With the offseason mostly over, we can now take a step back and look at it in its entirety and try to take stock.
One thing that appears clear is that the Atlanta Falcons are still in the midst of rebuilding their roster under head coach Dan Quinn. This becomes even more abundantly clear when you focus on their defense.
When looking at their 2016 NFL Draft class from a defensive perspective, the best-case scenario for the team will be to walk away having solidified two linebacker spots along with the strong safety position.
In addition to those spots, the Falcons hoped they solidified two more last offseason with the drafting of defensive end Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. That means that the Falcons potentially have secured long-term pieces in the past two drafts at up to four spots along their front seven.
Yet that leaves three spots left unfilled. Not to mention the question whether Beasley will play linebacker or defensive end in the future, also add to the uncertainty up front. The answer to that question will determine whether a strong-side linebacker or defensive end will become a bigger priority to fill in the coming years.
Regardless the Falcons are certainly going to be in the market for another edge-rusher next offseason, whether he plays linebacker or defensive end.
Babineaux’s Looming Departure Affects Future at Defensive Tackle
The Falcons will also be looking to bolster the interior of their defensive line in the near future given the impending unknown status of veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. He’s entering the final year on his contract and will turn 35 this October, making retirement a very real possibility next offseason. Even if Babineaux decides he doesn’t want to hang up the cleats just yet, the Falcons will have to treat much the same as they did tight end Tony Gonzalez beginning in 2012: working on a year-to-year basis.
Even if Babineaux’s tenure as a Falcon is not over after this season, the team still needs to get younger at the position. They can’t rely solely on the possible developments of Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman to completely fill the void left by Babineaux.
The Falcons confirmed that Grady Jarrett is expected to play nose tackle this season, something some suspected all along. If he is effective there, then the team will likely focus on another situational pass-rusher to fill Babineaux’s role next year. Jarrett could also be designated as such, which would put the emphasis on adding another defensive tackle that can take over snaps in the base defense.
Hageman hopefully will have a larger impact on the rotation this year, but even so, that would only lessen the need at defensive tackle, not eliminate it altogether.
If Hageman indeed makes significant strides this year enough to be seen as an every-down impact player by 2017, it means that the Falcons will need a complement piece in the middle rounds rather than top-level disruptor that merits a first-round pick or a top-shelf free agent.
Along with whatever issues the team must address up front, there still are remaining concerns in the Falcons secondary. There, the long-term statuses of cornerbacks Robert Alford and Jalen Collins remains unresolved.
Falcons Still Have Remaining Issues in Secondary
I wrote less than a month ago that the odds were low that Alford would be kept on the roster beyond this season, given the financial demands of free agency. With Collins’ looming suspension, it remains to be seen if he can be counted as an adequate replacement next season.
Free safety is another spot where the future remains fluid. Ricardo Allen is expected to improve his play from last season as a surprisingly effective starter. With improvement, he’ll be considered a potential fixture playing beside new strong safety Keanu Neal for years to come. Without it, he’ll wind up becoming just like any other stopgap and the Falcons will seek to make an upgrade next season.
My suspicion is that Allen will ultimately be replaced, which would then put additional pressure on the Falcons to find at least three defensive pieces next offseason: cornerback, free safety and at least one playmaker along the defensive line.
Whether that comes in the form of free agency or the draft can only be guessed at this point, but clearly the Falcons should target the latter as it would likely result in more long-term stability. The Falcon have opted to supplement both sides of the line of scrimmage in free agency the past two offseasons to very underwhelming results.
Free Agency Has Yet to Prove Windfall For Quinn-Led Falcons
A year ago the Falcons’ major additions to the roster in free agency numbered 10 players: linebackers Justin Durant and Brooks Reed, offensive linemen Mike Person and Chris Chester, wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, cornerback Phillip Adams, tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki along with defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield.
Durant, Hankerson, Adams, Moeaki and Schofield are no longer with the team little more than 14 months later. Although there’s still the slim possibility that both Adams and Schofield could return.
Reed, Chester and Tamme are basically operating as one-year solutions this season as the team is hopeful that they have already added their replacements or soon will do so. Reed could be replaced by Beasley and Tamme with Hooper by next season.
Person could be a possible option to replace Chester long-term, but he and Clayborn aren’t guaranteed to last beyond this season either. They are both technically have contracts that are signed through the 2017 season, but the Falcons could get out of either as early as next offseason if they so desired.
So basically out of 10 players added, only two of them look likely to last beyond this upcoming season. That’s an 80 percent turnover rate within two years, another strong example of the oft-meager gains netted by spending in free agency.
Thus it’s easier to understand that the Falcons might instead choose to invest draft picks in future defensive additions in the hopes that it garners more permanent solutions.
But whatever draft-related investments are made in the defense cannot be made in the offense. Simply put, if you’re using a third-round pick on a defensive tackle, that’s a third-rounder that can no longer be used on a guard.
That makes it doubly important that the major free-agent signings the Falcons made this past offseason work out in their favor.
Mack and Sanu’s Early Success Important For Falcons
He’ll be 34 when he reaches that year, making it possible that he could retire as a Falcon. So in one way like Babineaux, the Falcons are hopeful that Mack too resembles their previous relationship with Gonzalez. Like the veteran pass-catcher did for the passing game, the Falcons are anticipating that Mack stabilizes the offensive line for the next several seasons to come.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu’s potential impact is a lot trickier. Despite signing a five-year contract, his deal is basically a two-year pact that the Falcons can get out of after 2017.
If Sanu is deemed a success for the Falcons, he’ll be an asset that the team will utilize well beyond two seasons. If not, then the Falcons will quickly dump him.
Should Sanu not fare well, then the Falcons will find themselves right back at the drawing board in regards to their wide receiver position. The team absolutely cannot afford to have as long a drought in trying to find Roddy White’s long-term replacement as they did when it came to Gonzalez’s., which the team is hopeful they’ve finally secured in rookie Austin Hooper after five years.
Hardy might ultimately prove a reliable option for Ryan in the coming years if Sanu falls flat, but he won’t be able to fill the role as a dynamic playmaker. That is something that the Falcons desperately lack opposite Jones, and Sanu was added to help fill that void.
The point of bringing up these personnel issues is to note that in reviewing their offseason, the goal is to have hopefully resolved many of the holes on offense. That will only be determined when the games are played this fall, but the Falcons cannot afford to continue to invest in their offense in light of the aforementioned moves that still remain necessary for Quinn to rebuild the defense.
Falcons Counting on Tackle Stability But Guards Remain in Flux
For the most part the Falcons are relatively well off on offense since they appear to have long-term (i.e. options for the next two to three seasons) at quarterback, running back, tight end, center and offensive tackle in Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Austin Hooper, Mack, Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, respectively.
Among those players, Schraeder’s future is currently the most tenuous since he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He also turns 29 next May, which puts him two years away from being the same age that both former Falcon blockers Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo were when they played their final seasons in Atlanta.
One can hope that Schraeder has a bit more longevity than either of them, but there’s little reason to actually expect it. Even if Schraeder is re-signed next spring, the Falcons still need to plan ahead to the possibility of needing to add his heir apparent or an insurance policy at some point during the 2017 or 2018 drafts.
But for the time being the Falcons can at least be optimistic that Matthews, Schraeder and Mack form 60 percent of the starting offensive line for this team through the 2018 season.
Matthews’ contract runs out after 2017, but the team could exercise a fifth-year option on him to compel him to return for one more season before signing a long-term contract. Whether Matthews receives that long-term deal remains to be seen, but I’m sure his representation has been paying close attention to the contracts signed recently by other top tackles around the league.
Yet that still leaves potential vacancies at either offensive guard spot, making up the remaining 40 percent of the line. The Falcons are certainly going to be in the market to replace at least one starting guard next offseason.
Left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chester were two stopgaps added by the team relatively late last offseason. While they gave the team adequate production last year, it’s unlikely that the Falcons can expect significantly more from them beyond this season.
Levitre’s cap hit balloons to $6.625 million next season, which is probably going to be too high for the team to stomach unless he plays at a Pro-Bowl level this year. Chester will be a 33-year old unrestricted free agent next spring, which just begs to be replaced by a younger draft selection.
Offensive Additions Put Shanahan Firmly On Hot Seat in 2016
All these potential roster changes puts additional pressure on offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to succeed this season. If the Falcons don’t get the necessary offensive production given the gains they’ve potentially made this offseason at wide receiver, tight end and center, it could spell the doom of the 36-year old play-caller.
There’s no denying that at as far as many within the Falcons fan base are concerned, Shanahan’s backside is firmly planted on the hot seat. Anything shy of absolute success for the Falcons offense in 2017, and the fervor to push him out the door will only grow and potentially damage Quinn’s own job security.
Even if some fans get their wish and Shanahan is shown the door, that still could potentially open up another pandora’s box of problems that come with a new coordinator: a new offensive scheme.
A new scheme that might require new adjustments by current personnel like quarterback Matt Ryan as well as targeting new, differing personnel.
For example, instead of the lighter, athletic blockers sought by Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, a new play-caller could prefer a power-oriented running game that might be a poor fit for many of the line’s current personnel. Then it could potentially take the Falcons three more years to properly acquire the right pieces.
How patient would fans be to witness even more years where the Falcons offense proves lackluster?
Such a possibility would only prolong Quinn’s rebuild much too long. The inability to quickly resolve holes on the roster was partially what doomed Mike Smith’s regime. Quinn doesn’t want to follow down that same path.
Previously under Smith, the Falcons were constantly having to spend resources and draft capital to try and solve issues that should’ve been fixed beforehand. That meant that there was less draft capital to fix other issues and it compelled the Falcons to put too much faith in late-round picks and undrafted players that didn’t work out.
While all the moves the Falcons made this offseason won’t have to turn into successes, the vast majority must. They can no longer to afford to succeed 20 percent of the time when it comes to free agency and instead need to succeed at a rate much closer to 80 percent.
Or else Quinn may find all the goodwill directed his way following “his draft” might begin to evaporate sooner than he thinks.
Yet despite the possibility of looming trouble, the Falcons remain on track for his rebuild process. As long as nothing tries to jump the rails from here on, Quinn’s future appears to be brightening every day.