Reassessing Atlanta Falcons' Offseason, Breaking Down What's Left to Address
The Atlanta Falcons have accomplished a lot this offseason, but they still have some things they need to address if they want to make it back to the playoffs. If they address these areas, they could be a Super Bowl contender again. Already, the Falcons have managed to accomplish some basic goals.
The first of which was re-signing all of their worthy unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agents. By bringing back Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson, Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, and Robert McClain, they invested in guys who are experienced in Atlanta’s schemes.
They also ensured that the starting point for free agency was where they left off in the 2013 season. They did get rid of some players who were past their prime, often injured or weren’t worth their contracts anymore— Asante Samuel, Thomas DeCoud, Stephen Nicholas, Garrett Reynolds and Bradie Ewing.
Oh, and Tony Gonzalez retired so that he could go be part of CBS’s announcing team.
The Falcons took their new-found cap money to fortify the interior of their offensive and defensive lines. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will eat double-teams all day on defense.
And Jon Asamoah should be the first good right guard in Atlanta since Harvey Dahl left for St. Louis in 2011. They also added some explosiveness with the signing of Devin Hester. Add in Javier Arenas for some depth, and the Falcons are now much more talented than they have been in years.
Despite the Falcons already accomplishing a lot this offseason, there is still a lot left to do. They need to establish who the starting free safety is going to be. They need to bring in someone to compete with Levine Toilolo for starting tight end.
They need to bring in a violent edge-rusher, someone who will allow the Falcons defense to be more versatile in scheme than it already is. They need to bring in some competition and depth at offensive tackle.
Not just that, they need to bring in depth for the entire team.
Find a Starting Free Safety
After releasing Thomas DeCoud, the Falcons need someone who can be a playmaking centerfielder in their defensive scheme at free safety. They also need someone who isn’t afraid to come down in the run game and tackle somebody.
DeCoud had issues trying to do either in 2013. Atlanta has already agreed to terms with Rafael Bush about coming in and being a competitor for the starting job. However, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that the New Orleans Saints earlier matched the contract offer the Falcons made, per a league source.
Even if Bush does wind up as a Falcon after a trade with the Saints, they need to get someone to compete with him for the starting job in the draft. They could even take Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama in the first round should they decide to trade down to around No. 10 or 11 overall
That or they could wait until the mid-rounds when options for developmental guys will be plentiful. Deone Bucannon from Washington State, Terrance Brooks from Florida State and Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech are just three such prospects—though Fuller, who was primarily a corner in college, would have to learn a new position.
If they do wind up bringing in any of these guys, an open competition would be the best move. For all anyone knows, Kemal Ishmael or Zeke Motta could wind up surprising and turning into solid NFL starters at the position. A good starting free safety is still definitely a need at this point.
Get Competition for Levine Toilolo at Tight End
Levine Toilolo is a very solid option as a starting tight end in Atlanta’s offense next year. He’s 6’8" and has the length to be a great red-zone target. He’s a solid blocker with average hands who can box out defenders effectively.
However, even if he has a breakout year and looks like the next Tony Gonzalez in 2014, it would be unrealistic to expect him to haul in 80 or more catches for 800-plus yards and eight or more touchdowns. So the Falcons need to make sure they have good competition and depth at the position.
Currently, the Falcons have just Mickey Shuler, Adam Nissley and Andrew Szczerba on the roster to compete with Toilolo. Nissley and Szczerba were nothing more than practice-squad players throughout their two-year stint with the Falcons. Shuler is a journeyman with potential but is unlikely to break out.
So that means the Falcons need to bring in two tight ends this offseason. Former Green Bay Packer Jermichael Finley is out there and would be a great addition to the offense. But he suffered neck and head injuries over the past couple of seasons and will need to fully recover first.
That means the draft is the best way to go for bolstering the tight end spot. And 2014 happens to be one of the deepest tight end drafts in years. Atlanta might consider bringing in two guys with contrasting styles: They could go for an in-line guy like Arthur Lynch or C.J. Fiedorowicz or focus on picking a tight end prospect with the athleticism and receiving abilities to split wide. Texas Tech's Jace Amaro or Troy Niklas of Notre Dame might be early-round options to play that "joker" tight end position.
Bring in a Premiere, Versatile Edge Rusher
Atlanta has a couple solid pass-rushers on the roster right now. Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux both look like good fits at 4-3 weak-side defensive end and 3-4 weak-side linebacker.
But after them, there isn’t a single edge player with the potential to get 10 sacks in 2014.
Despite defensive coordinator Mike Nolan saying that he would rather see his team get 40 sacks by having 10 guys with four sacks as opposed to four guys with 10 sacks, a truly dominant premiere pass-rusher is needed in Atlanta’s defense for it to function at its top capacity.
There are two great fits in the 2014 NFL draft. Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack both would be guys who could get 10 or more sacks as a rookie. They would completely change the Falcons pass-rush situation from that of two average pass-rushers to one with those two average rushers elevated by an elite one.
An elite rusher frees up the rest of his defense to make plays even if he can’t make them himself. Clowney showed that in his 2011 and 2012 campaigns at South Carolina. Sure, he had a ton of tackles for loss and sacks himself, but Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram didn’t have to face nearly as many double-teams.
That’s because Clowney was drawing much of the attention from opposing offenses. The real question with guys like Clowney and Mack are how well they fit the non-base defenses. In other words, how well will Clowney do standing up and rushing? How well will Mack do with his hand in the dirt?
Bring in Competition at Offensive Tackle
Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes or Mike Johnson are almost 100 percent assured to be the starting offensive tackles when opening day rolls around if the Falcons don’t invest their top 10 pick in an offensive tackle like Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews.
While the Falcons could easily bring in a first-round tackle and have him start, it wouldn’t be shocking for the them to feel confident that Baker was only performing poorly last year because of an injury. They also might believe that Holmes's subpar performance was due to switching from right tackle to left after Mike Johnson dislocated his ankle early in the 2013 season.
So the real need could just be depth and competition—specifically at left tackle where Baker’s injury history and Holmes’ awful 2013 performance makes it seem like they need a legitimate backup.
This is where the middle rounds of the draft will truly come into play. James Hurst, Tiny Richardson and even Ja’Wuan James would be ideal options somewhere between the third and fifth rounds of the draft, as Atlanta may view them as players with potential to develop into competent starters one day.
Then there’s the big name at tackle. Seantrel Henderson is someone whom the Falcons could feel is worthy of a late-round flyer. His natural talent level is right up there with Robinson or Matthews, but his motivation and injury backgroun are what will drop him in the draft.
Finish Getting Depth for the Rest of the Team
The Falcons weren’t terrible in 2013 because of a lack of talent. They were terrible in 2013, because they were unable to recover from injuries to Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann and Sam Baker.
Basically, the Falcons were horrible because they didn’t have any semblance of experienced depth on the roster. That will change a lot in 2014 because of the free agents they brought in or re-signed.
However, improving depth is what the draft is all about after the third round. They should be able to really address some needs there with seven picks on Day 3 of the draft. They need to focus on finding a backup quarterback, future running back and another receiver on offense.
On top of that, they should look for another cornerback, another weak-side linebacker and another safety on defense.
If, starting in Round 3, the Falcons do decide to go with the "best player available" approach, they could end up with a massively improved roster.
All stats used are either from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN, CFBStats or the NFL. All combine and pro day info is courtesy NFL Draft Scout. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football, NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.