The Atlanta Falcons fell just 10 yards shy of a trip to the Super Bowl in 2012. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but in the NFL, you must regroup and build again every offseason to make sure that your team stays on top.
The Falcons finished the year with a 13-3 record and finally got the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan playoff monkey of their backs. Now, with no more questioning of when Smith and Ryan are going to get their first postseason win, all focus can be put on making sure that this team doesn’t fall short again.
Atlanta has some obvious needs and big questions for its 2013 roster. If Tony Gonzalez does indeed retire, what will the Falcons do at tight end? How will the Falcons enhance their offensive line? Also, is running back Michael Turner done as a member of the Falcons?
These questions, and more, will have to be addressed either via free agency or in the upcoming NFL draft.
Let’s look at a position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons current roster and make some educated guesses on what might happen in the coming months and on draft day.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Luke McCown (UFA), Dominique Davis
In his five seasons in the NFL, starting quarterback Matt Ryan has missed just two games. If longevity isn’t enough, Ryan’s also progressed in every season that he’s been with the Falcons and showed MVP-caliber play during the first half of the 2012 season.
There’s not much need for a backup in Atlanta, but the Falcons will carry two—one on the active roster and one practice-squad quarterback. If Dominique Davis is ready to be the full-time No. 2 backup, he’ll get a promotion and look for Atlanta to grab a quarterback late in the draft.
If Davis isn’t ready, or if Atlanta would prefer a more seasoned backup, Davis will be stashed away again and the Falcons will negotiate with a free-agent quarterback, possibly even bringing Luke McCown back.
Running Back: Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Antone Smith (RFA), Mike Cox (UFA), Bradie Ewing (IR)
There will be some huge changes to the running back corps in Atlanta for the 2013 season. What kind of changes will be made are anyone’s guess.
The first question that needs to be answered is what to do with Michael Turner, who’s obviously lost a step. Turner’s cap hit for the 2013 season is $9.4 million, and there’s no way the Falcons will pay him that kind of money.
Will the Falcons cut ties with Turner and look elsewhere or will the team ask him to restructure his contract? Either way, Turner’s not going to make $9.4 million next season, no matter who he’s playing for.
The second question—and this one ties in closely with the first—is whether or not Jacquizz Rodgers is ready to be an every-down running back. During his first two seasons in the league, head coach Mike Smith has repeatedly said that he can see Rodgers in that role, but he’s never made the jump.
I personally don’t think Rodgers is ready to carry the ball 15 to 20 times a game. If he were, the Falcons would have given him an on-field tryout or two this season—especially in some of those times where Turner wasn’t effective. Rodgers has never carried the ball more than 11 times in a game in his professional career, and I believe that he would have done so a few times in 2012 if Atlanta was seriously considering him as its every-down 2013 back.
That’s not to say there’s not room on this team for Rodgers and Turner. With the way this offense runs and the way the offensive line is set up, Rodgers may be the better option as the featured back and Turner as the change-of-pace guy. But, like I said earlier, the only way Turner is in a Falcons uniform next season is under a restructured contract.
Jason Snelling is still under contract and is only slated to make $800,000 next year. Snelling has shown signs of being able to handle the backup role, and he has the best receiving hands of anyone in the backfield. If a deal can’t be done with Turner and the Falcons cut him, Rodgers would move into the No. 1 role and Snelling would get a lot of work as the No. 2 guy in 2013.
Antone Smith, who is a restricted free agent heading into the 2013 season, is a player the coaching staff loves in his current role as special teams ace. Mike Cox is slated to be an unrestricted free agent fullback. As long as the offensive line looks it needs help, then I expect Atlanta to keep a fullback around. Between Cox and Lousaka Polite, the Falcons used a fullback to block on 207 of 1,203 offensive plays in 2012. Whoever plays fullback in 2013 will have to do so cheaply.
Bradie Ewing could be back from a season-ending knee injury and, if healthy, would definitely get the job.
I can see the Falcons looking at a running back in the draft, but the Turner issue is going to have to be solved first. If Turner stays, Atlanta can wait a little longer to draft a running back. If he’s gone, the Falcons may use a early-middle to middle-round pick (somewhere like Round 3 to 5) on a ball carrier.
Wide Receiver: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Tim Toone, Kevin Cone (IR), Kerry Meier (IR)
The Falcons have an elite receiving corps—and quite possibly the best 1-2 punch in the NFL—at wide receiver in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Together the two will count as a $7.44 million cap hit to the team in 2013. That is, all in all, a good deal, especially since they finished No. 9 and No. 11, respectively, in terms of receiving yards in the NFL last year.
Harry Douglas is a solid No. 3 receiver who many believe would flourish as a 70-plus reception option on another team. Since White and Jones were targeted so frequently, and since tight end Tony Gonzalez was such a force, there simply weren't enough footballs to go around for him last year.
That may change in 2013, though, as Gonzalez is likely going to retire. That means that Douglas will have a chance to emerge as a stellar No. 3 target.
If the Falcons believe that Douglas can be that 50-plus reception receiver, the team may not have to rush and find a receiving replacement for Gonzalez. But believe me, Atlanta’s offense doesn’t work nearly as well without a triple threat package. White, Jones and Gonzalez made life miserable for opposing coaches. Without Gonzalez, Douglas must step up or the team is going to have to go elsewhere for a replacement.
To get immediate help replacing Gonzalez, Atlanta will likely have to pound the free-agent market. But adding help in the draft might be an option too. If general manager Thomas Dimitroff sees a receiver that he feels can emerge as a huge threat, look for him to jump on that player, no matter when. However, it probably won’t be in the first round.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez (UFA), Michael Palmer (RFA), Chase Coffman, Tommy Gallarda (IR)
The Falcons are in big trouble at the tight end position. Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 100 passes to the tight end position in 2012, with 93 percent of those connections being to Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez hasn’t officially done so, but he’s likely going to retire. Unfortunately for Atlanta, you just can’t replace him—not in the draft, not in free agency. Gonzalez is arguably the best tight end to ever play in the NFL and the Falcons will truly miss him.
I believe if the Falcons don’t find a way to replace at least a good portion of Gonzalez’ numbers, Atlanta’s offense will suffer in 2013. That means if general manager Thomas Dimitroff can find a tight end in the draft (probably from Round 2 all the way to the end) he may pull the trigger.
More likely, however, is that Atlanta will look at free agency to find a tight end or a huge receiving target to come in and help Roddy White and Julio Jones out.
Michael Palmer, Tommy Gallarda and Chase Coffman aren’t the long-term solution. If a tight end with upside presents himself, he could land in Atlanta.
Offensive Tackle: Sam Baker (UFA), Tyson Clabo, Lamar Holmes, Will Svitek (IR-UFA)
One of the Falcons’ main priorities heading into the 2013 season is shoring up the left tackle position. For just the second time in his five-year career, Baker played an entire 16-game schedule and was one of just two offensive players to be on the field for each of Atlanta’s 1,197 snaps.
Just because left tackle is a big deal for the Falcons, don’t believe that they’ll be looking to make a big move. In fact, expect Atlanta to make an attempt to bring Baker back.
While he’ll likely never show off the skills of his first-round draft status, Baker showed that he’s a somewhat-capable left tackle in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, he was Atlanta’s second-best offensive lineman behind Tyson Clabo. The Falcons liked what they saw from a healthy Baker, but he’ll need to give the Falcons a discount in order to return.
I don’t expect Atlanta to look at the offensive line in the first round, or possibly even the second. Why? Because the Falcons did that last year and got mixed results.
Sure, 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz worked his way into a starting job, but he was overmatched at times. Third-round pick Lamar Holmes injured himself training before camp began, and he played just seven snaps all season.
I think Atlanta will look at the defensive side of the football early in the draft. They have need there and, quite honestly, the Falcons are getting an extra draft pick in Holmes since he didn’t play much at all in 2012.
But Atlanta will need to address the offensive tackle position and I believe it’ll be in the middle of the draft somewhere. Matt Ryan is a marquee quarterback and the Falcons have to find a way to keep him clean.
Guard: Justin Blalock, Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds (IR-UFA), Mike Johnson, PhillipKeith Manley, Harland Gunn
You may be asking why are there so many offensive guards on this Falcons’ roster while the tackle position is barren. Well, the easiest way to stick around as a backup offensive lineman in Atlanta is to possess the ability to multi-task.
Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson have all played multiple positions on the line, and Phillipkeith Manley and Harland Gunn do so in practice when needed. The group just tends to play more guard than tackle because Sam Baker played every offensive snap this season at left tackle and Tyson Clabo missed just nine snaps all year.
There was a lot of shifting at right guard, as the Falcons started the season with Reynolds and finished with Konz. There also may be more shifting with Konz if center Todd McClure retires. Konz was the best center in the 2012 draft and may be a natural fit there, especially with his struggles at guard.
Even with the Falcons using their first two picks of the 2012 draft on offensive linemen, don’t think for a minute that the team won’t grab a few more this year. As a whole, Atlanta’s offensive line was a much-maligned unit and could use some serious upgrading. That said, I don’t think Atlanta will look at offensive line in the first round this year, but anything’s possible when you pick so l ate in the draft (No. 30 overall).
Center: Todd McClure (UFA), Joe Hawley
Center Todd McClure was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round of the 1999 NFL Draft at pick No. 237, a heck of a value for a guy who spent nine seasons (2002 through 2010) without missing a game.
But math states that any player drafted before 2000 has to be pretty old in football years. McClure will turn 36 in a few weeks and he, as well as the Falcons, will have to decide if another season is in the cards for a guy who has been the rock in the middle of this offensive line.
Pro Football Focus slated McClure as the Falcons’ third-best offensive lineman in 2012. It seems as if the skills are still there, but are the heart and knees still able?
If McClure comes back, he’ll have to do it as cheaply as a veteran contract will allow. If he retires, or if the Falcons decide to go in a different direction, there will be major decisions to make.
For the two seasons prior to 2012, it appeared that McClure was winding down his career and helping his heir apparent Joe Hawley get acclimated in the NFL. But this past season Hawley fell from grace with the Falcons’ coaching staff.
Hawley played just 22 snaps in 2012, even though he was active in 10 games. If Hawley isn’t the future at center for the Falcons, who is?
It could be Peter Konz, who played center at the University of Wisconsin but was drafted as an offensive guard by the Falcons. Konz could move over to center or the team could look to the draft. But I find it hard to believe that Atlanta would spend two draft picks in consecutive years on centers, even though Atlanta claims they thought of Konz solely as a guard.
Defensive End: John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury (UFA), Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews
Head coach Mike Smith will be the first to tell you that sacks are an overrated statistic, and that’s good for the Atlanta Falcons because they ranked 25th in the league with only 28 sacks in 2012.
Smith believes that simply disrupting the passer is sometimes good enough in pass-rushing situations, and the Falcons fared better in that regard this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Falcons ranked 15th in the league on PFF’s pass rush ratio after notching 46 quarterback hits and 176 quarterback hurries. Middle of the road is not good enough going forward, however, especially since the future of John Abraham is in question.
Abraham, who notched 10 of Atlanta’s 28 sacks, is turning 35 years old in 2013. Because Smith manages the elder statesman with kid gloves in terms of extra rest, Abraham still has gas left in the tank. But he won’t be around forever.
There’s also a growing sentiment—reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—that Abraham’s $4.25 million contract might make him a cap casualty. The only way that happens, in my opinion, is if health is an issue. A healthy Abraham can net the Falcons 10 sacks in 2013, and that’s well worth the money.
Kroy Biermann flourished under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012. He was used as a tweener 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, and he set a career-high with 52 tackles. He also had four sacks. Biermann could continue to grow under Nolan, but after Biermann, it gets dicey on the depth chart.
Lawrence Sidbury looked like he was ready to break out after 2011 but showed nothing on the field in 2012, although he rarely got the chance to. Sidbury doesn’t seem to fit in with the Falcons any longer, and since he’s a free agent, he’ll likely not return to Atlanta.
Cliff Matthews caught the eye of the coaching staff late in the season, after he saw some considerable snaps for a second-year, seventh-round pick. He should continue to develop, as should Jonathan Massaquoi, who didn’t make as much of an impact as expected.
With Sidbury likely gone and Massaquoi still a question mark, Atlanta may look towards a pass-rusher in the draft, and they may do it early. Addressing the pass rush, or lack thereof, is probably a top five priority this offseason.
I don’t see Atlanta going toward defensive end in the first round of the upcoming draft, and the team may look at an OLB for pass-rush help, too. But I believe that if a powerful end shows up on the draft board where general manager Thomas Dimitroff thinks he can get value, he’ll pounce.
Defensive Tackle: Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Vance Walker (UFA), Travian Robertson
In 2012, the Atlanta Falcons gave up rushing yards like it was part of the game plan.
Atlanta gave up 4.8 yards per carry to opposing runners and finished the season just shy of allowing 2,000 yards on the ground. Something has to be done in the middle of the Falcons defensive line to stop the bleeding.
Corey Peters, who was arguably Atlanta’s best defensive tackle in 2011, missed six games in 2012 and lost his starting job to Peria Jerry, who has still never come close to living up to his first-round draft status. Jerry showed flashes of electric play that the coaching staff clams they see often in practice, but with only 14 tackles and with very little effect on the quarterback in passing situations, Jerry’s a weak point.
Jonathan Babineaux is the rock of the defensive line and led the defensive tackles with 3.5 sacks, but he too faltered against the run.
The only defensive tackle with a positive score against the run, according to Pro Football Focus, was Vance Walker, who is scheduled to become a free agent. Only two Falcons had better run-defense ratios last season: Dunta Robinson and Kroy Biermann.
Atlanta should make a big effort to re-sign Walker, and they could look to use their first-round pick in the draft on a run-stopping defensive tackle. It’s extremely important that Atlanta shapes back to a top-10 run defense. After all, the Falcons were there in 2011.
Linebacker: Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas, Mike Peterson (UFA), Robert James
At linebacker, the Atlanta Falcons are both solid and lacking depth, all at the same time.
Sean Weatherspoon is the play-calling, heart and soul of this defense, and he’s ready to emerge onto the NFL scene as a star. Last season, he was second on the team with 96 tackles and added three sacks and an interception.
Where Weatherspoon showed his mettle and influence on the game is in Atlanta’s pass rush. To go along with his three sacks, Weatherspoon also hit the quarterback five times and hurried the passer 12 times. According to Pro Football Focus, no other 4-3 outside linebacker was a more productive pass rusher than Weatherspoon in 2012.
Weatherspoon was also the Pro Football Focus top-rated 4-3 outside linebacker when it comes to pass coverage. In 404 coverage snaps, he was targeted 50 times in pass coverage and gave up just 32 receptions. No linebacker came out ahead of Weatherspoon’s 12.6 snaps per reception given up in 2012.
For everything good that Weatherspoon did for the Falcons in 2012, he did have his faults. He missed 12 tackles and trailed only defensive tackle Corey Peters in run defense ratings. The Falcons will overlook Weatherspoon’s deficiencies against the run as long as he’s a top coverage and pass-rushing linebacker. But it would be nice for him to improve some in that other area.
Weatherspoon was the bright spot for the Falcons at linebacker, but the rest of the unit is still a work in progress.
In his second year, Akeem Dent found that there was still much to learn about this system—especially since Mike Nolan was in his first season as defensive coordinator.
By Week 10, Dent had ironed out most of the wrinkles and actually posted a few very positive efforts (Week 16 in Detroit and Week 17 against Tampa Bay). But he’s still a liability in pass coverage and as Atlanta’s middle linebacker, he's not on the field as much as Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas because Atlanta plays more nickel than base 4-3 snaps.
Nicholas played 997 defensive snaps for Atlanta in 2012, which was almost 86 percent of the team’s total plays. He didn’t have a ton of fantastic moments.
While he led the team in tackles, Nicholas was a detractor in both pass coverage and in the pass rush. He even missed 11 tackles and ended the season with four negative run defense scores (according to Pro Football Focus) in his final seven games.
Because of Atlanta’s lack of depth at the position—Robert James is only a special teams ace and Mike Peterson may have seen the field for the last time, as he’ll turn 37 in 2013—and because after Weatherspoon the skill level gets dicey, the Falcons may bolster the linebacker corps through the draft, possibly as early as the first round.
Atlanta needs help in the middle of its defense. Through free agency and the draft, expect multiple new faces at linebacker in 2013.
Safety: Thomas DeCoud, William Moore (UFA), Chris Hope (UFA), Charles Mitchell, Shann Schillinger
The 2012 season was the year of the safety in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s new defense. Thomas DeCoud and William Moore flourished under Nolan, who gave the duo a lot of latitude to disrupt the offense and confuse opposing passers.
DeCoud finished second in the NFL among safeties—and fifth in the league overall—with six interceptions, and Moore finished tied for fourth with four interceptions.
The Falcons definitely feel that it is a priority to re-sign Moore, who just completed the last year of his rookie contract.
I expect Moore to be back in Atlanta, and with DeCoud under contract, the starting safety situation is in tact. DeCoud payed 100 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps and Moore played 74 percent, mainly because of injury. Moore has only played a full 16-game schedule once in his four years with the Falcons, so a decent backup is needed.
Chris Hope was that backup in 2012 and the Falcons have Charles Mitchell—who they drafted in 2012—behind Hope. Shann Schillinger should also come back from injured reserve, but Schillinger is a superb special teams player, and he is not the guy who should be counted on to fill in for an injury to the starters.
Hope is a free agent as well. If he doesn’t re-sign with the Falcons, the team will be forced to use Schillinger or the second-year Mitchell, who played just two defensive snaps during his rookie season.
The game plan will likely be to re-sign Hope or, if that’s not possible, to find a free agent that can handle the duties. Mitchell still needs seasoning, but he should start handling more of the workload so he can be that go-to guy in the future if one of the starters goes down.
Cornerback: Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, Robert McClain (ERFA), Dominique Franks, Christopher Owens (UFA), Brent Grimes (UFA)
The cornerback position is going to be an interesting situation to watch in the offseason. When general manager Thomas Dimitroff traded a seventh-round pick for Asante Samuel right before the 2012 draft, the Falcons were expected to house three top cornerbacks in Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.
Grimes went down with an injury in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. He was playing the 2012 season under the franchise tag, so he’ll be an unrestricted free agent this year.
Falcons’ fans would like to see Grimes back in Atlanta so they can see the trio of cornerbacks in action, but contract negotiations over the past two seasons between the Falcons and Grimes were rough at best. I personally believe that it’ll be very tough for the Falcons to get Grimes to come back to the Falcons “on the cheap,” even though he made more than $10 million and didn’t play even one game in 2012.
The Grimes negotiations should start shortly, and they will be akin to must-see TV.
Robinson and Samuel are both under contract, although Robinson’s number is a cap hog at $8 million in 2013. The team may ask Robinson to restructure, but unless he’s in a very giving mood, he has all the leverage, especially if the team is without Grimes.
Dominique Franks is also under contract but he was a training camp casualty last season and likely won’t even make it that far in 2013. Franks was cut at the end of camp only to be brought back in order to fill in some depth and to return punts. His punt-return duties were stripped by the end of the season, which may render him less-than-useful moving forward.
Christopher Owens might be headed out via free agency, which means that the Falcons will want to take a look at the cornerback position this offseason. Atlanta may bring in a free agent to bolster the depth chart, but it’s entirely possible—maybe even prudent—for the Falcons to look at a cornerback in the draft. Robinson, and especially Samuel, aren’t in the early stages of their careers any longer and Atlanta needs to think about the future.
Special Teams: Matt Bryant (K), Matt Bosher (P), Josh Harris (LS)
With all three special-teamers under contract and performing well, the Falcons aren’t going to look at this position in the 2013 draft.
Punter Matt Bosher was taken in the 2011 draft and was a top-10 punter last season with a 47.5 yards per kick average. Only one kicker in the NFL made more field goals in 2012 than Matt Bryant, who hit 33 and won his fair share of games with last-second kicks.