The Atlanta Falcons not only have the sixth-overall selection in the forthcoming draft, but they will sit $16.6 million under the cap preceding free agency, according to my colleague Scott Carasik. After by far the worst season under the current regime, you can bet your bottom dollar general manger Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank will have the Falcons active in free agency.
As presently constructed, Atlanta is a borderline playoff contender, but by jettisoning a few veterans it has a chance to create even more salary-cap relief—which could potentially drive the quality of acquisitions up a notch.
While most fans expect the gaping holes among the Falcons' roster to be filled through the draft, the free-agent market can be just as effective, if not more. The talent is plentiful, and the Falcons' resources are as well.
Let's take a look at the market as a whole and see which players would be an ideal fit.
The Falcons are already in possession of one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL in Matt Ryan. His leadership, poise and talent are virtually unparalleled at the position. At 28 years old, Falcons fans should reap the benefits of his talents for years to come.
Backup QB Dominique Davis is a developmental prospect who needs to have a great preseason to cement his spot on the roster. If Ryan were to ever go down, knock on wood, Davis would be handed the keys to a high-performance sports car.
As some of us have witnessed, those types of vehicles are dangerous when left in the hands of drivers who are green. If the Falcons' brass is uncomfortable with Davis, free agent Jimmy Clausen (Carolina Panthers) would be a more than viable replacement.
Clausen is a very talented player who would fit the offense perfectly. He has good arm strength and adequate accuracy. He can extend plays and has a very compact delivery. He was once the No. 1-ranked QB in high school (according to scout.com).
At just 26 years old, the Falcons would have a chance to further develop him for a possible trade in the future. And it doesn't hurt that he would have intimate knowledge of a division rival.
At running back, incumbent starter Steven Jackson will be 31 years old entering the 2014-15 season. For his career he has: 2,553 attempts, 10,681 yards and 62 touchdowns. His average per carry has gone down each of the last three seasons (4.4, 4.1, 3.5), and he's coming off a season where he missed four games due to injury.
Relying on Jackson to carry the load is borderline asinine.
Fellow backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling are both decent reserve players, but neither is explosive enough to be considered a franchise back. Most blame the Falcons' offensive line woes on the lack of production in the run game. Those that do should refer to the Arizona Cardinals (among others).
The Cardinals have long had one of the worst lines in the NFL. In fact, free agent back Rashard Mendenhall could only generate 3.2 yards per attempt for the entire season (217 carries). But somehow rookie Andre Ellington managed to generate 5.5 yards per carry on his 118 attempts.
The difference being that the dynamic Ellington often made something out of nothing. The Falcons don't have backs that can create their own opportunities and should seriously think about acquiring one in free agency or through the draft.
Running backs Ben Tate (Houston Texans) and Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh Steelers) would both add an explosive spark to Atlanta's backfield. Tate will be a highly sought after talent, while Dwyer may slide under the radar.
Both have the size to carry the load and both are used to being in a rotation. Pairing either up with Jackson would be worth its weight in gold. We must note that Dwyer has had weight issues in the past, similar to former Falcon Michael Turner.
As a native of Atlanta (and a former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket), Dwyer may be pushed to perform admirably in front of friends and family. If weight, or motivation, is not an issue many would love to see the hometown hero return.
The Falcons have one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at receiver. Roddy White and Julio Jones are more than talented enough to carry an offense. When you factor in that backup Harry Douglas is coming off a season where he caught 85 passes for 1,067 yards and two touchdowns, you can plainly see why many believe the Falcons have the very best receiving corps in the league.
In a season where Jones only played five games, due to a foot injury, the emergence of Douglas and fellow reserves Darius Johnson (22 catches for 210 yards) and Drew Davis (12 catches for 216 yards) was paramount.
If the Falcons were to look towards free agency for a receiver, they should look no further than their own roster.
Davis is an impending free agent along with fellow receiver Kevin Cone (6'2", 216 lbs)—who is a physical freak. Bringing back this corps as a whole should be high priority for the Falcons.
While it may be sacrilegious to suggest, even more so as he's my all-time favorite Falcon, Atlanta may need to think about seeing what it can get for White. A team like the New England Patriots would salivate at the thought of acquiring a prolific receiver of White's ilk.
White will be 33 years old next season and is coming off the first injury-plagued year of his career. Chances are he may be entering the part of his career where this will be the norm. A good GM will always get rid of a player one year too early opposed to one year too late.
The draft is filled with game-changing receivers that would fit with the youth movement the Falcons should embark on. Can you imagine White fetching the Falcons a player like Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State University?
The loss of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (retirement) leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field. Or does it? While Gonzalez generated first downs at an inordinate clip, it was at times to the detriment of Jones, White and Douglas.
Each has the talent to not only move the chains in the short-to-intermediate game, but all three can break tackles and generate explosive plays from the middle of the field. By replacing Gonzalez with a blocking tight end, it would allow for more time for Ryan to slice up defenses.
Tight end Levine Toilolo (6'8", 265 lbs) has the physical makeup to make a difference in the pass game. But he too is not much of a difference maker in pass protection. Michael Hoomanawanui of the New England Patriots is a superb blocker who can also perform admirably in the pass game.
Just imagine the difference he can make in the run game. If the Falcons can find balance on offense, a rapid turnaround is most certainly in the cards.
While fans salivate at the thought of grabbing the best tight end in the league in Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints), or even another athletic marvel like Fred Davis (Washington Redskins), doing so would pretty much be overkill for a team with an abundant amount of weapons.
The Falcons have more pressing needs than adding another expensive, glorified receiver.
The offensive line is the unit that should receive the most attention in free agency. For my money, the Falcons don't possess a difference maker among this unit. Guard Justin Blalock is the most solid of the group, with left tackle Sam Baker being the most notable (if that counts for anything).
With the addition of much heralded offensive line coach Mike Tice, there's a chance that the fiery coach brings out the best in this unit as presently constructed. But Falcons fans shouldn't hold their collective breaths.
The Falcons need one key free agent and possibly a draft pick as well. If Atlanta is looking for a player with a nasty disposition, similar to former linemen Todd McClure and Harvey Dahl, Oakland Raiders tackle Jared Veldheer fits the description.
Eugene Monroe of the Baltimore Ravens is the type of athlete Atlanta covets for some of its pull and trap schemes. Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack would immediately be the best player on the line and would bring stability to the center position.
With the money the Falcons gave incumbent left tackle Sam Baker, it's safe to say that he will be a part of the group. Adding in Monroe or Veldheer would allow the Falcons to think about moving Baker to the right side. Furthermore, they would be able to kick Lamar Holmes inside to guard where his athleticism would assist with traps and pulls.
It's safe to say that this unit will be a point of interest.
If the Falcons are to fully make the transition to a 3-4-based alignment, they will need a 0-technique that is able to both two-gap and penetrate on an as needed basis. Aubrayo Franklin (Indianapolis Colts) and Paul Soliai (Miami Dolphins) both have experience playing the position under Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
An under-the-radar player that could make a major difference is Ropati Pitoitua (44 tackles, four sacks) of the Tennessee Titans. At 6'8", 315 pounds, Pitoitua can both anchor and rush with the best of them. Considering Nolan likes to use the anchor tackle at the 1-technique, having a versatile player would seem ideal.
Pitoitua can play all three positions in an odd-front alignment and has a nasty temperament to boot.
The Falcons have two free agents of their own that they need to re-sign. Tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters are both scheduled to hit the open market.
Babineaux (42 tackles, one sack) has been one of the most consistent players on the Falcons for the past few years, while Peters (46 tackles, five sacks) came into his own last season. Unfortunately the latter is coming off a season-ending injury (Achilles) in the penultimate game of the season.
Both would work well with Pitoitua as they can play the 5-technique or 3-technique in sub packages. The Falcons also have a young gem in Jonathan Massaquoi (46 tackles, four sacks) who provides quality depth as well as being a situational pass-rusher.
The strength of Atlanta's defense is the linebacker corps. With the emergence of rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu the Falcons have already established a nice foundation for the future at the position. When you factor in that fellow backer Sean Weatherspoon is just 26 years old, you can plainly see how one could derive such a notion.
But if the Falcons were to acquire UCLA's outside linebacker Anthony Barr in the draft, it would take an already good group to potentially great. Barr would provide the QB pressure that the Falcons covet, and is a scheme-specific fit in an odd-front alignment.
If the Falcons were to go in another direction with the pick, there are other options in free agency that would suffice as well. Washington Redskins' hybrid linebacker Brian Orakpo (10 sacks) might be the most versatile edge-rusher in the NFL.
He's equally effective as a down lineman or rush linebacker. Considering he'll just be 28 years old when the season starts, the Falcons should take a long look at the veteran.
If they are looking for quality depth, New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Parys Haralson (3.5 sacks) would be perfect. Considering he was drafted by Nolan (San Francisco 49ers), his familiarity of the scheme would be undeniable.
Haralson is money against the run and can provide pressure as well. Furthermore, he is used to playing mostly on run downs. And as we know, the Falcons need all the help they can get against the run.
The Falcons are set for at least the next five seasons with the additions of rookie corners Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant. Both are ultra-athletic with superb ball skills.
But outside of the pair questions remain.
Nickel corner Robert McClain had a horrible season. He seemed to always be running behind receivers on their way in for a score. McClain's season is puzzling considering how promising he looked last season. The nickel position is extremely important as a great deal of the teams on the Falcons' schedule next season operate out of "11 personnel."
San Diego Chargers nickel back Richard Marshall would be an excellent addition to the roster. Both Alford and Trufant have experience at the nickel so adding in Marshall would allow either to slide inside on third downs (or when necessary).
The most coveted free agent will be former Falcon Brent Grimes (four interceptions, 16 passes defensed). It hurts just typing that sentence as Grimes should still be a part of this secondary. If the Falcons were able to bring him back into the fold, Alford could play the nickel exclusively giving the Falcons its most talented set of corners in recent memory.
Cutting incumbent starter Asante Samuel, which should be a foregone conclusion, would save the Falcons $4.5 million against the cap. Hopefully the Falcons' brass could convince Grimes to give them a hometown discount.
Let's all hold our collective breaths.
Free safety Thomas DeCoud has become a bit of a pariah for Falcons fans—as well as yours truly. With the Falcons transitioning to a more aggressive approach, the safeties are often forced to cover and create plays.
DeCoud can do neither.
His lack of hitting ability may only be superseded by his below-average coverage skills. To put it simply, he's a scheme misfit. If the Falcons were to sign Jairus Byrd, from the Buffalo Bills, they may be able to lay claim to having one of the best young secondaries in the league.
Byrd has the best ball skills in the league (at his position), and is extremely comfortable in man coverage. In fact, he was a corner at the University of Oregon. The Falcons could feel comfortable sending double-corners blitzes as Byrd would be just fine covering the vacated receiver or tight end.
Another converted corner that would make sense for the Falcons is Malcolm Jenkins of the New Orleans Saints. Jenkins is a versatile player with great physicality and ball skills. He just spent a season in one of the most aggressive defenses in the league—coordinated by the mercurial Rob Ryan.
He often defended slot receivers and tight ends exclusively in the Saints' multi-schemed attack. Jenkins (68 tackles, two interceptions, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles) is also one of the best blitzers in the league, which is something Nolan would undoubtedly take advantage of.
And you know Jenkins would be fired up to play against his old team as well...
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
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