The Atlanta Falcons’ potential free agency plans are starting to coalesce now that I’ve begun breaking down the team’s needs heading into the offseason.
At first I didn’t think I had a good handle on what the team might do when the offseason kicks off on March 9, and while I’m sure there are going to still be plenty of surprises and ill-fated predictions along the way, I at least can make a semi-educated guess now.
As I’ve noted before, this will be an important offseason for the Falcons. It’s the offseason where second-year head coach Dan Quinn can instill his overarching plan and vision for the Falcons in earnest.
Last year seemed more like a feeling out process where a number of the team’s holdovers were given opportunities to impress the new coaching staff with their value. Some like Robert Alford, Devonta Freeman and Ryan Schraeder were able to do so. Others like Paul Worrilow, Roddy White and William Moore were not.
A year ago the team made relatively tepid foray into free agency. While the team signed 15 players between the start of the league year on March 10 and the month of June, few were the so-called “big splashes” that fans had come to expect.
Free Agency Still Represents Short-Term Thinking
This caused a lot of consternation on the part of fans and understandably so. It’s hard to get excited about signings like Brooks Reed, Jacob Tamme, Phillip Adams and Leonard Hankerson. These moves were mostly stopgap measures to fill some holes, but few were designed to have staying power.
Very few free-agent additions ever do. I made note of this last offseason when discussing the team’s first set of “underwhelming” moves by indicating that roughly 60 percent of the players that had signed long-term deals in 2012 were unable to make it past three seasons with the team that signed them.
It’s why the Falcons’ 2015 strategy of not overpaying for free agents in principle makes perfect sense. If you’re going to get a player for only two or three years in all likelihood, why should you pay a gargantuan price?
One only has to look at the recent news that the Falcons are set to part ways with nose tackle Paul Soliai, who signed a five-year, $32 million contract at the outset of the 2014 offseason. Now within two years, the Falcons are moving on.
They’re also likely to move on from defensive tackle Tyson Jackson, who signed a five-year deal worth $25 million that same offseason. The other major 2014 free-agent additions in Jon Asamoah was cut in December, and many suspect wide receiver Devin Hester will also be shown the door in the coming days or weeks too.
And while it’s easy to sit there and blame the front office for these “misses,” it’s in fact the very nature of free agency to fool you into thinking that you’re getting long-term assets when in fact they are short term.
Thus why teams have to be very selective when it comes to paying top dollar for players. Ultimately the players have to be worth it. We saw this back in 2014 when the Denver Broncos splurged on defensive starters that offseason by signing cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware as well as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All four players made a tremendous impact on the Broncos push to the Super Bowl title this past year, costing the team a combined $124.5 million in total contracts. About half of that total was actually committed up front by the Broncos, with all four players receiving combined payments of roughly $61.5 million over the past two seasons.
Now Denver is making room for a Lombardi Trophy in their display case at team headquarters, so they certainly got exactly what they paid for.
That’s the sort of free agency that teams and fans alike dream of. But the Broncos were in that position because they were already a team at the top of league having lost the Super Bowl the year previously to the Seattle Seahawks. Their “all-in” strategy paid off because they had already laid a strong foundation in earlier offseasons with acquisitions such as quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, outside linebacker Von Miller, linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive end Malik Jackson, all of whom had already or were on the verge of carving out significant roles with the team.
The Falcons going into 2016 simply aren’t in that same place. The path to the 2012 NFC Championship Game are slowly fading into memory. This offseason as well as likely the one following in 2017 will be the ones where they hope to find their very own versions of players like Thomas, Miller, Trevathan, etc. that establish the foundation for success so that there may come a day in 2018 or 2019 when the team can afford to splurge on some big name free agents like Talib or Ware.
Part of laying that foundation will be building up the defense, which Quinn is all about. Not to say that he doesn’t care about the offense, but there’s a reason why he hired offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was able to construct much of the offensive coaching staff out of people that he had previously worked with.
While I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that Shanahan has been given complete control of the offense, he is allowed considerable influence over it. Ultimately we may be looking back a few years from now and wondering if that was a great decision by Quinn, but that’s not what I’m really here to discuss today.
Instead I point it out just as a juxtaposition to show that Quinn’s primary focus is improving upon the defense that was one of the worst in NFL history back in 2014. Quinn was able to accomplish that to a certain extent in 2015 with the unit improving in the majority of key areas.
Falcons Defense Showed Improvement Under Quinn
The Falcons went from one of the worst defenses in the league to one that was by most measures middle of the pack this past season. Here’s how the two seasons of Falcons defensive play stack up in terms of rankings in 10 different critical defensive categories:
Falcons 2014-15 Defensive Rankings
|Yards Per Play||32||24|
|Defensive Passer Rating||15||12|
|Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt||29||16|
|Third Down Conversion Rate||32||26|
|Red-Zone Conversion Rate||21||26|
|20+ yd Plays Allowed||22||13|
Now, let’s compare that to the Seahawks defenses that Quinn was involved in. Obviously, the 2013 unit that was the first that Quinn coordinated is considered one of the better defensive groups in NFL history, helping the Seahawks crush the Broncos in the Super Bowl that season. However that was building off previous year’s successes. Things started a bit more humbly for Pete Carroll’s defensive units when he first arrived in Seattle in 2010. Here are how those Seahawks defenses stacked against one another from 2010 through 2013 in those same categories:
Seahawks 2010-13 Defensive Rankings
|Yards Per Play||23||7||8||1|
|Defensive Passer Rating||25||6||3||1|
|Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt||28||6||2||1|
|Third Down Conversion Rate||26||9||17||6|
|Red-Zone Conversion Rate||13||11||5||2|
|20+ yd Plays Allowed||31||3||6||1|
As we can see in Carroll and Quinn’s first year working together in 2010, the Seahawks featured one of the league’s worst defensive units. But things improved dramatically in 2011 as more and more players were brought in to solidify key units and the Seahawks suddenly were a top 10 defense in most categories after being a bottom 10 unit the year prior.
Could the Falcons be able to make a comparable jump from the middle of the pack in 2015 to a top 10 unit in 2016? Certainly, but it will depend on continuing to strengthen key areas of the roster. That’s why despite the belief of many that the defense relative to the offense is the stronger group in Atlanta, the team will still likely be heavily focused on improving the former side of the ball this spring.
Again that speaks to Quinn’s background as a defensive coach, particularly a defensive line coach. In making an educated guess about the Falcons’ offseason plans I mentioned earlier, it appears that there will be a lot of focus on that defensive line and front seven in general this year as opposed to the secondary.
The Falcons definitely need to improve their pass rush, which finished at the bottom of the league with 19 sacks. The team was able to get a lot more hits on the quarterback this year, making their pass rush better than what their sack total indicates, but they still have a long ways to go as indicative of how poor their third-down defense was this past year.
The team’s struggles were indicative on third-and-short (with six or less yards to go), as the team gave up the league’s third worst conversion rate in those situations (55.2 percent). The average conversion rate for the league as a whole was 46.7 percent in those situations.
On third-and-longs (seven or more yards to go), Quinn’s disciplined unit was above average, allowing a conversion rate of 26.3 percent, slightly better than the league average of 27.4 percent. Those situations often entailed the Falcons rushing three defenders and dropping eight into coverage, making sure to get the stop before the opposing offense could reach the sticks.
In that latter situation a weak pass rush isn’t over detrimental to the Falcons’ ability to get off the field. Allowing eight yards on a 3rd-and-11 isn’t a problem. But allowing eight yards on a 3rd-and-5 is, which is where having a competent to good pass rush really matters.
Adding another edge-rusher that can provide steadier pressure opposite Vic Beasley will be a critical goal of the Falcons this offseason. They might also even look to add another interior pass-rusher to help improve that unit as well. They certainly will be making a new addition at nose tackle that can provide value against the run and replace Soliai.
The Falcons also are likely to upgrade their linebacker position as they have two potential holes at middle and weak-side linebacker where Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant, respectively, didn’t live up to expectations in 2015.
This focus on the front seven doesn’t mean that the Falcons will completely ignore the secondary this offseason. The release of Moore earlier this month means that the team probably needs to fill that hole at strong safety.
Cornerback is also a position where one can easily see the Falcons adding depth as well. Jalen Collins didn’t have as impressive a rookie season as initially hoped and any cornerback additions made this offseason would be insurance in case he doesn’t show significant improvement in 2016, given the necessity of having at least three trustworthy cornerbacks in today’s NFL.
But despite those moves that could be made in the secondary this offseason, it’s possible that even bigger moves could come at that position group in 2017.
Allen and Alford Might Be Entering Final Years as Starters in Atlanta
Ricardo Allen was a solid first-year starter for the Falcons at free safety, but it remains to be seen if he isn’t in the same mold of stopgap that players like Reed and Durant were a year ago. The Falcons weren’t successful in finding their very own version of Earl Thomas to become the “quarterback of the defense” last year. Given their more pressing concerns this offseason, it’s probable that they try and make due with Allen for another year. But 2016 might be his final opportunity to prove that he’s more than just a solid starter and can be a good one on a top-notch defense.
Also next spring, Alford is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Desmond Trufant’s contract is also due to be up next offseason as well, although it’s a near certainty that the Falcons will exercise the fifth-year option this spring that will keep him under contract through the fall of 2017.
If the Falcons follow the same precedent established by wide receiver Julio Jones this past summer by giving him an extension six months before his contract expires, then it’s likely that next summer the Falcons will be looking to do the same for Trufant.
One can only guess at what sort of money Trufant could receive given that 2016 free agents like Josh Norman and Sean Smith could potentially set new parameters for the market value of top corners like Trufant.
But given the contracts we’ve seen signed by the likes of Jimmy Smith ($10.3 million per year) and Byron Maxwell ($10.5 million per year), ranging all the way up to what Darrelle Revis, the league’s highest paid corner, makes at $14 million per year, it’s a pretty safe bet believing that Trufant’s new deal with the Falcons is going to entail big numbers.
And that’s the main reason why I doubt if the Falcons will fork up the money to keep Alford long-term between now and next March. Alford will be 28 when his contract expires a year from now and we saw this past year with the Seahawks how they valued No. 2 cornerbacks in regards to Maxwell.
The Seahawks expressed the desire to keep Maxwell throughout the lead-up to free agency, but were unwilling to make a firm commitment to doing so by placing the franchise tag on him. That allowed Maxwell to hit the open market and thus he was able to price himself out of what the Seahawks were willing to pa when he signed that massive deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s doubtful that with the money due Trufant coupled with the possibility that Collins makes a significant leap this season, that the Falcons are going to be as committed to paying Alford a market-level contract as many might currently believe.
Assuming Alford plays at a level comparable to where he did in 2015, there’s every reason to believe that he could get a contract from some other team that pays him like a No. 1 corner. Players like Maxwell, Talib, Revis, Brandon Carr and Brent Grimes speak to how prosperous the market can be to quality corners like Alford.
It won’t make much sense for the Falcons to pay both Trufant and Alford and wind up having $20 million or more wrapped up in their starting cornerbacks. Especially when Quinn’s defensive scheme showed throughout his tenure in Seattle that the No. 2 cornerback is somewhat replaceable.
The Seahawks didn’t really skip much of a beat moving from Brandon Browner to Maxwell to Cary Williams to Jeremy Lane between 2012 and 2015. As long as Richard Sherman is lined up on the opposite side, the Seahawks believed that they could “plug and play” with the other corner. It’s likely that the Falcons will take that exact approach moving forward with Trufant being their version of Sherman.
Even if Collins isn’t quite ready to step into Alford’s starting spot come 2017, it’s likely that the Falcons will still be of a mindset that they can add a competent No. 2 corner that offseason either via free agency or the draft for much cheaper than they could retain Alford.
Yet the offseason of 2017 remains a year away and even the most educated guess can wind up still being wrong given we don’t quite know how the 2016 season will play out.
Falcons Can’t Afford to Miss This Offseason
But the point I want to finish with is to show that these two different overarching plans for the offseason in which 2016 is geared mostly towards the front seven and 2017 could be geared towards the secondary, showcase what I’ve discussed before in how important it is that teams make the right personnel decisions.
Frankly the Falcons don’t want to be in a situation come 2018 where they are still looking to fill major holes in their front seven. If the Falcons want to steal a page from the Broncos and splurge in free agency at that point, it will require their moves between now and then to prove successful.
After all, a big reason why the Broncos spent big to add Talib, Ward and Ware in 2014 was because they were coming off a 2013 season in which they had the league’s best offense matched with what was a fairly average defense. Their big defensive spending spree was an attempt to get their defense to catch up with the offense before the window closed completely shut on Manning.
If the Falcons’ endeavors to build up their defense in the next two offseasons indeed lead them to having a high-ranking group like Quinn coached in Seattle, then perhaps that 2018 offseason will be suited to splurging in free agency to get the Falcons offense to catch up to the defense.
Maybe by 2018 the Falcons are eyeing players like wide receiver John Brown, tight end Eric Ebron, or guard Joel Bitonio as the critical pieces that will get their offense over the hump before the window closes on a then 33-year old Matt Ryan during the final year of his current contract.
What the future may or may not hold for the Falcons two years from now is a wild guess on my part. But the point still remains that moving forward the Falcons need to find themselves missing less on their offseason acquisitions both in the draft and free agency. They don’t want to be back in a situation, particularly when it comes to drafting players, where they are again investing more early-round picks on defensive ends and linebackers i.e. spots that should get fixed this offseason.
If they are successful in avoiding those personnel pitfalls, perhaps there will be a day in the not too distant future where room is being made in the trophy case in Flowery Branch for a large, shiny silver trophy.