Atlanta Falcons' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
Sure, the Atlanta Falcons have made an effort to improve their offensive and defensive lines in free agency. However, there are a few spots that they still need to focus on. Otherwise, they could be looking at yet another poor season.
They still have four major needs to address for the 2014 season. On top of that, they could always continue to build depth. Add in a restructure that’s vitally important, and the Falcons should have their priorities set to close out the offseason.
Bringing in a Starting Free Safety
After cutting Thomas DeCoud, the Falcons need to address their free safety situation. There aren’t many options out there that could start and be an adequate replacement for DeCoud. DeCoud himself is out there, but the other options that come close are Danieal Manning and Champ Bailey.
The Falcons could also look to the draft for their new starting free safety, but unless they want to spend their first-round pick on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, there aren’t many guys who can come right in and start. The best fits in Craig Loston and Deone Bucannon likely aren’t any more than third-round picks.
So, the best option at this point is Bailey. Should the Falcons bring in the longtime veteran, they will have to make sure their scheme is ready for him to take over at that spot. Much like Charles Woodson, Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott before him, Bailey should easily be able to make the switch from cornerback.
Getting Competition for Levine Toilolo at Tight End
Levine Toilolo looks like someone who could put up 40 catches, 400 yards and five or six touchdowns as a starter in the Falcons offense. However, the Falcons need to invest in some competition for the second-year pro.
Ideally, they get someone in the draft. Guys such as Jace Amaro, Troy Niklas and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be available for the Falcons’ second- or even third-round selection in May. All three of them would be competition for Toilolo as well as a competent second tight end in the offense.
Fortunately, the Falcons have a tight end need in an extremely deep tight end class. If they do wind up taking a tight end in the second or third round, it will be interesting to see how they decide to rotate him with Toilolo.
Getting a Developmental Backup for Left Tackle
The Falcons seem to be in love with Sam Baker’s play on the field when he is healthy. It’s why they gave him a contract extension well beyond his value. They have a solid reason for liking the average left tackle, as they have gone 11-5, 9-7, and 13-3 in the three seasons that he was fully healthy.
However, the Falcons need to make sure that they have his eventual replacement in house—especially if that eventual replacement can come right in and start with minimal drop-off. They will have to look to at least the mid-rounds of the draft to accomplish this.
Ja’Wuan James of Tennessee and Seantrel Henderson from Miami both look like guys who could be steals for the Falcons in the mid-rounds. James played starting right tackle all four years for the Vols but has the athleticism to play left. Henderson has some off-field problems but was once a top prospect out of high school.
Finding the Long-Term Answer for a 10-Sack Guy
Atlanta lost its premier pass-rusher when John Abraham was released following the 2012 season. Unfortunately, it failed in finding a suitable replacement for the 2013 season, as Osi Umenyiora proved to be nothing more than a role player and secondary pass-rusher.
Jonathan Massaquoi has shown promise, but the Falcons need to make an attempt to go out and get an athletic freak for their primary pass-rusher. Ideally, they will trade up for someone who is arguably the best pass-rusher in over a decade—South Carolina edge player Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney would be a great fit as both a 4-3 weak-side defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker for the Falcons. If they are unable to secure his services on draft night, they need to have a backup plan. This draft is extremely deep with pass-rushers, and finding one should be a cinch.
Signing Julio Jones to a Long-Term Extension
Julio Jones is arguably one of the top five wide receivers in the NFL, and his contract expires after the 2014 season. With over $50 million of projected cap space in 2015 and beyond, the Falcons should make sure that Jones is a Falcon for a long, long time.
In just three seasons with the Falcons, Jones has put up 2,737 yards and scored 20 touchdowns on 174 catches. He’s played just 34 games as well due to injuries in both his rookie and third years. The Falcons would be taking a gamble due to his health.
However, when someone is on pace for 131 catches, 1,856 yards and six touchdowns in his third year as a pro, it’s justifiable to pay him like he is Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. Atlanta needs to make sure Matt Ryan has his primary target for the long haul, and giving Jones an extension is the way to do it.
Adding More Depth Throughout the Roster
In looking over the Falcons roster, it’s safe to say Atlanta has players whom the coaching staff feels comfortable with as starters. While the fans may not be extremely cordial to the idea of an offensive line with Lamar Holmes and Sam Baker at tackle, the coaching staff might very well be.
On the edge, Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi may not strike fear into opposing quarterbacks’ hearts, but they will at least be competent starters. The Falcons do need to make sure they have reserves who can step in and be at least competent.
That was the major issue in 2013. They took a huge step toward that goal with the recent free-agent signings. However, this year’s draft should be focused on depth once the Falcons get out of the second round. There’s a plethora of talent this year, and the Falcons should benefit from it.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus’ premium stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro-day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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