Learning to Fly Again

March 7, 2014 by Greg A. Bedard

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.

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