, but it doesn’t appear likely that next year’s crop of draft-eligible safeties will be labeled as a weak group like this past year’s.
Baker and Person Provide Few Answers at Left Guard
As for the team’s immediate plans at left guard, those remain a bit more uncertain. Right now, Person is taking first-team snaps at that position. That could change if or when Baker makes a healthy return. But as I’ve noted before, there’s no guarantee that the Falcons decide to keep Baker going into training camp. While the Falcons aren’t hurting for cap space with the team set to be roughly $11 million under the 2015 cap after all the rookies are signed, creating a little more certainly won’t hurt. Cutting Baker after May 12 will free up an additional $4.5 million in cap space.
Baker carries a cap hit of $7.3 million this year, which is too burdensome for the team. Even if the Falcons opt to retain Baker to give him another shot at earning his poorly designed contract, it will have to be at a lower price. After all, the Falcons decided to cut a 31-year old Justin Blalock earlier this offseason when he had a cap hit around $7.9 million. Baker will turn 30 at the end of this month, and unlike Blalock, his durability issues make him an unreliable option. Baker has managed to miss 47 percent of the potential snaps over the past seven seasons since joining the Falcons, which translates to essentially a coin flip whether or not he ultimately can manage left guard, let alone any spot this year.
When the Falcons gave Person a three-year contract that averaged more than $1 million per year, it was the first sign that the team thought there was a chance he could fill a starting role. If the Falcons were envisioning Person as just the seventh or eighth man in their offensive line rotation, as he played last year with the St. Louis Rams, it likely would’ve prompted a more modest one-year deal.
Person seemingly made an impression on coaches like Quinn during the 366 days he spent on the Seahawks roster over the course of 2012 and 2013, to merit the team’s belief in him. It’s really hard to gauge what Person can do as he only played a modest number of snaps (69 to be exact) over his four-year NFL career. Most of them (66) came last year when he filled in for Rams in spot duty thanks to other injuries.
The chief concern about plugging Person into the starting lineup at left guard is whether he can hold up in pass protection. In watching Person’s limited snaps from a year ago, he consistently struggled when trying to punch in pass protection. Person’s punches were routinely ineffective, allowing defensive tackles to regularly beat him with both speed and power. Even though the left guard will likely receive a lot more help from the team’s center given that the majority of NFL teams slide their protections to the left, the last thing the Falcons want to do is go from a relatively consistent player like Blalock to a potential liability in Person, should those flaws not become fixed.
It’s important to note that a good deal of the Falcons’ passing success last year came in games where Ryan had a clean pocket to step into. While criticism of Ryan’s arm strength can induce eye rolls in many, the reality remains that the Falcons’ franchise quarterback isn’t blessed with a great arm. That doesn’t limit him too any hugedegree because he more than compensates with his intelligence and other skills, but it can limit the explosive potential of the Falcons offense.
If and when Ryan wants to throw downfield, he needs room to step into his throws, which means there needs to be spacing in front of him. Given that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants to make the vertical pass a larger factor in the team’s offense in 2015, making sure that the interior of Ryan’s offensive line is sound will be important to provide the necessary spacing.
Former Ram Joe Barksdale Is a Possible Option For Falcons
This desire may explain why the Falcons recently worked out free agent offensive lineman Joe Barksdale, a former Rams teammate of Person. Barksdale manned the right tackle position for the Rams the past two years, but does have experience playing guard as he did so early in his career as an Oakland Raider. His last regular-season game experience as a left guard came in 2011 during his rookie year. Barksdale did not fare too well as a number of his breakdowns led to Denver Broncos’ Von Miller laying the smackdown on Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer.
But the Falcons should be more willing to put trust in Barksdale than they would Person, given the former’s starting experience. Barksdale is nothing special as an NFL offensive lineman, thus why he has yet to be snatched up as a free agent. But he is a competent starter that can give the Falcons another stopgap along the lines of Godfrey at the position.
A bigger reason why Barksdale hasn’t been signed by anyone else is possibly price. Early projections had him earning a lucrative long-term deal, but he was met with a fairly cold market. The Rams have continually expressed interest in retaining Barksdale throughout the offseason, but seemingly only at the right price. The Tennessee Titans also looked at him in March, but then opted sit tight until after the draft, likely putting him out of their crosshairs after using a third-round pick on an offensive tackle.
That basically leaves the Falcons as one of possibly two teams looking at Barksdale and I personally don’t love the odds for the Falcons in those situations. Typically under owner Arthur Blank, if/when a player comes to town and they really want him, he doesn’t leave town. As we saw earlier this offseason when it came to free agents like Derrick Morgan and Rob Housler, typically if a player leaves Atlanta without signing a deal, one is not imminent.
However in the case of Barksdale things could be slightly different. The date of May 12 is not just a point on the calendar when teams can dump players with less hassle, but they can also add them. Players signed to contracts after May 12 won’t count towards the the league’s secret compensatory draft pick formula. But it should be noted that the Falcons were unlikely to receive a compensatory pick in 2016 for losing certain free agents, so that incentive isn’t much of one.
Nonetheless, the door still remains open for the Falcons to sign Barksdale this week or later on. Overall, the left guard position appears a bit more problematic than free safety. Even though there may not be an immediate sign of hope for the Falcons, there’s every reason to believe still remain optimistic that things will get fixed as we near the regular season.
What separates the Quinn regime from the one led by Smith is the likelihood that the team won’t stand pat should issues arise. While many focus on the improvements in “Xs and Os” that are expected under Quinn, what gets me excited about this franchise moving forward is that the team isn’t simply going to ignore problematic areas of the roster just for the heck of it. That level of complacency is an underrated factor as to why the Falcons struggled over the past two years.
Even though it may not come in the form of signing a free agent like Barksdale this week, I have confidence that 18 weeks from now when the Falcons open the 2015 season against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football, most of my concerns at both free safety or left guard will be allayed.