Stay or Go: Who Should Be off the Atlanta Falcons Roster After the 2013 Season
Despite the Atlanta Falcons woeful start to the 2013 season, we've resisted the urge to publish any offseason-themed pieces in the interest of focusing our Falcons coverage on what's happening with the team right now.
However, now that the team is 2-6 at the season's midway point, we decided to step away from our usual game-week coverage for a moment and give you the opportunity to vent some of your frustration with this team.
Consider this to be a mid-season assessment of where Atlanta's roster is. Rather than offering grades, we will look at each position on this team and discuss which players should be retained following this season and which players should be let go based on their performance through the first eight games, their contract status and their projected role on the team moving forward.
For each position, we'll list the team's current players (including practice squad and injured reserve players) and any pending free agents before offering our recommendations regarding who should stay and who should go based on the criteria set forth above.
In addition to the players, we'll also discuss the status of the Falcons' coaching staff and that of Falcons' general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
Once you've read our take, it'll be your turn to share your thoughts in the comments section.
We'll start our assessment at the quarterback position.
ALL STATS ARE VIA ESPN.COM, ALL HISTORICAL REFERENCES ARE VIA PROFOOTBALLREFERENCE.COM AND ALL CONTRACT INFORMATION IS VIA SPOTRAC.COM. ALL PRACTICE SQUAD AND INJURED RESERVE INFORMATION IS VIA ATLANTAFALCONS.COM. UNLESS NOTED OTHERWISE, ANY 2014 FREE AGENTS MENTIONED IN THIS PIECE WILL BE UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS AFTER THIS SEASON.
Players: Matt Ryan, Dominique Davis, Seth Doege (Practice Squad), Sean Renfree (Injured Reserve)
2014 Free Agents: None
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan may in the midst of a two-game slump, but he's entrenched as the team's starter for the long term.
The only legit criticism that you can make about Ryan is that he hasn't shown that he's the type of quarterback who can carry a team on his back the way that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have done when their teams were bitten by the injury bug. Beyond that, Matt Ryan is part of the solution for Atlanta, not the problem.
There's no need for any major changes here other than possibly bringing in a dependable veteran to compete with Dominique Davis. Renfree and Doege can compete for the third quarterback spot in camp again.
The Falcons must realize that Matt Ryan needs a strong supporting cast like the one Joe Flacco had in Baltimore last season if he's going to win the Super Bowl.
If the Falcons build it, Ryan has the talent to deliver.
Players: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughan, Patrick DiMarco and Bradie Ewing (IR)
2014 Free Agents: Patrick DiMarco (Restricted)
The Falcons can afford to let fullback Patrick DiMarco hit the market since they should be getting Bradie Ewing back from his injury next season. Even if the injury-prone Ewing goes down again, DiMarco has done nothing this season to suggest that he isn't replaceable.
The Falcons have only had Steven Jackson in the lineup for two full games this season, and it's a little tough to evaluate him at this point since he hasn't had much room to work.
Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling are valuable utility backs, and Antone Smith is arguably the team's best special teams player.
Besides letting DiMarco walk, Atlanta should stick with the status quo, other than possibly taking a late-round (sixth- or seventh-round) flier on a developmental running back.
It's a bit premature to give up on Steven Jackson, and Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling would both be tough to replace because of their versatility.
The Falcons have too many pressing needs in other places moving forward for them to invest a lot of money or a high draft pick on a running back.
2014 Free Agents: Kevin Cone (Exclusive Rights), Drew Davis (Exclusive Rights), Brian Robiskie
Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas are locked in as the team's top three receivers, but there's an open question as to whether there's enough depth behind them moving forward.
Beyond the need for depth as insurance against an injury to Jones, White or Douglas, Atlanta may need another legitimate receiver to emerge to help make up for Tony Gonzalez's production in 2014.
Drew Davis and Darius Johnson have shown flashes, but neither player has established himself as a real threat yet.
Speaking of Davis, he and Kevin Cone really aren't "free" agents at all because they cannot negotiate or sign with another team if Atlanta tenders them a one-year contract before the first day of the 2014 league year since they each have only two accrued seasons per the terms of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article 8, Section 2).
The Falcons should make the decision whether to tender Davis and Cone based on what they do over the next eight weeks.
Brian Robiskie shouldn't be retained beyond this season since he was only signed after Julio Jones went down.
The Falcons need to use these last eight games to determine if Drew Davis and Darius Johnson can play at wide receiver because they may need more offensive production from the fourth receiver on their roster next season.
If neither Davis nor Johnson steps up, it may be worth it for the Falcons to consider other options at receiver via free agency or in the draft's later rounds (fourth through seventh).
Players: Tony Gonzalez, Levine Toilolo, Chase Coffman, Mickey Shuler (Practice Squad), Adam Nissey (IR)
2014 Free Agents: Tony Gonzalez (signed a two-year extension for cap purposes, but the second year of his deal voids), Chase Coffman
In all likelihood, the Falcons' last eight games will be the last eight games of Tony Gonzalez's career.
Gonzalez has caught 44 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns despite battling double teams all year, and he's been a huge part of Atlanta's passing game over the past five seasons.
Levine Toilolo has two touchdown receptions, but the Falcons haven't utilized him much in the passing game recently. He still looks like he has a little ways to go before he's ready to be a starting tight end.
Chase Coffman has missed a couple of games with a knee injury, but he hasn't had many opportunities when he's played.
Coffman shouldn't command an expensive contract on the open market, so at the moment, we'll say the Falcons ought to re-sign him to a reasonable deal so that he can compete with Toilolo next year.
Some fans may want the team to spend a high draft pick on a tight end, but signing a modest free agent like Packers tight end Andrew Quarless may be a better course of action if the team isn't sold on Coffman, Toilolo or Shuler.
As we stated in the last slide, Atlanta won't be able to replace Tony Gonzalez's numbers with one player. Rather than trying to find the next Tony Gonzalez at tight end, the Falcons' passing game may be better off if they open up the offense with a legit fourth wide receiver.
Players: Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Jeremy Trueblood, Ryan Schraeder, Mike Johnson (IR), Terren Jones (Practice Squad)
2014 Free Agents: Mike Johnson, Jeremy Trueblood
The Falcons should let Mike Johnson and Jeremy Trueblood walk in free agency. Trueblood is headed to the other side of 30, and he's nothing more than a short-term answer for this team.
Mike Johnson caught a tough break when he was injured in training camp. Nevertheless, the Falcons can't afford to risk re-signing Johnson to a multi-year deal at a higher salary based on what he's shown through the first three years of his career and the uncertainty regarding how he will play once he returns from his leg injury.
Sam Baker didn't look very good earlier in the season before he went down with a knee injury, but he did show some signs of returning to his 2012 form against Carolina. Lamar Holmes is going through the baptism by fire that many of us anticipated after seeing him in the preseason. The Falcons demonstrated their faith in Holmes when they kept him in the starting lineup last Sunday when Sam Baker came back.
Although our friends at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) haven't been high on Lamar Holmes, the second-year tackle has actually shown improvement as a pass-protector. Much to chagrin of some fans, we're recommending that the Falcons hold on to Lamar Holmes since he still has room to grow.
In addition, the Falcons should keep Sam Baker for at least another season because he'll only be in the second year of his new deal, and it's unlikely that the Falcons will be able to find and afford a significant upgrade on the free-agent market.
Before the season is over, the Falcons should get Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones some regular season snaps to determine if they can compete with Baker and Holmes in camp next season.
If neither player steps up, Atlanta should add a young offensive tackle in the first four rounds of the draft to keep the heat on Baker and Holmes.
Players: Justin Blalock, Garrett Reynolds, Harland Gunn
2014 Free Agents: None
Justin Blalock is under contract through 2017, and he's probably been the most consistent player on the Falcons offensive line since Atlanta took him in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. Granted, he hasn't been flawless this season, but Atlanta would be hard-pressed to find a player who'd offer an immediate upgrade at the position.
Garrett Reynolds is a different story. He's played hard, but he is really out of position at right guard. His height (6'7") and weight (310 lbs) are more in line with NFL offensive tackles, and he played right tackle in college at North Carolina.
Reynolds has made a few nice plays at guard, but when he's been beaten, he's been beaten badly because he often struggles to get low enough maintain proper leverage on his blocks, and he's a little rigid.
The Falcons would be wise to upgrade this position by acquiring a physical, high-quality right guard in free agency or investing one of their first three draft picks into a "plug and play" guard prospect who can come in and make a difference in Atlanta's run game.
If Reynolds is retained (he'll be in a contract year in 2014), he should be kept only as a backup tackle and emergency guard.
Players: Peter Konz, Joe Hawley
2014 Free Agents: Joe Hawley
Peter Konz can stay for now, but he must get stronger because he's getting pushed around too much. In addition to putting Konz through an intense offseason workout program, the Falcons ought to bring in a serviceable veteran free agent at center (or a draft pick, if they so choose) to give him some competition in camp.
Konz was a second-round pick in 2012, so it's too early to give up on him, but he'll need a wakeup call barring some significant improvement in the second half of the season.
Joe Hawley has proven to be nothing more than a backup since he was drafted in 2010, and the team shouldn't re-sign him.
After all, Peter Konz beat him out for the starting center job in camp this year, and we've seen Konz struggle this season. What does that say about Hawley?
Players: Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, Cliff Matthews, Kroy Biermann (IR)
2014 Free Agents: None
The Falcons decision about which players should stay or go at defensive end could be complicated by Atlanta's draft position. If the Falcons end up selecting high enough to take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, they should do it (I think it's more likely that they'll end up picking somewhere between seven and 16).
Getting a guy like Clowney could push a player like Cliff Matthews off the roster and shift Kroy Biermann to play even more at linebacker when he returns.
Even if we don't consider that scenario, it's tough to say which players should stay and go from this group because some of the younger guys like Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga have just started getting significant playing time in recent weeks.
Thus far, Jonathan Massaquoi has showed the most promise amongst from the young group.
Biermann and Osi Umenyiora are the veterans in this unit, and both should be retained because they're still productive and their contracts are reasonable.
Players: Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, Travian Robertson, Adam Replogle (Practice Squad)
2014 Free Agents: Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry
Defensive tackle could be what cornerback was to the Falcons last season because Atlanta's top three defensive tackles are all scheduled to be free agents.
Jonathan Babineaux has enjoyed an outstanding career in Atlanta, and he may end up being in the team's Ring of Honor at some point in the future, but it's unlikely that the Falcons would get much value out of signing a 32-year-old defensive tackle to a multi-year contract extension.
Babineaux has shown signs of his age this season because he isn't the disruptive force that he was earlier in his career. It's time for Atlanta bring in a younger, more athletic defensive tackle who can embody the physicality that this team will need up front moving forward.
Corey Peters should be re-signed because he is still relatively young, and he does a lot of dirty work inside for Atlanta from a position that could be difficult to replace.
Peria Jerry has been labeled a "bust" by some Falcons fans, but he's played well in his contract year. If Jerry is willing to take rotational defensive tackle money, Atlanta should be happy to have him back because he's an effective player when he's healthy and not burdened by the expectations that come with being a first-round pick. If Jerry wants an unreasonable deal, the Falcons should just let him walk.
Given that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff often drafts for need, it wouldn't be shocking to see Atlanta spend its first-round pick on a defensive tackle.
Whether Dimitroff spends his top pick on defensive tackle or not, he should seek to acquire two high-quality defensive tackles, even if he re-signs Peters and Jerry.
Atlanta's defensive line is overdue for a makeover. This shakeup at defensive tackle is part of it.
Players: Sean Weatherspoon (IR), Akeem Dent, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow, Thomas Howard, Omar Gaither, Stephen Nicholas
2014 Free Agents: Thomas Howard, Omar Gaither
Thomas Howard and Omar Gaither were brought in to provide depth because Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas have all battled injuries this year, but either Howard or Gaither will likely be released when Sean Weatherspoon comes off of IR, and whichever player isn't released at that point probably won't be retained in the offseason.
The Falcons were fortunate to discover Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow as undrafted free agents, and while they have been victimized at times, they'll be better because of the experience they gained this year.
Their emergence sets the stage for the Falcons to release Stephen Nicholas this offseason since he is older and more expensive than both of the players who beat him out when he was healthy.
Cutting Nicholas would mean that Atlanta's linebackers would be Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow and hybrid DE/LB Kroy Biermann when he returns from injury.
Even with that group, the Falcons shouldn't be shy if they have the opportunity to grab a top-notch hybrid linebacker/defensive end prospect in the draft.
Players: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Asante Samuel, Robert McClain, Dominique Franks, Saeed Lee (IR), Jordan Mabin (Practice Squad)
2014 Free Agents: Dominique Franks, Robert McClain (Restricted)
Asante Samuel's time in Atlanta should come to an end this offseason. He's 32, he's already been banged-up this season and he'll be in a contract year in 2014.
Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are both growing up quickly, and the Falcons will be a better secondary next season if both of them are on the field together more.
Along with cutting Samuel, the Falcons shouldn't be too concerned about Dominique Franks hitting free agency. He never developed into an elite return man, and he's proven that he isn't effective as anything more than a sub-package cornerback. He can be replaced.
The decision on Robert McClain will hinge on what he shows as punt returner from here on out. He wasn't effective as a nickelback, but he could be a decent dime corner and return man if the Falcons are able to acquire another nickelback in free agency or the draft.
Players: William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta, Sean Baker (Practice Squad)
2014 Free Agents: None
William Moore hasn't been the kind of playmaker that he was last season, but he's probably still the closest thing to a difference-maker that the Falcons have on the back end of their defense. He's a part of the core group of Falcons who should be part of this team's future.
This may come as a surprise to some, but the Falcons could stand to upgrade at free safety over Thomas DeCoud. He's just a guy. He isn't a consistent ballhawk, and he doesn't come up and thump ballcarriers in run support like William Moore does. If it's a question of "should he stay" based on what we've seen, the answer is "no".
Atlanta's defense could take a big step towards the next level if it had an impact player at free safety.
However, for now we'll offer a lukewarm endorsement for DeCoud since we can't be certain about how much cap room the Falcons will have this offseason, or whether scheduled free agents like Saints' safety Malcolm Jenkins or Colts' safety Antoine Bethea will actually hit the market.
Perhaps the Falcons should give Kemal Ishmael a look before the season ends.
Players: Matt Bryant (Kicker), Matt Bosher (Punter), Josh Harris (Long-Snapper)
2014 Free Agents: Punt returner Robert McClain (Restricted), coverage specialist Kevin Cone
As the saying goes, "if ain't broke, don't fix it". Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher have played pretty well this season and both should be retained in 2014. The same can be said of long-snapper Josh Harris.
The one caveat is that Bryant is 38 years old, so it's foreseeable that he could decide to retire after this year. However, he will be a free agent after next season anyway, and it's not uncommon for kickers to play at his age in the NFL if they're still as effective as he is.
As we mentioned in the cornerbacks slide, Robert McClain should be brought back as a dime back and punt returner so long as he makes the most of his current opportunity and is willing to compete against a few undrafted rookies for the punt-return job in camp.
If Cone is retained, it will probably be because of his special teams value since he isn't getting much action at receiver.
Coaches: Head coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan
General Manager: Thomas Dimitroff
Although some members of Atlanta's fanbase may want Falcons owner Arthur Blank to completely dismantle the team's current brain trust, the fact is that head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have won enough games in their first five seasons to merit a year to correct their mistakes.
In addition, since Smith just changed coordinators two seasons ago, it's probably not in his best interests (or the team's) for him to make a change at either coordinator spot as he heads into what's probably a make or break year in 2014.
With that said, there are some philosophical changes that should be in order for both Smith and Dimitroff.
Even though it's our opinion that both coordinators should be retained, Smith needs to consider whether his offensive and defensive linemen need to hear from new voices and if they could benefit from different approaches to their technique because both units just haven't been consistent enough under Smith's regime.
The same can also be said about the team's strength and conditioning program. Why does it seem like the Falcons are always getting punched in the mouth by more physical teams? Do they need to hit the weights more, or does Smith need to have the team practice in pads more (within the confines of the CBA)?
As for Dimitroff, it's time he stops emphasizing whether offensive line prospects can be cross-trained and starts emphasizing whether the prospects have the physicality required to effectively play their best position in the NFL.
Furthermore, Dimitroff must commit to acquiring a dynamic defensive playmaker who can do for Atlanta's pass rush what Julio Jones did for the team's passing attack.