Power Ranking Atlanta Falcons' 10 Best Moves of 2014 Offseason
The Atlanta Falcons had one of their most productive offseasons in years this year. The 10 best moves all ascribe to a philosophy of getting bigger, stronger and tougher on the lines while adding explosion at skill positions and on special teams.
New assistant general manager Scott Pioli came in to help current general manager Thomas Dimitroff assess where the real issues were. It started with some minor coaching changes along the offensive line and the defensive front seven focusing on instilling a gritty mentality.
It continued when the Falcons got rid of the non-performers and end-stage veterans who were overpaid for their production. They also signed quite a few veterans and retained their key cogs across the roster. As a cherry on top, they had what looks to be one of the best drafts they’ve had in years.
The combination of the draft and free agency bulked the Falcons up where they needed it most—the offensive and defensive line. The same lines that looked a bit out of sorts after six years of team-building. Hopefully, year seven proves to be the most productive of them all.
10. Bringing in Mike Tice and Bryan Cox to Replace Ray Hamilton and Pat Hill
The Falcons had some issues with toughness and grit along their 2013 defensive and offensive lines. They seemingly didn’t have the nastiness needed to be good at their jobs in the trenches. So, Atlanta had to make a change in coaching and in personnel.
Recognizing the coaching change was the toughest part. Former offensive line coach Pat Hill had been there just two seasons and the offensive line showed improvement with their technique, but he was too much teacher and not enough leader and needs to be in the college game.
Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton—the former defensive line coach—never had the defensive line playing with an edge unless John Abraham was there spreading his predatory attitude. Atlanta had to bring in the right two guys to toughen up the lines.
Bryan Cox is the new defensive line coach, and he hasn’t backed down from players in his entire career. Mike Tice is a known drill sergeant out there as an offensive line coach. However, both of these coaches know exactly how to toughen up their lines and should be great influences for the Falcons this year.
9. Getting Rid of Underperforming Veterans Samuel, Reynolds, DeCoud and Nicholas
The first thing a surgeon does when he goes to operate is make a cut. The first thing a GM needs to do to fix something is to make a cut. And in Atlanta's case, they had to make multiple cuts to make their cap situation copacetic to bringing in some more talent for their offensive and defensive lines.
It all started with the cuts of Stephen Nicholas and Asante Samuel. Nicholas is past his athletic prime and was more of an off-field leader than an on-field contributor. Samuel was starting to get burned more often than he was making plays on the field and wasn't worth the money anymore.
Garrett Reynolds and Thomas DeCoud were later cut so that the Falcons could have the cap room to improve their offensive and defensive lines as well. Reynolds was the weak link at right guard, and DeCoud missed way too many tackles during his Falcons career.
Add in a cut of Bradie Ewing because the Falcons couldn't deal with him continually getting injured anymore, and Atlanta cleared a lot of dead weight off the roster. A ship can't move with the anchor down and hopefully the Falcons have pulled up all of their anchors.
8. Bolstering Defensive Line Depth by Re-Signing Peters, Jerry and Babineaux
Sometimes, the best moves that can be made are ones where a team re-signs its best veteran free agents. Atlanta did just that this offseason by bringing back Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. All three of them will contribute to depth this year.
Babineaux re-signed for a three year, $9 million deal and should be the starting right defensive end this year. His role will essentially be to eat double teams and cause penetration in the run game while attacking the quarterback on passing downs.
Peters came back for a one year, $1.6 million deal with stipulations based on playing time and being on the active game roster. If his Achilles is fully healed, he could be the dark horse to break out. Soliai will be playing his old role as the nose tackle so Peters won’t see nearly as many doubles as he has been.
Jerry might be the odd man out if there is one of this group. He wasn’t impressive through his career despite being a first-round pick coming out. The Falcons could easily wind up dropping him if Peters shows he’s fully healthy.
7. Drafting Raw Defensive Lineman Ra'Shede Hageman
Ra’Shede Hageman was drafted by the Falcons at the top of the second round. While he likely won’t be the starter in 2014 due to the signings of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, as well as the re-signings of Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, he should prove to be viable in rotation at both end and tackle.
Hageman’s value comes more from his long-term potential than his up-front impact. He’s able to slot in anywhere from the 1-technique at nose tackle through the 6-technique at defensive end. He’s quick off the snap and generates a ton of power with his initial pop.
He’s also got long arms and a giant frame that will allow him to develop well on the outside as a defensive end long term. He compares favorably to Richard Seymour and gives the Falcons much more bulk up front than what they are used to—especially when combined with Soliai.
As a rookie, he should be given some looks in the nickel as a defensive tackle or defensive end in the 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 sets that Mike Nolan likes to run. It would be best for him to be brought along at a slower pace, but if he reaches his potential, he could be dominant.
6. Signing Tyson Jackson to Be the Starting Defensive End
On the surface, signing Tyson Jackson for five years and $25 million looks like it was overpaying for a mid-level run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end. And sadly, that is partially true. He is a run-stuffing 5-technique who was paid more than he should have been paid.
But he gives the Falcons two things that they didn’t have before. First, he’s a starting caliber end in either the 4-3 or the 3-4 and can play the 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-techniques effectively. On top of that, he does have some pass-rush ability to eat double teams in blitz situations and help collapse the pocket.
The most important thing he does is give the Falcons someone who can start while Corey Peters recovers from an injury and while Ra’Shede Hageman learns the position. He also gives Malliciah Goodman a legitimate mentor as a strong-side defensive end.
And when you look at his contract, it’s not like he’s that ridiculously overpaid for what his role is going to be. He has great value for coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense and should be able to align at both defensive end and defensive tackle depending on the situation and package on the field.
5. Re-Signing Starting Center Joe Hawley
Sometimes, the best moves made are the ones that involve keeping key free agents from your own team. Atlanta definitely did that with Joe Hawley. He’s a Todd McClure clone in that he isn’t the biggest, fastest or even strongest guy on the field.
However, he is the best fit for the Falcons at center because of his ability to call protections the same way McClure did for Matt Ryan. He needed better talent around him in 2013, as he got beat by some of the top defensive tackles he played against due to the poor guard play on his right.
In 2014, he should look much better with Jon Asamoah flanking him on one side and Justin Blalock on the other. Add in better offensive tackles than what he had late in 2013, and Hawley could lead a line that would be the best Atlanta has had since 2010.
He’s gritty, tough and isn’t afraid to sock someone in the chest if they comes after his quarterback. The Falcons have a good one here. The two-year deal they signed him to should turn into a long-term one should he prove himself to be a top-level starter this year.
4. Bringing in Devin Hester to Be the Primary Return Specialist
The biggest skill position move the Falcons made was to bring in Devin Hester as a return specialist and additional depth at wide receiver. Hester was a bit of a bust as a wide receiver when it came to his time in Chicago, as he was never able to show No. 1 receiver ability.
He was able to show slot abilities and enough outside abilities to play as a No. 4 in case someone else was in the slot. He has deep speed that few can touch and can turn a screen or a slant into a touchdown from anywhere on the field.
Hester also has the ability to provide a home run threat in the run game. He can run it out of the back field or even lined up out wide on reverses and create meaningful yardage with the ball. But his biggest contribution to the Falcons will be in the return game.
Hester has proven to be arguably the greatest return man of all time. He has 18 returns for touchdowns and has averaged 12.27 yards per return on punts and 24.79 yards per return on kicks. The additional field position he can provide could swing a few games for the Falcons this year.
3. Signing Paul Soliai to Be the Starting Nose Tackle
The best run defenses have a massive body in the middle. Atlanta should be no different in 2014 with multiple massive bodies. The biggest of them all is Paul Soliai, a former Miami Dolphin and Utah Ute who came to Atlanta this offseason on a six-year deal.
Soliai will provide that true two-gapping nose tackle the Falcons have needed for their 3-4 looks that Corey Peters wasn’t amazing at. He will also provide someone who can line up in the 1-technique in big defensive line sets where the Falcons have Peters, Soliai and either Ra'Shede Hageman or Jonathan Babineaux on the field.
The bigger alignments should also allow the Falcons to have some more exotic blitz schemes than what they have been showing during the first two seasons with Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. Soliai eats doubles on the inside and can give Atlanta’s linebackers more open lanes up the middle.
The fact that he’s already played under Nolan should make his transition from Miami to Atlanta a much easier one. This was a signing that should also provide some needed grit on the line. Soliai’s known as great person off the field but is extremely nasty on it.
2. Signing Jon Asamoah to Be a Key Cog on the Interior of the Offensive Line
Jon Asamoah would have been the Falcons' best acquisition of the offseason if it wasn’t for them taking Jake Matthews at the top of the draft. But more on that later. Atlanta’s biggest issues on its offensive line in 2013 came from a lack of talent at both tackle spots.
But an underlying issue was Garrett Reynolds' inability to play right guard effectively. Add in Peter Konz’s lack of strength and struggles with NFL protections, and it was obvious changes there needed to be made. The Falcons then played Joe Hawley at center, but Konz couldn’t perform well at right guard.
Then, Atlanta just gave up on the season and started playing Harland Gunn at right guard. When they finally brought in Asamoah, it was like Babe Ruth telegraphing his home run ball. Falcons needed a right guard in the worst way, and Asamoah is the best fit for Mike Tice’s offensive line schemes.
The combination of those two factors, and the former Chiefs guard taking an extremely reasonable—for his talent level—$25 million over five years is what made this move so obvious. With a good right guard, Matt Ryan should finally be able to step up into the pocket.
1. Drafting Jake Matthews to Be the Franchise Offensive Tackle
Atlanta's biggest issue in 2013 was the lack of a competent left tackle. Sam Baker coming back from injury should help solve that problem, but he hasn't been healthy in any odd numbered year. The Falcons made the wise choice in taking versatile Jake Matthews at six to solve this problem.
If Baker is healthy, and that's a big if, the Falcons have a good pairing at left and right tackle. If Baker goes down again this year, then Matthews can play on the left side and Lamar Holmes can play on the right side where he fits better than at left tackle.
Combine this move with re-signing Joe Hawley and signing Jon Asamoah, and the Falcons offensive line should be able to keep Matt Ryan upright during the 2014 season and beyond. A starting lineup including Matthews, Asamoah, Hawley, Justin Blalock and Baker should end up as one of the best lines since 2010.
Matthews isn't just a 2014 addition. He's a long-term addition for Ryan's long-term health. His forte is pass-blocking, but he wasn't used to protecting a stationary quarterback in the past. Ryan not being a frantic mess will only help Matthews develop into the franchise left tackle he looks to be.
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 and Rotoworld.
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.