Breaking Down the Atlanta Falcons Roster, Position-by-Position Analysis
While they were just yards away from still being in the NFL discussion as a Super Bowl team, the Falcons have plenty of work to do this offseason to become a true championship contender.
The impending retirement of Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure must be addressed, as well as the age and lack of depth on the defensive line, which is headed by the long-tenured but soon to be expendable John Abraham.
Atlanta's lack of rushing attack was also a major concern in 2012. It will very likely see a new starting tailback come August.
Here's a look at how the offseason roster shakes up for the Falcons as they prepare for the draft and free-agency process.
Michael Foster is an Atlanta Falcons Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He also served as Sports Editor of The Sentinel (Kennesaw State University's student-run newspaper) for a year and a half, has co-hosted a radio show for KSU Owl Radio and has worked as a sports correspondent for the Marietta Daily Journal and Cherokee Tribune, covering high school football in northwest Atlanta.
Follow him on Twitter for Falcons news and analysis!
2012 Roster: Matt Ryan (Pro Bowl), Luke McCown, Dominique Davis (Rookie)
2013 Free Agents: McCown
Matt Ryan is entering the final year of his rookie contract and a new deal will be one of general manager Thomas Dimitroff's top priorities. Ryan drew MVP discussion multiple times during the 2012 regular season and nearly led the Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1999. He broke franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns in a season (4,719 and 32, respectively).
Luke McCown did not see the field once in his first year with the Falcons. McCown was brought up to Atlanta to follow his offensive coordinator from Jacksonville, Dirk Koetter, who took over this past offseason. McCown will be a free agent this offseason, but if Koetter wanted him bad enough to prompt Dimitroff to cut the formidable Chris Redman (granted he was 35-years old) then he could see a deal.
Dominique Davis will enter the second year of a three-year rookie contract. He impressed in his first preseason and could battle to take over as the second-string quarterback in 2013, but Falcons fans probably wish Redman was still on roster.
Verdict: Ryan is a franchise quarterback and will see a new deal that should lock him up in Atlanta, but the Falcons don't have a proven backup to fall on if Ryan were to go down.
2012 Roster: Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Antone Smith, Bradie Ewing (Rookie), Mike Cox
2013 Free Agents: Smith (Restricted), Cox
Michael Turner is entering the final year of a six-year, $34.5 million contract. His production has steadily declined since his Pro Bowl appearances in 2008 and 2010, and Dirk Koetter's pass-happy offense doesn't help his cause. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2012. It's very likely that Turner is released this offseason.
Jacquizz Rodgers made big plays running, receiving and protecting Matt Ryan this past season. He may have done enough to earn a look by coaches this offseason to become the starter. Rodgers carried 94 times for 362 yards and caught 53 passes for 402 yards. He also had a very impressive postseason, which included the dismantling of Earl Thomas and a key blitz-pickup in the team's final drive against the Seahawks.
Jason Snelling has been stuck as the Falcons third-stringer when healthy mainly in part to an apparent loyalty the coaching staff had to Turner. With that loyalty phased out, Snelling could become an important part of the offense.
In 2009 Snelling saw starting time because of an injury to Turner and finished with 613 yards rushing and 30 receptions. Snelling is a threat out of the backfield, as well as a considerably violent runner who could become a greater asset in 2013.
The Falcons will likely draft a tailback in a mid-round or go after a free agent. Steven Jackson has been a name that has popped up. Jackson was given the option to opt out of the final year of his contract with the St. Louis Rams.
In Koetter's offense the fullback position is close to moot. Mike Cox was signed midseason after the Falcons released Lousaka Polite. Bradie Ewing was drafted in 2012 to add depth but suffered a knee-injury in preseason that landed him on injury reserve.
Verdict: The Falcons don't have a proven tailback and will want to find a big name in the market, though Rodgers could emerge as a dark horse for the starting job and Snelling has always been an under-played talent. Whichever route they take, much needs to be done about the league's fourth-worst rushing attack.
2012 Roster: Tony Gonzalez (Pro Bowl), Michael Palmer, Chase Coffman, Tommy Gallarda, Adam Nissley
2013 Free Agents: Gonzalez, Palmer (Restricted)
Everyone is still on pins and needles waiting to hear the latest on Tony Gonzalez, who said numerous times this year that he's 95 percent sure he's retiring. The future Hall of Fame inductee came a few yards short in 2012 of making his first Super Bowl appearance of his career, just a week after he won his first ever playoff game. Gonzalez would need a new contract if he came back for one more year, and surely the franchise would pony up some dough.
If Gonzalez has played the final snap of his NFL career, the Falcons will likely want to shop for a tight end. Michael Palmer has been a decent contributor to the team but doesn't have starting potential. If Palmer is left unsigned the Falcons best option currently on roster will be Chase Coffman. Coffman, a third-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals three years ago, is a talented receiving threat but needs to develop into a reliable blocker.
If not Coffman, the Falcons will look to the draft or free agency to pick up a new receiving threat. Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz are the top prospects, by far, in the draft. However, both are projected to go in the first round, where Atlanta might be more advised to draft defense.
Notable free agents include Martellus Bennett, Dallas Clark, Jared Cook, Fred Davis and Dustin Keller.
Verdict: The Falcons are not set at tight end if Gonzalez retires. What Matt Ryan loses with the departure of Gonzalez is irreplaceable chemistry, though Atlanta can find a tight end that can stretch the defense even more than Gonzalez did during his time in Atlanta. Losing Gonzalez will not be catastrophic to this offense, but Atlanta must get the right guy to replace him. Don't let a lesser name in the draft fool you if Thomas Dimitroff goes that route. He usually knows what he is doing.
2012 Roster: Julio Jones (Pro Bowl), Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Tim Toone, Kerry Meier, Kevin Cone
2013 Free Agents: none
If anything was learned this year it was that Thomas Dimitroff's decision in the 2011 NFL Draft to trade five picks to Cleveland for the right at Julio Jones was an incredible move. Jones made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season catching passes from Matt Ryan.
His 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns aren't as breathtaking as his performance in the NFC Championship game, either. In front of a national audience, Jones' 11 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns against two Pro Bowlers in the 49ers secondary served as quite the coming out party.
While Jones has supplanted himself as a top-five receiver in the league, Roddy White became the Atlanta Falcons' all-time leading receiver in 2012. It's hard to believe that White, who was once labeled a bust, has become one of the most reliable receivers in the game. This past season White led the team with 92 receptions and 1,351 receiving yards, while reaching the end zone seven times.
Harry Douglas was quiet, finishing sixth on the team in receptions (behind Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers) with 38. Douglas is a fleet-footed target and could see a more pronounced role in the offense if Gonzalez is absent.
The Falcons don't have any free agents at the position and possibly will not try to add a receiver to the roster.
Verdict: The Falcons have best receiving tandem in the league and a talented third-stringer in Douglas who could see his numbers rocket up in 2013, though it wouldn't hurt for Atlanta to add a more physical slot presence.
2012 Roster: Todd McClure
2013 Free Agents: McClure
After 14 years as an Atlanta Falcon, "The Mud Duck" could be out as the Falcons starting center. Todd McClure is the longest tenured Atlanta Falcon, and he even kept that streak alive by signing a one-year contract at the end of last season. It's doubtful he will sign on for another one.
Atlanta drafted Wisconsin center Peter Konz as the heir apparent to replace McClure, and in 2012 Konz started 10 games at right guard due to an injury to starter Garrett Reynolds that put him on injury reserve.
Konz will very likely slide back over to center and start for the Falcons. Joe Hawley could move to center to provide backup depth, as he's played the position before also.
Verdict: The Falcons have their man in Konz, but another center needs to be added, and Konz's move will prompt more shuffling at the right guard position.
2012 Roster: Garrett Reynolds, Justin Blalock, Peter Konz (Rookie), Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley, Phillipkeith Manley (Rookie), Harland Gunn (Rookie)
2013 Free Agents: Reynolds
If the Falcons do not choose to re-sign Garrett Reynolds they will choose between Mike Johnson (6'5", 312 lbs.) or Joe Hawley (6'3", 297 lbs.) to play right guard. Justin Blalock has the left guard position secured.
Reynolds (6'7", 317 lbs.) has 13 combined career starts with the Falcons over the past two seasons. He started seven games in 2011 and was the designated starter this past year until going down with a season-ending injury.
Johnson is the preferred fit at right guard if Reynolds walks, and, as stated, Hawley could move to center to provide depth behind Konz.
Expect the Falcons to resign Reynolds and add a guard through draft or free agency.
Verdict: With Konz most likely moving to center the Falcons need to prioritize re-signing Reynolds, as well as adding depth.
2012 Roster: Sam Baker, Tyson Clabo, Will Svitek, Lamar Holmes (Rookie)
2013 Free Agents: Baker, Svitek
Sam Baker had hands down his best year protecting Matt Ryan's blindside at left tackle, which is easy to claim when his first four years were full of criticism and injury.
Baker started all 16 games in 2012 and was arguably, actually, the Falcons' best offensive lineman. Go figure. With Baker around the corner, it will be in the Falcons best interest to re-sign him. Again, go figure.
Tyson Clabo has been a solid tackle for the Falcons as well, having started for the Falcons for 80 straight games.
Will Svitek has been a solid backup for the Falcons, but if the Falcons don't re-sign him they can easily fill the hole through a market move.
Verdict: Locking up Sam Baker is the Falcons' only major concern with the tackle position.
2012 Roster: John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi (Rookie)
2013 Free Agents: Sidbury
Atlanta has John Abraham under contract for two more seasons, but that's not to say they need to make a move to replace him. Yes, Abraham had a resurgent year in 2012, leading the team with 10 sacks. His name only made national headlines, however, after he went down with an ankle injury in a meaningless Week 17 game against Tampa Bay. That injury hindered Abraham's playoff performances, much to the criticism of Mike Smith.
Atlanta also dug a hole in its defensive line depth by releasing Ray Edwards midway through the season. Edwards was the Falcons' biggest offseason acquisition before the 2011 season.
Kroy Biermann is a very good utility rusher, but his staying power as a starter isn't very justified at this point.
Abraham will see starting time for the Falcons in 2013 as long as he's healthy, and Atlanta will likely rely more on disruptive plays by a young and athletic defensive lineman to play opposite of Abraham.
Lawrence Sidbury isn't a major re-signing priority, as Jonathan Massaquoi is expected to phase Sidbury out of the roster.
Expect the Falcons to draft a defensive end with their first pick in the April draft. LSU's Sam Montgomery, SMU's Margus Hunt and even UCLA's Datone Jones have been mentioned as possible choices here.
Verdict: Atlanta's biggest offseason priority is finding a top-level pass-rusher and adding depth at the defensive end position, especially with Abraham's retirement creeping up on him.
2012 Roster: Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Vance Walker, Travian Robertson (Rookie)
2013 Free Agents: Walker
The Falcons have had one of the most underrated defensive lineman in the NFL in tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who's been wreaking havoc in opponent backfields for for eight seasons, all with Atlanta.
Outside of the "U.S.S. Babineaux", however, the defensive tackle position is only home to a few good-but-not-great players.
Peria Jerry, who battled injuries in his first few years with the Falcons, has the most potential to develop into a force in the middle. Jerry only started nine games in 2012, which was five more than his previous high.
Corey Peters and Vance Walker have played very well at times but are not starting-caliber defensive tackles. Though, if the Falcons had more stability at defensive end we may not be saying anything other than the fact the tackle position is completely set.
Atlanta could add a bigger body at defensive tackle. Georgia's Kwame Geathers, who won't be a first-round pick in this year's draft, could fall to a spot where Atlanta could get its hands on him. That would be a steal, as Geathers' 6'6", 355 pound frame would give Atlanta a true-plug at defensive tackle.
Verdict: This defensive tackle position has outperformed itself on paper, yet the Falcons could use an impact tackle to play alongside Babineaux. Expect this position to be addressed in the draft. Geathers would be a bargain-and-steal pick.
2012 Roster: Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas, Mike Peterson, Akeem Dent, Robert James
2013 Free Agents: Peterson
Sean Weatherspoon is everything a head coach would want in a middle linebacker, and then some. The funny thing is, on paper Weatherspoon was actually out-performed by Stephen Nicholas, who led the team in tackles with 97 tackles (72 solo) in 2012.
While Nicholas was heavily criticized in the playoffs for not being able to cover the tight end, it's probably more advised to realize that was just as much as a scheme problem as an individual issue with talent at the position. Let's face it: Nobody has figured out how to cover the tight end in the pistol-option offense to this point.
Weatherspoon and Nicholas are solid starting linebackers. And in this day and age a third linebacker isn't seeing the field often, though Akeem Dent did very well when his number was called in 2012.
Mike Peterson has likely played his last game in a Falcons uniform. Peterson, like McClure, made a surprise one-year signing last offseason to continue to play with the team.
The Falcons will likely use a mid-round pick on a linebacker to replace Peterson. If conversation about Nicholas' struggles really prompts Mike Smith or Thomas Dimitroff to make a more aggressive move, the Falcons could get a guy like Khaseem Greene (Rutgers) as early as the second round.
Verdict: An impact name at linebacker will be welcomed, though the criticism of Nicholas has been unfair to this point. Nicholas has been pushing for a starting role his entire career, much spent as an impact special teams player, and he had a breakout year in 2012.
2012 Roster: Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Robert McClain, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Terrence Johnson
2013 Free Agents: Grimes, Owens
The Falcons will need to make a decision this offseason: Should they let Brent Grimes walk and put trust in Dunta Robinson, or has Robinson been underwhelming enough to prompt the opposite?
It's true. Dunta Robinson has not done much to reinforce that his six-year, $57 million contract has been justified by his on-field play. He hasn't been a stellar pass defender and he seems to flirt with a concussion every time he tackles. While Robinson is a thumper, he isn't a fundamental tackler and often gets dinged when playing down hill.
Grimes was slapped with the franchise tag last offseason before he suffered a season-ending Achiles tear in the season opener. Grimes is a stellar playmaker against the pass. He's a decent tackler in space but isn't as reliable as Robinson. Durability is also a conversation piece when it comes to Grimes, as well.
It's hard to see which cornerback the Falcons will stick with in 2012, but don't be surprised if Thomas Dimitroff turns the rhetoric on its back and releases Robinson. If so, Grimes should see a new deal.
Asante Samuel had an outstanding season with the Falcons in 2012, recording five interceptions and defending a very impressive 19 passes. Although he's 32, Samuel should make the most out of the final two years in his contract.
The Falcons likely will not re-sign Chris Owens considering how well Robert McClain played in his first year with the team. McClain has all but locked up the nickel position.
Verdict: Whether Dimitroff chooses to go with Grimes or Robinson is up in the air, but expect one of them to be gone before too long.
2012 Roster: William Moore (Pro Bowl), Thomas DeCoud (Pro Bowl), Charles Mitchell (Rookie), Chris Hope, Shann Shillinger
2013 Free Agents: Moore, Hope
Arguably Atlanta's second-biggest free-agent priority, aside from Sam Baker, is safety William Moore. Moore made the Pro Bowl this past season despite missing the final fourth of the year with a hamstring injury. Moore is a playmaker against the pass as well as a linebacker-esque defender against the run. Expect a new contract for Moore.
Thomas DeCoud also made the Pro Bowl after snagging six interceptions. However, DeCoud is seen as a liability when it comes to approaching and wrapping up runners. This has prompted discussion about the Falcons seeking a safety to possibly battle for the position in the future.
Second-year safety Charles Mitchell could actually be a guy to challenge DeCoud in the future, but that's speculative at this point. DeCoud is enough of an impact player against star quarterbacks to keep himself a float, for now.
Chris Hope will likely not be re-signed.
Verdict: Despite criticism of DeCoud, Atlanta still fields two Pro Bowl safeties. Moore will undoubtedly get a new deal.
2012 Roster: Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher
2013 Free Agents: none
The Falcons have arguably the most reliable kicker in football in Matt Bryant, despite the fact Bryant didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2012. There's no questioning how clutch Bryant is, especially after the kick he made to beat the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs (a kick that quite possibly saved his head coach's job).
Matt Bosher has had a few glitches here and there, but nowhere near enough to warrant a change at punter.
The Falcons could see a better punt-return game in the future if Harry Douglas is given the opportunity next year. Dominique Franks fielded most punts for the season, but Douglas stepped in later in the year. In 2008 Douglas was an exceptional returner for the Falcons. The only issue is the fact special teams returns are becoming more moot with each NFL rule change.
Kickoff returner shouldn't even be considered a position anymore, so it warrants no mention here. Jacquizz did a fine job in 2012 of watching the ball fly over his head.
Verdict: Matt Bryant has sealed himself a spot as arguably the greatest kicker in franchise history. Falcons fans should worship him while they can.
After the position-by-position analysis, here's an early guess at how the Falcons starting depth will look next season, draft picks and free-agent signings pending.
QB: Matt Ryan
TB: Jacquizz Rodgers (UPGRADE likely)
FB: Mike Cox
WR: Julio Jones
WR: Roddy White
SR: Harry Douglas
TE: Chase Coffman (UPGRADE likely)
T: Sam Baker (Re-signed)
G: Justin Blalock
C: Peter Konz
G: Mike Johnson
T: Tyson Clabo
DE: John Abraham
DT: Jonathan Babineaux
DT: Peria Jerry (UPGRADE likely)
DE: Kroy Biermann (UPGRADE likely)
LB: Sean Weatherspoon
LB: Stephen Nicholas
CB: Brent Grimes (re-signed)
CB: Asante Samuel
NB: Robert McClain
S: William Moore (re-signed)
S: Thomas DeCoud
K: Matt Bryant
P: Matt Bosher
PR: Harry Douglas