Atlanta is currently 3-9, and there are not many bright spots on the team. However, three Falcons have truly shown that they want to stay in Atlanta and should be re-signed after the 2013 season ends.
Atlanta has 15 players with expiring contracts this offseason. They have two Exclusive Rights Free Agents, two Restricted Free Agents and 11 Unrestricted Free Agents. The following are the current Falcons free agents:
|2014 Atlanta Falcons Free Agents|
|Unrestricted Free Agents||Restricted Free Agents||Exclusive Rights Free Agents|
|TE Tony Gonzalez||CB Robert McClain||WR Kevin Cone|
|DT Jonathan Babineaux||FB Patrick DiMarco||WR Drew Davis|
|DT Corey Peters|
|TE Chase Coffman|
|CB Dominique Franks|
|LB Omar Gaither|
|C Joe Hawley|
|DT Peria Jerry|
|OT Mike Johnson|
|OT Sean Locklear|
|OT Jeremy Trueblood|
Tony Gonzalez is going to retire after the season. Kevin Cone and Drew Davis will be extremely cheap as ERFA's because they can only be offered a minimum contract for one season. There are questions about whether the Falcons should keep many of the others.
However, some have shown they are worth keeping. And while the Falcons have a unique group of free agents, the three that have stood out as must-signs are cornerback Robert McClain, defensive tackle Corey Peters and center Joe Hawley.
CB Robert McClain
This may come as a bit of a shocker due to McClain's poor start to the season. However, he's really come on as of late and was a vital piece to the 2012 season for the Falcons. While he's not an amazing outside corner, he's excellent in the slot.
Unfortunately, that early start will loom in the minds of the Falcons' faithful. But he has recovered very nicely from it after getting benched from the first Tampa Bay game to the Seattle game. The following table will break down how he performed in the first five games, during his benching and since it:
|Robert McClain Coverage Stats|
|Category||First 5 games||During Benching||Since Benching|
|Yards After Catch||178||16||62|
|Passer Rating Allowed||145.4||116.7||98.4|
|Pro Football Focus|
As you can see, his first five games of the season needed work. However, he's improved tremendously in the past three games and if he can continue to play this well, he'll be more than worth the contract he should be offered.
And yes, it took a benching to turn him back into the guy he was in 2012. But sometimes, that is all that's needed. McClain is worth a roster spot and shouldn't cost a ton. In fact, he should be very cheap as he is a restricted free agent coming into the 2014 offseason.
Restricted free agency is unique because the Falcons could receive compensation if McClain signs elsewhere. The restricted free agent tenders were at the following levels last season:
First-round tender: $2.879 million
Second-round tender: $2.023 million
Original round tender: $1.323 million
Right of first refusal tender: $1.323 million
With a possible situation where someone is more than willing to give up a seventh-round pick for McClain, Atlanta should look into the second-round option. The tender value right around $2.1 million is more than worth it for a talented cornerback.
If the Falcons cut Asante Samuel, they would gain $5.25 million in cap space as well. So the net gain between keeping McClain and letting go of Samuel would be $3.15 million. They would just have to bring in a cornerback either through the draft or free agency for depth on top of re-signing McClain.
Honestly, McClain should get a longer contract offer than that. Something along the lines of a three-year, $6 million deal makes a ton of sense. He should honestly see a structure similar to this that's a year longer:
|Projected Contract Structure|
|Year||Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Total Cap Hit|
|No deals similar|
Total projected contract: 4 years, $8.75 million Total, $2.0 million guaranteed in the form of a signing bonus
DT Corey Peters
Corey Peters has been a top-notch defensive tackle for the Falcons over the past four seasons. After getting drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft as a surprise to many analysts, he turned out to be the anchor in the middle the Falcons needed.
Now, as one of three unrestricted free agents at defensive tackle along with Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, he's should be Falcons priority No. 1 to re-sign on the defense. His strength and versatility is key, but he's also extremely quick.
Last I checked, Bill Parcells knows a thing or two about defensive prospects. And the Falcons have been dead on with their defensive tackle selections under Thomas Dimitroff. Peters is the best example of this, though, as he has shown fringe Pro Bowl talent as the 1-technique.
At this point, the athletic 305-pound defensive tackle needs a bigger man next to him so that he can be the disruptor and not the guy taking double teams. By my count in film review, he has taken a double team on 67 percent of the snaps he's played.
That's insanity. And it's also rough on a player's productivity to always be forced into a double team. However, the talented Peters has turned this into a positive. He's still breaking through and creating penetration.
He has career highs in tackles (36) and sacks (3.0), and it's just 12 games into the season. On top of that, he's improving on his overall quarterback disruptions. In 2012, he had just 12 disruptions (0 sacks, 0 hits, 12 hurries). As it sits currently, he's at 11 disruptions (3 sacks, 2 hits, 6 hurries).
If the Falcons could get someone next to Peters who can draw some double teams, they could wind up allowing Peters to finally have a breakout year as a pass rusher. And if they could get an end on the outside of him who's actually a decent pass rusher? Watch out.
That being said, Peters is the one current Falcons' defensive tackle Atlanta needs to make sure they go after. They should end up signing him for a reasonable salary. Since Peters and Babineaux have about the same value, the Falcons should base the contract off of Babineaux's expiring deal.
|Corey Peters' Projected Contract Structure|
|Year||Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Total Cap Hit|
|Projected Numbers Based on Babineaux Contracts|
Total projected contract: 4 years, $19.0 million Total, $6.0 million guaranteed in the form of a signing bonus
C Joe Hawley
Atlanta had horrible center play the first nine games of the 2013 season. In replacing Todd McClure, Atlanta tried using 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz, a 6'5", 315-pound Wisconsin product who has looked mediocre at best in the pros.
And it backfired.
Luckily, they had a backup plan in the form of Joe Hawley—their 2010 fourth-round pick who, at just 25 years old, is in his fourth season. After sitting behind or playing next to the fringe Pro Bowl talent of McClure for three seasons, Hawley should have been given more of a chance to start 2013 as the center.
Unlike Konz who looked clunky at center and had trouble with offensive line calls, Hawley has looked like a center who belongs in the middle of the Falcons offense. In fact, Hawley has looked like the Bill Walsh prototype for a center. The former 49ers' coaching legend detailed what he looks for in a center:
Ideal size: 6-2, 290
Many people believe that a shorter center is better. Again you must have girth, maybe less than the other linemen. Being shorter helps you do a great number of things in a very small area. A big body just becomes a hindrance. It's like a jockey weighing more than 150 pounds. You need a center who is so quick that he can move in between people. Shorter guys can do that better than taller, rangy guys.
Hawley is 6'3" and weighs 302 pounds. Considering Walsh wrote this back in 1997, it's safe to say that Hawley is the Walsh-sized center of a bigger, stronger group of linemen in today's NFL.
The center is typically the key man in making line calls. Those calls are vital and there is no way you can do without them. With the constant changes in defenses there has to be communication on your offensive line and obviously your center is the man to do it....
....So the center must have command of the offensive line blocking system and of the game plan and of the individual players defensively they are facing. He must be able to do all that.
This is where Konz truly struggled. He didn't understand opposing defenses enough to have the offensive line do their job properly. He wasn't able to call out blitzes or protections properly. Hawley, on the other hand, seems to be on the same page as Matt Ryan with the protections.
Centers don't often have to block one-on-one with the nose tackle, but if they can it is a great advantage. You typically slide a lineman or find a way to help the center. Or he finds a way to help someone else. Now if you have a center who can isolate one-on-one with a nose tackle, it takes tremendous pressure off your guards and everyone else.
This is where Hawley does struggle. He's not able to take on a nose tackle. However, he is excellent when it comes to helping the guards out and if the Falcons had a better right tackle than Jeremy Trueblood, Konz could develop with pass protection help from Hawley.
But at this point, Hawley has shown what I've seen from him for years. That he's the true prototype at the center position and needs to be the Falcons' long term center. And he brings something that has been missing on the offensive line the first nine games of the season: tenacity and intensity.
And because he's a leader, other players around him have started to pick up on it. Lamar Holmes and Justin Blalock, specifically, have started to fight past the whistle the past few games, and they weren't doing so earlier in the season.
“He plays with great energy, and I think that’s contagious,” Ryan said. “Guys on our offense have responded to that.
“I love it,” Ryan added with a smile. “I love guys like that, playing to the whistle and giving me everything they have, and Joe’s certainly a guy like that.”
So instead of the line being considered a bunch of punks, they will be nasty again. You have to keep the leader in the middle, and you have to keep the nastiness there. Hawley is ideal for the center position and needs to be the Falcons' long-time center.
As far as contracts go, Atlanta needs to offer him a 4-year deal and make him the franchise guy in the middle. As McClure and Hawley are comparable players, they should have comparable contracts. So, they should base it off of McClure's 5 year, $10 million contract signed near the end of the 2006 season.
|Joe Hawley's Projected Contract Structure|
|Year||Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Total Cap Hit|
|Projected Numbers Based on McClure contracts|
Total projected contract: 4 years, $8.5 million Total, $2.5 million guaranteed in the form of a signing bonus
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.