Patrick Murphy-Racey for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Patrick Murphy-Racey for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Learning to Fly Again

There’s no quick fix, but the Falcons can position themselves as contenders by following this offseason blueprint

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

In 2011, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made the stunning decision to trade five picks in order to draft receiver Julio Jones.

For the first two seasons, it looked like the right move. Two years after the trade, the Falcons led the 49ers at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, 24-14, and looked to be headed to the Super Bowl. But San Francisco scored the game’s final 14 points, and the next season Atlanta succumbed to a rash of injuries and poor depth and finished 4-12.

With hindsight, the argument can be made that going all in for Jones was not the right move. Placing that emphasis on one player took away from other areas of the team, and that ended up costing the Falcons. Now, there doesn’t appear to be a quick fix.

This at least is certain: when free agency kicks off at 4 p.m. on Monday, Dimitroff is very much on the clock. This is an extremely pivotal moment for the franchise, and the moves he makes could determine if 2013 was the beginning of the end for this regime, or a needed lesson on the way to something greater.

Dimitroff seemed to acknowledge that when he hired two former general managers, Scott Pioli (Chiefs) and Billy Devaney (Rams), and long-time scout Russ Bolinger. “We really believe that with a young group of personnel people, who are really good researchers and budding evaluators, that we needed some experience on the personnel side,” Dimitroff said at the combine. “I think our young staff will benefit greatly.”

It’s all hands on deck in Flowery Branch at this juncture, and Dimitroff is going to need the help. Fixing the Falcons will be a massive undertaking.

For starters, Atlanta needs a massive amount of improvement on both sides of the line. Everyone, save left guard Justin Blalock, needs to improve his play, and the team doesn’t have a right guard at this time. On defense, starters Jonathan Babineaux (free agent) and Corey Peters (one-year contract after Achilles surgery in January) are question marks without much depth behind them. On either end of the line, Kory Biermann (Achilles surgery) and Osi Umenyiora (7.5 sacks; has reportedly been asked to take a pay cut) have been average.

To get better on offense and defense, the Falcons hired Mike Tice and Bryan Cox, respectively, to bring some toughness to the units.

Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

“We have some work to do to get ourselves back there, we understand that,” Dimitroff said. “There is an element of ruggedness that we know we need to ramp up to get it back to the next level and take it to another level. I want to be very clear about that.”

The Falcons also need a starting free safety, a bona fide pass rusher at the end/outside linebacker hybrid position (assuming Umenyiora isn’t the answer), a starting tight end after losing Tony Gonzalez to retirement, and a younger running back if Steven Jackson can’t stay healthy again.

The Falcons currently have around $26 million in cap space, with the ability to create a little more. They have all of their draft picks, and will likely pick up a few compensatory picks.

Expect the Falcons to be active in free agency right away. It will be interesting to see which position they address first. Do they go for a free safety, perhaps Jairus Byrd, or an edge pass rusher, perhaps Michael Bennett or Michael Johnson?

One possible avenue for the Falcons: go after Byrd with the big money, then Vikings free-agent end Everson Griffen as a less expensive edge rusher, and a cheaper tight end down the line like Garrett Graham from Houston.

In the draft, go for best available player at sixth overall if you can’t trade back (preferable) with an offensive tackle or edge rusher. Try to find a tight end in the second round, although those players usually have a rough transition in the league. Target a guard in the third round and a running back at some point. Finally, address depth concerns later in the draft.

The Falcons are in a tough spot right now, at least partly because of Dimitroff’s decision with the Jones trade. But there’s a way out, and the Falcons could be back into serious contention in no time at all if Dimitroff and his new consiglieri can execute their plan.

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. There are always a few surprising players who are allowed to test free agency by their clubs when they are still young, seem to be ascending, and when you’d figure an amicable contract could be worked out. That should serve as a red flag to the other teams. There’s something amiss if the team that knows them best isn’t comfortable committing long-term to the player. The two players in that category this offseason? Packers cornerback Sam Shields and Raiders end Lamarr Houston. Both played very well last season and have good film. Both teams have plenty of cap space to keep those players. Something’s up. Not sure about Houston, but I know the Packers have long had concerns about how Shields would react to big money. He didn’t exactly hit the ground running after he stopped celebrating the team’s Super Bowl title in 2010.

2. Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks isn’t far from joining that group. After a down season, you’d figure the Giants would find a way to retain him at a reasonable price. But they haven’t shown much interest. That would indicate that they have concerns, perhaps about motivation and work ethic. Yes, the draft is deep at receiver, but it’s hard for a rookie to make an impact at that position. Nicks is just 26 with the talent of a No. 1 wideout; he had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in ’10 and ’11. Somebody could get a steal.

3. Loved the move by the Browns to place the transition tag on center Alex Mack. That indicates the Browns fully intend to retain him, but they’re going to let the market tell them exactly how much a top center is worth in free agency without paying a penny over market value. The Browns have plenty of cap space to match any offer Mack might receive, which they’ll have to do because the transition tag offers no compensation should the Browns not match the offer.

4. The Patriots are in an interesting spot with nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He’s set to count $11.6 million against the cap, with $7.5 million coming in base salary. This was supposed to be the offseason when Wilfork got a modest extension to ensure that he finished his career with the team. But things took a different turn when the 32-year-old tore his Achilles last season. I would be surprised if the Patriots released Wilfork. I would also be surprised if they extended his contract without seeing him on the field. The prudent thing would be to wait on a decision. The final year of his contract buys them time, because the $7.5 million isn’t due until the season starts. Wilfork, a warrior for the Pats, deserves that time and not to be discarded just because some people want to play fantasy football with his cap space.

5. Good to see the NFL compromise with Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner. It was never fair for the NFL to classify Browner as a Stage 3 offender of the substance abuse policy because he didn’t submit to urine tests for four years while playing in the CFL. Four games, instead of a one-year suspension, was the right move.

mmqb-end-slug-square

More from The MMQB
TAGS:
22 comments
GTT
GTT

Also, how many games has Julio Jones played compared to how many he's missed to injury? The TE they drafted last year might be ready to step into Gonzalez's spot.

DWJ08
DWJ08

Not gonna happen. According to Seahawks fans, Seattle will win the next four Super Bowls. 

Braktooth
Braktooth

Why is Browner's suspension "the right move"? The league had zero right to test him. How is his getting suspended for any amount of time right? It would be like suspending someone working for IBM for refusing a test.

Scramble
Scramble

The Ravens made the playoffs five straight years without a #1 reciever, even though they had to contend with the Steelers who the NFL wants in the playoffs because they make tens of millions on merchandise sales. Swap those two teams and the Ravens could have been in the super bowl five straight years and the Falcons never make the playoffs once. It's about building a whole team to carry your weaknesses. We have a head coach who probably shouldn't be one.

dsp
dsp

When the Falcons made that trade they thought they were one player away from contending for the league title and considering they did make the playoffs the next 2 years maybe they were right.  However,  anytime you start trading future draft picks, especially #1's, for 1 player you open yourself up to a whole lot of problems down the road by being forced to over pay for bad free agents and make "bandaid" trades and that is what happened to the Falcons.   The same thing can be said for the Redskins with the Robert Griffin deal too since they took 3 or 4 steps backwards last year.  


But on the flipside that's look at the team the Falcons made they trade with the Browns.  All those picks didn't help them out now did it so why not right an article on how the Browns wasted away so many picks.    

dannyosullivan1984
dannyosullivan1984

Never understand why articles say we gave up 5 picks? We traded our number one with Cleveland's number one so that's one minus one equals let me think zero. We then gave our second and fourth that year so that's one plus one equals two! Then we gave up the following years first and fourth so that is one plus one equals two. If we add both years two plus two equals four!

WhitegwgOut
WhitegwgOut

But where would Atlanta be if they took one of receivers who both bombed in SF and KC instead of getting Julio with their first rounder that year?

part1776
part1776

Disagree with the article's premise and I'm not a Falcon's fan.  Kory Biermann?  Huh? 

Richard40
Richard40

It's easy to bash the Falcons after this season's disappointment, but consider that the two previous seasons, Atlanta was one of the best teams in the NFL.


The trade was a good move, not a mistake.

jdbolick
jdbolick

This is one of the dumbest things I've read in a while, which is actually saying a lot given the unbelievably poor state of sports commentary.  Julio Jones has been an overwhelming success and established himself as one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL, but the trade "was not the right move"?  I'm guessing that Bedard must have been one of the analysts who insisted at the time that it was a terrible decision and now wants to pretend he was correct instead of clearly wrong. 

The Jones trade made the Falcons significantly BETTER, not worse.  At least bother to look at the players taken with or just after the picks Atlanta traded away and tell me if you see any who, when combined, have come even close to Jones' impact.  The organization's problems stem from the rest of Dimitroff's moves.

Redskins
Redskins

Wow, Bedard must be a former, successful GM who built or rebuilt a team and led them to success. Oh wait...!

Buck2185
Buck2185

Learning to fly again - All the Falcons need to do is consult Richard Sherman, get some adderall, and they will be flying in no time......

DamienW
DamienW

Hakeem Nicks had ZERO touchdowns last year.  He had 3 the season before. He hasn't scored one since December 2012.

He's done.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

I think with all the money in the NFL, the rising cap etc... they need to pay the cheerleaders more and have more of them!

bingelistening
bingelistening

I'm not sure the Julio deal was a failure so much as the drafting otherwise has been. In the three years they've had him, they've made the playoffs twice, including a conference title game, and had one abysmal year (last) where he only played five games (in which they were 1-4). It seems like the whole grading scale here is "have they won a Super Bowl or not?" which is pretty clearly an imperfect mechanism to judge a single transaction.


Obviously, they have terrible depth. But look at the balance of their 2011 draft class (the year they took Julio) and their classes in 2012 and 2013. They've gotten very little from the players they picked. They addressed the offensive line in 2012 to no avail. They went heavy on defense last year and it didn't provide much immediate return. Given that, I'm not entirely sure why the expectation is "if they'd had five picks instead of Julio, they'd be stacked with depth" when pretty much every pick aside from Julio has been a strikeout.

usameos6
usameos6

I also wonder if by letting Mack onto the open market, that the Browns might open themselves up to the type of "poison pill" contract that the Vikings gave to Steve Hutchinson - e.g. that "player is guaranteed to be the highest paid offensive lineman on team" - and since the Browns gave Joe Thomas a $42 million extension - they would have to be prepared to offer that kind of money to Mack.

SpencerForHire
SpencerForHire

I don't understand why Browner is getting 4 games at the start of the 2014 season. He already was suspended for more than 4 games at the end of the 2013 season (indefinite suspension). 

GTT
GTT

@dannyosullivan1984  True. Still they used two No. 1 picks on one guy who has been hurt almost as much as he has played.

JohnReid
JohnReid

@bingelistening  Agreed. The problem with Dimitroff is that he has not done a good job of drafting depth on the lines, yet getting Julio Jones was a no brainer. The last thing the Falcons need to worry about right now is getting a safety, as a great pass rush is paramount. I would go after Jon Asomaugh from KC as my guard, Bennett from Seattle to strengthen the pass rush, and use the draft to bring in Greg Robinson or Jake Mathews (if he's available) then go after a linebacker in round two. If Michael Sam is available in round 3, get him and build depth on that front seven. Get a TE or RB in round 4.

Mulva
Mulva

@usameos6 no, the new CBA specifically prohibits posion pills.

eddie767
eddie767

@SpencerForHire  That's what I was wondering,but no one has answered that question. Since, he was essential hurt on two fronts. His fa status and his drug status.

Email Us

Talkback@TheMMQB.com

Newsletter

Our Team