The Senior Bowl might be the unofficial start to the NFL offseason, but it doesn’t get the feeling of real until teams start reshaping their rosters. The first of many moves by the Atlanta Falcons came Wednesday when cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas were released, shots that echoed like a starter's pistol announcing the coming overhaul of a roster that mustered just four wins during the 2013 season.
Releasing Samuel and Nicholas was both a financial move and a changing of the guard, so to speak.
Samuel started the season injured and made way permanently for rookie corner Robert Alford in Week 14 as the Falcons decided to demote the 11-year pro in lieu of developing the younger player. Samuel played just two snaps in Atlanta’s final four games of the season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Nicholas played in just 132 snaps on defense all season, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2012 he led the Falcons with 97 tackles, but his fall from grace began when his cover skills were exploited. The emergence of rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow sealed Nicholas’ fate.
According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the moves created an additional $6.5 million in salary cap space for Atlanta, $4.5 million for Samuel and $2 million for Nicholas. They also set the tone for the offseason: If you’re overpriced and under-productive, your job is in jeopardy.
Nicholas was definitely guilty of both. His lack of production made it unrealistic for Atlanta to continue signing his paycheck. And even though the Falcons had Alford to step into his place, Samuel's skills were diminished as well.
If Samuel and Nicholas are just the first of many cuts to come, who may be next?
Right guard Garrett Reynolds could be one of the next cap casualties for Atlanta. Even though there will likely be a monumental tear-down and reassembly project of the offensive line, Reynolds won’t be in the plan.
Reynolds started for the first 10 weeks of the season before being passed on the depth chart by Peter Konz, who lost his job at center but was good enough to take Reynolds’ spot. Reynolds logged in significant time over the next two weeks at right guard, but from Week 13 on he only played nine offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ditching Reynolds could save the Falcons a little more than his $1.29 base salary for 2014.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora is not only set to cost the Falcons $4.75 million against the cap in 2014, but he’s due a $1 million roster bonus. The Atlanta front office is going to have to make a difficult decision on Umenyiora.
On one hand, Umenyiora led the Falcons with 7.5 sacks last season. But even he was removed as a starter for the final three games of the season so the Atlanta coaching staff could evaluate younger talent. According to Pro Football Focus, he only played 34 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps in those three weeks.
While Umenyiora was counted on more in the final weeks than most Atlanta starters who were benched, his 2013 season was largely a disappointment in the one area he was asked to contribute the most: the pass rush. Using the Pass Rush Productivity metric from Pro Football Focus, Umenyiora ranked 31st in the league among 4-3 defensive ends. His 7.5 sacks, three hits and 29 quarterback hurries were sub-standard compared the NFL’s elite ends.
|Pass Rush Productivity: Osi Umenyiora vs. the best 4-3 DE's|
|Player||Pass Rush Productivity||Sacks||Hits||Hurries|
|Robert Quinn, Rams||15.3 (1st)||19||21||51|
|Cameron Wake, Dolphins||14.0 (2nd)||10||20||41|
|Michael Bennett, Seahawks||13.5 (3rd)||9||17||39|
|Greg Hardy, Panthers||12.1 (4th)||14||24||44|
|Charles Johnson, Panthers||11.6 (5th)||12||9||43|
|Jonathan Massaqoui, Falcons||8.1 (27th)||5||4||19|
|Osi Umenyiora, Falcons||7.5 (31st)||7||3||29|
|Pro Football Focus|
The Falcons might not want to pay $4.75 million to a guy who ranked so low as a pass-rush specialist and wasn’t even the most efficient pass-rusher on his team (Jonathan Massaquoi ranked 27th).
After safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud both made the 2012 Pro Bowl, neither followed up with a repeat 2013 performance. Moore and DeCoud ranked 36th and 49th, respectively, in pass coverage among NFL safeties, according to Pro Football Focus, and 60th and 55th, respectively, in tackling efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus.
Moore isn’t in jeopardy of losing his roster spot, but the Falcons will take a long look at DeCoud as a possible cut.
DeCoud will make $4.8 million from the Falcons in 2014 if he’s not released or his contract renegotiated. His base salary of $4.2 million in 2014 will be the 12th highest in the NFL. How can Atlanta fathom paying a salary that high for a guy who’s ranked near No. 50 in both coverage and tackling among safeties?
After watching his team go 4-12 in 2013, general manager Thomas Dimitroff knows changes have to come. To get back to the playoffs Atlanta is going to have to drastically alter its makeup on the field.
Alterations in the offseason could come in the form of as many as three to four new starters on offense (tight end and possibly two to three new offensive linemen) and as many as five to six new starters on defense (four, maybe five new starters among the front seven and one change at safety). For a team to make changes at 10 starting positions in the offseason, massive cuts need to happen.
Dimitroff has his work cut out for him, which may be why the team hired Scott Pioli as an assistant general manager last month. If any player on this Falcons roster isn’t performing up to snuff or is paid too much (in some cases, both), expect Atlanta to work on a way to live without that player or players.
An NFL team can’t move from 4-12 to the playoffs in one year without drastic change.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.