While the 2008 offseason may have been the most important in Atlanta Falcons franchise history in terms of preventing it from collapsing, the organization now has a formidable task at hand in keeping the team on the right path as we are now officially in the 2011 offseason.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff's player evaluation, contract negotiation and drafting skills will all be put to the test as he enters the most critical period of his time at the helm. When and if this team ever becomes a serious and consistent championship contender will largely be determined by what happens in the next few months.
There is obviously a ton of dissection and analysis to be done by the front office, coaching staff and us, the fans, in regards to free agency and the draft. For now, though, let's focus on the current Falcons whose contracts are up and specifically on whether or not one of those players should have the franchise tag placed on them.
For those unfamiliar with this area of player contracts, here is a brief explanation of it.
Each team has one franchise tag available to them. They are not required to use it, not every team exercises the option and the Falcons are not particularly enamored with slapping a player with the tag. The last time they did so was 2009 when they used it on punter Michael Koenen.
There are two types of franchise tags, termed "exclusive" and "non-exclusive." Any player who is tagged is required to receive a one-year contract of either the average of the top five salaries at his respective position, or 120 percent the value of his now-expired contract, whichever is the greater sum.
If a player is hit with the exclusive tag, he is locked into the contract and must spend the next season with his current team. At times, players do hold out when this happens, but they are unable to move to another team unless they are traded.
Teams will also use the franchise tag on a player they no longer want and then trade him. This is how John Abraham came to the Falcons.
The non-exclusive tag is the opposite. The contract terms are the same, but he is able to negotiate with other teams in an attempt to find a better deal. If another team offers said player a contract, his current team is allowed to match that offer before losing the player.
If they do not match the offer, they receive draft picks as compensation. This is similar to what happens with restricted free agents in the NBA.
If a player has a lackluster performance or gets injured during the year he is under the franchise tag contract, his bargaining power is significantly reduced from where it was when his contract first ran out.
This is why players are not exactly fond of being tagged, as it grants them no long-term security.
Most fans know by now that league and Player's Association are in the throes of a labor dispute as the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire in March. One major development that has happened, however, is that teams have been granted permission to place franchise tags on players even though a new deal is not yet in place.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let's consider the biggest soon-to-be free agents the Falcons have to work with.
Atlanta has four key players (those who saw significant playing time last year) on offense who are due to be free agents, with three of them coming from the offensive line.
Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo and Jason Snelling are all at the end of their contracts.
The main pieces on defense who are now set to hit the open market are linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas. Defensive back Brian Williams is another name, but, given his recent injury history, it seems unlikely that he'll be back.
So, the question is, which players do the Falcons let walk, which do they try to sign long-term and which, if any, do they franchise tag?
Continuity along the offensive line is extremely important in the NFL, especially with the blitz packages that are out there these days. Linemen must be able to trust that the guy next to them knows what he is doing and will be in the right spot when defenders are attacking from unknown locations on exotic blitzes designed to create confusion on the offensive front.
The three offensive line free agents have been together for a number of years and know how to play together. The Falcons would be best served to sign these players to longer contracts and allow the unit to stay intact.
Center Todd McClure is very close to the end of his career and the 2011-12 season could very well be his last. Placing a franchise tag on one this year, and potentially losing two offensive linemen next year, is not a desirable situation.
Atlanta has been said to very much like Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey and some mock drafts have him going to the Falcons in the first round. He's said to be ready to play at the pro level immediately, but perhaps the better choice, if they draft him, would be to allow him to spend a year on the bench, learn some things, then be injected into the starting lineup when McClure is done.
The Falcons could also let one of their guards (Dahl or Blalock) walk this year and have Pouncey fill in there. As said earlier, that would then create another hole next season with McClure's potential retirement. You are probably beginning to get the idea that those in charge of player personnel get paid the big bucks for a reason. These are not easy choices.
There's also Snelling on offense. Do they franchise him to see if he can duplicate the success he had in 2010? What if he has a great year and demands big money after that?
Michael Turner is a very good running back, but he appears to be wearing down. Snelling is also very good, and a combination of him and a speed back found in this year's draft could be the answer down the road.
The Falcons' best option is to sign Snelling to a reasonable medium- to long-term contract and see what happens. It's very possible, even likely, that the offense will start with Matt Ryan in the coming years.
Instead of using the running game to set up the passing game, the Falcons will probably begin to go the other way, with Ryan's passing opening up room for the running backs. I believe Snelling could thrive in such a scenario.
And now onto the defense.
Peterson has very little time left in the NFL. Nicholas is a young player who has shown the ability to produce at either outside linebacker spot. Keeping Nicholas long-term would be wise, as the linebacking core of him, Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon should become an imposing unit that is only going to get better.
Perhaps, then, if the Falcons do use their franchise tag this year, they should place it on Peterson.
Coach Mike Smith is very loyal to Peterson due to their time spent together in Jacksonville when Smith was the defensive coordinator. It would surely be tough on him to see the 12-year pro leave.
Peterson is still productive, though. His tackle numbers went down in 2010, but that is largely due to him switching from the left-to-right-outside linebacker spot after Weatherspoon was drafted.
In addition to his 59 tackles, Peterson had two interceptions, five passes defensed, one sack and one forced fumble. He is a veteran with leadership qualities who should be able to help Nicholas, Lofton and Weatherspoon grow before departing.
Given his age, a longer deal would make no sense whatsoever and the one-year deal the franchise tag offers would seem to be the best way to work it out with him.
It would lead to Peterson getting a good amount of dollars, but is it worth the risk of him possibly signing with another team by trying to negotiate a lesser deal? Are the other three 'backers ready to step up in his absence?
Atlanta's offensive linemen need to be given long-term deals for all the reasons mentioned above. Snelling has proven to be productive and talented enough to warrant a nice-sized contract and so has Nicholas.
If they cannot work out a smaller deal with him, Peterson should receive the franchise tag and then be allowed to either walk or retire after the 2011-12 season.
By that time the rest of the linebacking core would be ready to hold down the fort and the Falcons would be in the best position to continue their recent success.