We’ve entered the portion of the calendar where news surrounding the NFL tends to trend downwards. Evidenced by all the hubbub surrounding the recent “Deflategate” penalties since there is little else to talk about it.
Thus, I was very happy when Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin made some headlines by announcing that he expects to be an Atlanta Falcon in 2016. It gives me something to discuss for this week’s takeaways column.
Irvin, who is an Atlanta native, essentially told Samuel Logan of Black Sports Online last week that next year when he’s a free agent, he’d plan on signing with the Falcons. While the Seahawks brass desperately try to put that genie back into the bottle, I don’t doubt Irvin’s sincerity in believing that he’ll have a homecoming a year from now. But Irvin is only speaking for himself and it takes two to tango. As far as Dan Quinn and the Falcons are concerned, I think it’s “more probable than not” that they won’t share his level of enthusiasm for a possible 2016 reunion.
The Seahawks declined to pick up the fifth-year option to Irvin’s contract, prompting him to have several choice words about his situation. Seattle’s decision to decline his option is likely more indicative of the glut of talent elsewhere on their roster than a reflection of Irvin’s skill.
Despite being a productive player, Irvin is “non-essential” personnel as far as the Seahawks are concerned. Impending contract extensions due to Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner, coupled with the fact that the Seahawks have already made long-term commitments to Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in recent years, limit how much of a commitment the Seahawks can make to Irvin moving forward.
After all, Irvin has basically been a rotational linebacker the past two years and is their third-best edge rusher behind Avril and Bennett. With their selection of defensive end Frank Clark in this past year’s draft, the Seahawks have already taken a step to replace Irvin in that latter role.
However should Irvin come to Atlanta, he’d likely be much more appreciated. He would immediately become one of the Falcons’ better defenders and a core piece of a rebuilding unit rather than the role player he essentially is in Seattle. It’s why at first glance, the possibility of Irvin come to Atlanta next year seems to make perfect sense.
Yet it’s not and that’s mostly due to the fact that the Falcons have relatively speaking, already secured Irvin’s potential role on the roster with the additions of Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley this past offseason.
In Seattle over the past two years, Irvin’s role has been that of a strong-side linebacker on early downs that in will kick down to defensive end in sub-packages. However he began his career as purely a defensive end in 2012. That year, he managed to have eight sacks as a rookie, but as that season wore on, his issues against the run became more and more exposed.
That culminated in the Seahawks playoff loss to the Falcons in January 2013 where the Falcons were able to rack up 133 rushing yards in the first half thanks to Irvin being asked to replace an injured Chris Clemons as the team’s primary defensive end.
Beasley Could Follow Career Path in Atlanta Similar to Irvin
The following offseason, Quinn took over as the Seahawks defensive coordinator after a two-year stint at the University of Florida. The team decided to move Irvin to linebacker, where his lack of size would be less problematic and his athleticism would be considered an asset. The Seahawks then made two free-agent signings that would prove brilliant in retrospect by adding Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett via a pair of modest contracts to upgrade their defensive end position.
What those decisions resulted in is well documented, but it’s worth noting Irvin’s career path because that is potentially the same one that Beasley may ultimately follow in Atlanta.
For now the Falcons plan to employ Beasley as a LEO defensive end, where he will be asked primarily to rush the quarterback. But the biggest knock on Beasley coming out of Clemson is whether or not he has the size necessary to hold up against the run. In Quinn’s Seahawks-style defense that isn’t nearly as important as it might be in other schemes, but nonetheless it’s still an area of concern. If Beasley has struggles comparable to Irvin in 2012, then it’s very possible that he’ll be converted to an outside linebacker down the road.
It’s interesting that the Falcons official roster lists Beasley as an outside linebacker, suggesting that the team is at least keeping their options open if not explicitly planning for the move down the road. But if Beasley moves to outside linebacker, it won’t be anytime soon due the current presence of Reed there.
Free-Agent Dollars Suggest Falcons Are Committed to Reed at Linebacker
The Falcons made Reed their biggest free-agent signing of this past offseason. He was the only player signed by the team to a lucrative long-term contract, signing for $22.5 million over five years. A total of $9 million of that contract was guaranteed, vastly eclipsing the next most lucrative contracts the Falcons gave out to fellow outside linebacker Justin Durant and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who got $1.25 million and $750,000 in guaranteed money, respectively.
So if “money talks” then it’s very clear that the Falcons really like Reed and his potential to man that strong-side linebacker spot for the near future. Reed’s contract is structured so that if he’s on the roster on the third day of the 2016 league year (which should be roughly March 10, 2016), then his entire $2.5 million base salary in 2016 becomes fully guaranteed.
This is similar to the structure that the Falcons put in Tyson Jackson’s five-year, $25 million contract a year ago. $1.5 million of Jackson’s $2.25 million base salary in 2015 became fully guaranteed as of March 12 of this past year. Frankly, Jackson couldn’t have had a more lackluster 2014 season with the Falcons, thus indicating that Reed would have to be especially disastrous to not earn the latter guarantees of his contract.
So it’s a virtual certainty that both Beasley and Reed will be with the Falcons in 2016. So then where does Irvin immediately fit in? He’s probably not going to be a defensive end, as Quinn personally ended that experiment. And while Irvin is a potential upgrade over Reed at outside linebacker, the Falcons are likely to give up on Reed after one year.
However, Reed’s contract doesn’t indicate that he’s going to be a Falcon forever. His cap hit jumps from $3.44 million in 2016 to $5.04 million in 2017 when he’ll be 30 years old. If he hasn’t lived up to expectations through his first two seasons in Atlanta, Reed will then become a candidate for release. But even if that’s the case, the presences of both Beasley and Prince Shembo on the roster mean that the Falcons have potential options already waiting in the wings.
Shembo Slated to Replace Reed Down the Road at Linebacker
Shembo is currently signed through the 2017 season, after which he’ll only be 26 years old. While I wasn’t particularly high on Shembo’s abilities as a pass-rusher coming out of Notre Dame a year ago, I do think he has the other traits this team will be looking for in a strong-side outside linebacker. Those traits center on his ability to set the edge against the run, play in space and potentially cover tight ends. While Shembo doesn’t quite measure up to Irvin, he still has the potential to be a functionally competent starter in Quinn’s scheme and most importantly, he can do so on the cheap.
Shembo’s cap hit in 2017 will be slightly more than $765,000. If one assumes that a year from now, the Falcons gave Irvin a contract comparable to Reed’s, his potential price tag in 2017 is nearly five times as much. Essentially, the thought process with Shembo is that you could potentially be getting half the player that Irvin is for roughly 22 cents on the dollar. That’s a relative bargain and that’s essentially 78 cents that you can free up to address other needier areas on your roster.
So the only role available to Irvin is basically as a situational pass-rusher for the Falcons in 2016. And the question is how much are the Falcons willing to pay for that? This past offseason, the team signed one potential option in O’Brien Schofield to a one-year contract worth $1.7 million. A better example might be what the Seahawks gave Avril and Bennett two years ago. That first year in Seattle, both players were essentially situational players, starting a combined five games. They rotated in behind Clemons and Red Bryant that year, who were the true starters. Avril worked primarily as a left defensive end in Seahawks sub-packages, while Bennett often rotated inside to defensive tackle.
Avril signed a two-year contract worth $13 million with $11 million guaranteed in 2013. Bennett signed a one-year deal worth $4.8 million with $1.5 million guaranteed that same offseason.
If Irvin was amenable to signing comparable deals that were short term and relatively light on guaranteed money, then it would vastly improve the chances that the Falcons signed him. It’s hard to imagine the Falcons paying a premium for a strong-side linebacker when they already have plenty of strong-side linebackers.
Defensive Holes Elsewhere Might Lead Falcons Away From Irvin
Instead, the Falcons prospective 2016 defense is going to have potential holes at free safety, middle linebacker, defensive tackle and left defensive end. If the Falcons are going to make a splash in free agency next year, it’s much more likely that it will come at one of those positions, particularly the latter.
At free safety, Charles Godfrey is slated to be the starter in 2015, but he’s on a one-year deal. Looking over the list of next year’s free agents at that position, it’s probably likely that it will instead be draft priority since no obvious home runs jump out.
The same could be said about middle linebacker if one assumes Wagner is off the market by 2016. There, the Falcons currently have Paul Worrilow. Worrilow might be having a terrific offseason, but it’s going to have to translate onto the field. If it does, then the team’s need at the position lessens and will likely be looking to draft depth than making a splash in free agency.
Jarrett and Hageman’s Roles Up Front Aren’t Set in Stone
But the rest of the defensive line tells a different story. With Beasley manning the LEO spot and Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman potentially manning two more spots along the defensive line, there’s clearly a need for the Falcons to add a fourth player up front. What exactly the Falcons are looking for will depend heavily on the performances of those three young players in 2015.
Jarrett likely will immediately carve out a role as a sub-package player, likely supplanting starting nose tackle Paul Soliai on passing downs. He’ll likely play beside Jonathan Babineaux on passing downs and likely be groomed to replace him down the road as the team’s three-technique defensive tackle. But Jarrett also has a build similar to Seattle’s Brandon Mebane, thus it’s possible that the Falcons might groom him instead to be Soliai’s long-term replace as the one-technique nose tackle within the scheme. Which direction the Falcons are leaning will only be borne out based off Jarrett’s performance in 2015. But for the time being, let’s assume that Jarrett is penciled in as Babineaux’s heir apparent.
Hageman also has the potential to man two spots in the team’s scheme. He could easily be seen as an interior player alongside Jarrett long-term, but might also be destined to play that run-stuffing five-technique defensive end spot that Red Bryant played so effectively in Seattle. Hageman played across the defensive line at the University of Minnesota, but from what I saw, he was most effective when utilized in that five-technique. Hageman played mostly inside for the Falcons last year, playing a role more comparable to a three-technique and certainly flashed potential as the 2014 season wore on.
If Hageman is seen as more as that run-stuffing defensive end in the mold of Bryant, then finding someone that can supplant him on the edge on passing downs like Irvin might be a bigger goal. However if Hageman sticks inside, then finding someone that can be that every-down defensive end on the left side will be the priority.
A team can never have enough pass-rushers and there’s a considerable number of potential free-agent options for the Falcons next offseason. While Irvin would certainly upgrade the Falcons pass rush, he’s not alone in that regard. If the Falcons are looking for a player like Bennett that can play both inside and outside, then they could look at players like Tyrone Crawford, Jason Jones, Robert Ayers and Cameron Jordan.
If the Falcons are looking for another interior pass-rusher that can help collapse the middle of the defense alongside Jarrett, then someone like Green Bay’s Mike Daniels shoots to the top of the list. Even Mebane hits the open market and could be a considerable upgrade over Soliai for the Falcons.
Irvin’s Path to Atlanta Might Mimic Nick Fairley’s Path to St. Louis
All this is not meant to suggest that the Falcons won’t look at Irvin at next year, but merely indicating that it’s not the sort of slam dunk that at first glance it appears to be. Irvin certainly can find a role with the Falcons and offers a potential upgrade to current players on the roster, but the point is that probably won’t be seen as a huge priority for the Falcons defense next year.
I won’t rule out the possibility that Irvin makes a successful homecoming a year from now, but it’s likely dependent on him being willing to sign a below-market deal. Essentially, Irvin’s best chance for landing in Atlanta is if he’s seen as the Nick Fairley of next offseason. Fairley was a player that also had his fifth-year option rejected by his own team, the Detroit Lions, and ultimately settled on a one-year, $5 million contract to sign with the St. Louis Rams this past offseason.
Fairley joined a Rams team that was already deep at defensive tackle with Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers on the roster. Fairley is likely destined to be a role player and probably will play less than half the snaps this year.
Irvin wants to play in Atlanta next year, but I’m sure that he also wants to get paid as much money as possible and those two desires may prove mutually exclusive next year.
But if Irvin is willing to settle on a modest short-term deal comparable to Fairley this past year or Avril and Bennett two years ago, then there remains a decent chance that he could be donning the red and black a year from now.