Atlanta Falcons: Fact or Fiction with the Latest News Ahead of Free Agency
It's almost time to get down to the brass tacks of things, Atlanta Falcons fans. The NFL has been so caught up with college prospects lately that we've almost forgot that free agency precedes the draft.
For the 4-12 Falcons, who currently have $19,688,149 in cap space (according to OverTheCap.com), the opportunity to land free agents is plentiful.
When you take into consideration the Falcons still have a few veterans that can get the axe, you can plainly see how this period can go a long way in reshaping the plight of the team.
Armed with the front office triumvirate of Thomas Dimitroff (general manager), Scott Pioli (assistant GM) and Lionel Vital (director of player personnel), the Falcons have both the talent and experience in the personnel department to hit home runs on a consistent basis.
Let's take a look at players the Falcons are rumored to have interest in and the outlook prior to free agency.
The Jettisoning of Thomas DeCoud
The position that needs the most attention, outside of multiple positions along the line of scrimmage, is the free safety spot. Incumbent starter Thomas DeCoud was a complete train wreck last season as his duties evolved from a traditional safety to one that was asked to cover and make plays.
According to Rand Getlin of Yahoo! Sports, DeCoud is expected to be released by the fourth day of the league year. This puts the onus on the Falcons finding a safety in free agency, as the draft is purely a crapshoot at best in regard to filling needs.
When you factor in the Falcons will target a player in the trenches with their first-round pick, one would imagine that top-notch safeties Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville) would be long gone by the second round.
This makes cutting DeCoud a very risky move.
The Falcons will take their chances in finding a safety either in the draft or through free agency. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has flown under the radar with players like Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills), Louis Delmas (Detroit Lions), Clinton-Dix and Pryor receiving most of the attention.
Schematically speaking, Jenkins is the perfect fit for Atlanta's multi-faceted, blitz-oriented defense due to his time spent as a corner entering the league. DeCoud will go to a zone-based scheme and be a very formidable player in his own right.
Very Little Interest in Louis Delmas?
Many fans are clamoring for the Falcons to sign Delmas in DeCoud's stead. Delmas, 26, is a vicious hitter that would help set the tone for the defense. The thought of pairing him up with strong safety William Moore would undoubtedly send chills down most pass-catchers' spines.
The 5'11", 202-pound Delmas is not without his faults, though. He's very shaky in man coverage and has been known to whiff on tackles as he launches at targets opposed to applying the stick-and-wrap technique. But most of all his degenerative knee condition provides cause to pause.
According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Delmas' knee injury history is the primary reason why the Falcons haven't pulled the trigger on the ferocious safety. Regardless, Atlanta should at the very least do its due diligence and bring in Delmas for a visit.
Delmas' knee is too much for the Falcons to risk, as they need a long-term solution at the position. That's not to say that he won't have a long, fruitful career. It's to say that the risk outweighs the reward.
Atlanta will look elsewhere to fulfill is safety needs.
Michael Johnson the Answer at Edge-Rusher?
Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson may be the apple of the Falcons' eye in free agency. The 6'7", 270-pound athletic marvel most certainly looks the part of a dominant player. But his 5.3-sack average for his career suggests otherwise.
Despite only missing one game in his career, which is a positive, Johnson only has one season of double-digit sacks—the 11.5-sack performance he accomplished in 2012. Then he promptly followed that up with a measly 3.5 this past season.
Johnson possibly plays on the most talented line in the NFL—where he is the least productive threat. This means he has virtually gotten single coverage the majority of his career and has still generated average production at best.
If he came to Atlanta, he would be counted on to be the linchpin of one of the least productive lines in the NFL—where he would receive double-teams on an ongoing basis. Johnson usually loses the leverage game, as he plays too high (e.g. the picture in this slide). He's also a liability when run plays are designed to go to his side.
He has very little experience playing out in space as an outside linebacker, which is a duty edge-rushers perform on a regular basis in the Falcons' scheme. But Johnson starred, and I use that term loosely, at Georgia Tech and already has a groundswell of support for his return to the Peach State.
The Falcons have a chance to draft primary edge-rushers Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), Khalil Mack (University of Buffalo) or Anthony Barr (UCLA) in the forthcoming draft. Johnson ends up in Minnesota with his former Bengals coordinator Mike Zimmer who is now the head coach of the Vikings.
Brian Orakpo Still in Play?
Washington Redskins hybrid edge-rusher Brian Orakpo would be the perfect fit for Atlanta's scheme. Outside of Baltimore Ravens hybrid linebacker Elvis Dumervil, Orakpo may be the most versatile edge-rusher in the league, as he's equally effective as a hand-in-the-dirt end or a two-point stance rusher.
For those of you that believe just anyone can fill former star end John Abraham's shoes, take a long, hard look at the season incumbent starter Osi Umenyiora turned in. His robotic-like movements only produced 7.5 innocuous sacks.
The Falcons need an explosive player, and Orakpo, 6'4", 257 pounds, is most certainly that. He can play out in space, and he's very good against the run.
The Washington Post duo of Mike Jones and Mark Maske have reported that it's a close call on if the Redskins will get a deal done with Orakpo.
Versatile edge-rushers don't grow on trees. Expect Washington to try and work out a long-term deal with Orakpo. But ultimately he'll hit the market as Washington has too many holes to commit to the nearly $11.5 million franchise number Orakpo would require.
If the Falcons have a choice between Orakpo and Johnson, choosing the former could be the best move the franchise has made in free agency since landing running back Michael Turner from the San Diego Chargers.
Buffalo to Reverse Course on Byrd?
In a move that could possibly trump all others, Bills reporter Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 reported that the team was unlikely to sign Byrd before free agency hits. This could potentially change the landscape for teams targeting free safeties.
This development could hamper the process for a player like Delmas who is available to sign with any team prior to free agency, as he was released by his previous employer.
For what the Falcons are looking for at the free safety position, there's not a player that fits the scheme better than Byrd. He's a solid tackler, is good in man coverage and is the best ball hawk in the NFL.
If the Falcons feel they can address the pass rush in the draft, targeting Byrd should be very high on their list of priorities.
If Byrd does leave Buffalo, the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns may be the clubhouse leaders for his services. Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who was the offensive coordinator at the University of Oregon when Byrd attended the school, has a very good relationship with him, while Browns coach Mike Pettine was Byrd's coordinator last season in Buffalo.
But here's hoping the Falcons lands this stud.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin will now cover his hometown team in 2014-15. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.