Atlanta Falcons' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
For the first time since general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008, the Falcons are going into the free-agency period without the cloud of another winless postseason hanging over their heads.
Even though Atlanta freed up some cap space by releasing veterans John Abraham, Dunta Robinson and Michael Turner, fans shouldn't expect the team to deviate much from Dimitroff's stated goal of building primarily through the draft.
This year's draft should play an even larger role because the Falcons will have their full allotment of draft picks.
In spite of that, Dimitroff has proven that he will make a splash or two during the free-agency period over the years. In 2008 he signed Michael Turner, 2009 brought Tony Gonzalez (via trade), 2010 yielded Dunta Robinson and 2011 produced Ray Edwards. Last offseason, the Falcons focused on re-signing their own free agents before trading for Asante Samuel prior to the draft.
Who or what will this year's free-agency period bring? We will soon find out.
I'm of the belief that the most successful NFL teams use free agency to supplement the draft, thus setting themselves up to draft for talent over reaching for need.
With that in mind, allow me to offer my five-step blueprint for my ideal 2013 free-agency period for the Atlanta Falcons.
Step 1: Retention
The Falcons have reportedly reached agreements with William Moore and Garrett Reynolds on contract extensions, but there is still work to be done.
The Falcons are thin at cornerback since presently Asante Samuel and Robert McClain (McClain can only re-sign with the Falcons as an exclusive-rights free agent and I expect him to do so) are the only corners with significant playing experience that Atlanta can count on being back in 2013 after Dunta Robinson's release.
Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens are both free agents, and Atlanta should do everything they can to retain Grimes at the very least. The early numbers coming out on William Moore's contact sound reasonable, so Atlanta should still have cap space available to offer Brent Grimes a competitive deal.
In addition, Sam Baker is set to hit the open market, and while there probably won't be as much of a market for his services as there would have been for Moore or could be for Grimes, Baker is coming off of a good year and the Falcons aren't going to be able to do much better at left tackle given their draft position and Jake Long's anticipated contract demands.
Elsewhere, I'd make sure that Vance Walker is brought back for depth on the defensive line.
Thomas Dimitroff has said that the team's primary goal in free agency this year is to retain its own players, and he needs to be resolute in that position as we head into next week.
Step 2: The Tony Gonzalez Factor
The bottom line is that Atlanta would be a better football team next year with Gonzalez. As of now, Gonzalez, who sounded like he'd played his last football game after the Falcons' loss in the NFC title game, has not said that he will retire.
On the contrary, there seems to be a new rumor every couple of weeks about Gonzalez playing next season. The latest report comes from Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports, who says that he was informed by a Falcons player that Gonzalez would return if he's paid $7 million and doesn't have to participate in training camp.
If Silver's report accurately reflects Gonzalez's terms, the Falcons need to agree a new one-year contract with Gonzalez and make the necessary arrangements to keep him comfortable in July and August.
With Gonzalez back in the fold, the Falcons would eliminate what would otherwise be an urgent obligation to address the tight end position with their limited cap space in free agency, or with a high pick in April's draft.
Step 3: Sign a Veteran Pass-Rusher
Even if Gonzalez chooses not to return, the Falcons' biggest need is at defensive end. For seven seasons, the Falcons could rely on John Abraham to generate pressure and create havoc in opponents' backfields. Now that he's gone, Atlanta needs to bring in some veteran help for Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux so that they're not dependent on a 2013 draft pick or developing players like Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi to pick up all of the slack for Abraham.
Potential targets: Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril
My choice: Osi Umenyiora
Dwight Freeney is only a year younger than Abraham, and I'm wary of guys like Michael Bennett, whose stats jump up in a contract year. Also, I think Cliff Avril will probably want more money than Atlanta is willing to pay.
If I were Thomas Dimitroff, I'd offer Umenyiora an incentive-laden contract with enough of a signing bonus to secure his signature. Umenyiora had a down year last year, and he's already saying he's going to rebound in 2013.
It should be noted that while I am a proponent of the Falcons signing a veteran defensive end, I am also of the opinion that they need to spend one of their first three draft picks on a young pass-rusher.
Step 4: Don't Overpay for a Running Back
I actually believe that Falcons coach Mike Smith took a reasonable position when he said that Jacquizz Rodgers is capable of being a three-down back, but I don't think Atlanta can go into 2013 with Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their only viable options in the backfield and expect to improve their ground game.
Potential targets: Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, Kregg Lumpkin and Chris Ivory (RFA)
Steven Jackson and Shonn Greene's names have been tossed around as potential free-agent targets, but the Falcons should be deliberate with their approach in this area. There are plenty of quality running backs who should be available for Atlanta in April's draft.
Shonn Greene may be younger than Turner, but he didn't do anything during his time in New York that suggests Atlanta couldn't do better than him in the draft.
Jackson could make sense at the right price, but I'm not sure he's willing to play the limited role that he'd be playing in Atlanta's offense. Falcons fans got a glimpse of the future in 2012, and the future of this offense is on the perimeter with Julio Jones.
Chris Ivory offers an intriguing option, but the Saints reportedly put a second-round tender on him and that price will likely prohibit any real pursuit of him from Atlanta's perspective (especially if it means giving the Saints a second-round pick).
I'm not completely opposed to Jackson, but if I were calling the shots, I'd pick up a running back like Le'Veon Bell or Montee Ball in the draft.
If the Falcons feel like they have to sign a running back as insurance in case the backs they're interested in fly off of the board in April, I think ex-Giants back (and Atlanta native) Kregg Lumpkin is a decent option.
Step 5: Find a Linebacker to Compete with Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent
Atlanta needs to add more talent to its linebacking corps. The difference between San Francisco's linebackers and Atlanta's linebackers may have arguably been the difference in the NFC Championship Game. NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks made critical plays for the 49ers' pass defense, while the Falcons' linebackers struggled with San Francisco's offense.
Potential targets: Philip Wheeler, Justin Durant and Dannell Ellerbe
While Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are solid players, there's ultimately too much of a drop-off between them and Sean Weatherspoon in terms of playmaking ability.
I've already gone on record with my support for Philip Wheeler, and I'm still in favor of Atlanta acquiring him because I think he's an effective blitzer who can still hold his own in pass coverage. He also stood out to me on film back in October when Oakland played Atlanta.
If Atlanta doesn't add a free-agent linebacker, I'd definitely expect it to add one in the draft.
That wraps up my 2013 Falcons' free-agency blueprint, what's yours?