by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
Before the 2014 season started, the Atlanta Falcons were thought to have been the product of both bad luck and fixable issues in the previous season. They brought in heft on both sides of the line and depth in the running game. It seemed they were altering their defensive scheme to a 3-4, or at least a 3-4 hybrid, but still had second level problems. The seat of coach Mike Smith was starting to get warm.
A bad offense, a worse defense, and one 6-10 season later, Mike Smith is out. Now, the Falcons have to decide how to keep their rebuild going in the right direction.
Matt Ryan, T.J. Yates (UFA), Sean Renfree
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan has been a top 5 QB in 2 of the past 3 years, including 2014. He seems to be fairly consistent (he had only 2 bad games) and is excellent when given time to throw. Many football fans have a perception of “Matty Ice” as someone who wilts under pressure (ironic, I suppose) and for the most part, that is the case. Good stats aside, Ryan is always going to seem second or third tier until he lifts his team up to his level like the elite QB’s. He has time, as he has a huge contract through 2018. Let’s see what a new coaching staff does for him.
Backup T.J. Yates (UFA) has a history of horrific performances and should not be re-signed. If anything were to happen to Ryan, the Falcons would be done. Third-string Sean Renfree is an inexperienced project, so finding a better veteran backup would be a good idea.
Steven Jackson, Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers (UFA), Antone Smith (UFA), FB Patrick DiMarco
The running game is composed of Steven Jackson and a bunch of guys that can catch the ball better than run it. Backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith are UFA’s, and it’s obvious from his production that Antone Smith should be re-signed as a backup if he chooses. Devonta Freeman should back up Jackson again, as he has done nothing to prove he’s the guy. With Jackson under contract one more year, Atlanta should see if their high hopes in Freeman are worth it, or someone else will have to be brought in.
Fullback Patrick DiMarco is an RFA and should be easy to re-sign. Unfortunately, he’s not an overpowering run blocker and isn’t very useful in the passing game.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
WR: Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Eric Weems (UFA), Devin Hester, Drew Davis (RFA)
TE: Levine Toilolo, Bear Pascoe (UFA), Kyle Miller
Julio Jones is really good, in his prime, and has one more year on his contract. If he can ward off injuries, he is always a treat to watch. Roddy White, on the other hand, has had two below-average years, is injured more and more, and is under-performing his salary. They’re stuck with him, though, so they hope he rekindles his abilities.
Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Eric Weems, and Drew Davis don’t scare anyone, although Douglas has had a few moments. The story is similar for the tight ends. Levine Toilolo had a terrible year in both run blocking and the passing game, and Bear Pascoe is there for his run blocking. Pascoe, a UFA, should be re-signed for that blocking, but the Falcons really need someone else for Matt Ryan.
L to R: Jake Matthews, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah, Sam Baker
Top Backups: Ryan Schraeder, Mike Johnson, Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz
Injuries are tough, but when your best run blocker is your tight end (Pascoe), the running game will suffer. It certainly did. 1st round pick Jake Matthews was rated dead last of NFL tackles taking at least 25% of their team’s snaps in 2014. One can assume he will get better, and he must. On the brighter side, although it’s only a 40 watt bulb and not a floodlight, are guards Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah. Each is an average run blocker, but an above average pass blocker that helps give Ryan some time. In addition, tackle Ryan Schraeder proved to be the team’s best pass blocker. The best part is that they’re all under contract. At center, with Joe Hawley’s return from IR, Peter Konz can go back to the backup spot and James Stone can be cut with no repercussions. He’s not that good in any aspect of blocking.
What to do with Sam Baker, on IR for most of the last two seasons? He was the LT…does he go back there, or do they leave Matthews at LT? I don’t know, but here’s the facts. Baker’s cap number is $7.3 million, but cutting him would mean $9.2 million in dead money and would cost, not save, $1.9 million in cap space as his bonus would get accelerated onto the 2015 cap. Cutting him makes no sense. The best idea would be to keep him. During the preseason, entrust him to the RT spot, leave Matthews at LT because he is the future, and keep Ryan Schraeder and Lamar Holmes in the mix. Put the best two tackles on the field.
It’s time to cut ties with perpetually injured T Mike Johnson and inconsistent Gabe Carimi. In addition, T Jonathan Scott can be re-signed for veteran depth, but it is not necessary. The problem with this group is that everyone is either in early development, injured, or both, so adding some veteran depth on the cheap might help.
DE: Kroy Biermann (UFA), Cliff Matthews (UFA), Osi Umenyiora (UFA), Tyson Jackson, Malliciah Goodman
DT: Paul Soliai, Corey Peters (UFA), Jonathan Babineaux
All that talk about a 3-4 defense couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did they generally keep the 4-3, but they opened in 5-2-4 or 5-3-3 defenses quite a bit toward the end of the season. Regardless, the Falcons defensive line is comprised of specialists. Those that can defend the run can’t generate a pass rush and vice versa. This requires various packages, and basically tells the offense what is coming.
Their 2nd-longest tenured lineman and best run defender, 29 year-old Kroy Biermann, is a UFA and should be re-signed in theory. Their 2nd-best run defender, DT Corey Peters is a UFA, as well. So is their 2nd-best pass rusher, Osi Umenyiora. While none of these guys are Pro Bowl quality, there isn’t much quality depth behind them. Re-sign them then, right? Well, you would figure they would want multi-year deals, especially Biermann, but their lack of upside makes this an area of need. Multi-year deals for average talent would not only create cap inflexibility, but also stonewall any acquired new prospects. Therefore, with average DE backups such as Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Massaquoi, and Ra’Shede Hageman already under contract, the Falcons should let Biermann and Umenyiora walk, draft a good pass rusher, and move on.
Peters, on the other hand, makes a good 3rd DT to team with Paul Soliai and their best pass rusher, Jonathan Babineaux. Nothing else needed there.
OLB: Prince Shembo, Joplu Bartu, Nathan Stupar (ERFA), Jacques Smith, Tyler Starr
ILB: Paul Worrilow, Sean Weatherspoon (UFA), Marquis Spruill
Atlanta’s 2014 LB plans were shot early with the injury to former 1st round pick Sean Weatherspoon. Now he is a free agent, and the Falcons have to determine whether its replacement LB, 2014 4th round pick Prince Shembo, is good enough to pair with Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu to make a decent second level set. Is he good enough? He has potential – he is a little above average against the run and a little below in pass coverage. That’s decent enough for a rookie. Is Weatherspoon worth re-signing? I think so. He didn’t have a great 2013 before his injury, but he has a history of being a decent pass rusher and defender, so if the team can leverage his IR time against him, he may be inexpensive.
Worrilow, however, was suspect. He was the worst on this defense both in pass coverage and run defense. He will only be 25 next year, but with one year left on his contract he better start proving himself. Strong side LB Bartu also has one year left and has not stood out as a complete player. None of the backups, other than the 3 snaps taken by Nathan Stupar in Week 3, got any playing time this season. Whether Weatherspoon (say that five times fast) is re-signed or not, it is time to upgrade at MLB and SLB in a hurry.
CB: Desmond Trufant, Robert McClain (UFA), Robert Alford, Javier Arenas (UFA), Josh Wilson (UFA)
S: William Moore, Dwight Lowery (UFA), Kemal Ishmael, Dezmen Southward, Charles Godfrey (UFA)
The list of ways Atlanta stops the pass is pretty short: Desmond Trufant. In addition, Trufant defends the run well enough. The remainder of the corners and safeties are below average or had bad years. Most of the guys from the decent 2012 defense are gone. Some, like CB Robert McClain and S Dwight Lowery, have proven at one point or another they can do it. There has been a disconnect between being able to do it and actually doing it, especially in McClain’s case.
In 2015, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th CB’s are free agents (McClain, Josh Wilson, and Javier Arenas), along with the starting free safety (Lowery). I’m not sure Lowery is much better than Kemal Ishmael, who started in place of William Moore during his injury. Without safeties Lowery and UFA Charles Godfrey, Atlanta still has Dezmen Southward, Sean Baker, and a host of other options. With or without Lowery, safety is set. At corner, McClain will just turn 27 for 2015 and could blossom. Wilson and Arenas are just bodies, between the 3 UFA CB’s, Atlanta should sign two (probably leave out Arenas) and use a mid-level pick on a CB.
Matt Bryant is the #1 field goal kicker in the league, according to PFF. While he’s not the overall #1 kicker because he doesn’t kick off, having such a good kicker is great until contract time, which it is. One of those “contract races” is upcoming, although it may not be afforded much attention because they’re kickers. Will Bryant make more than the 7 year, $22.5 million deal Dan Bailey signed last offseason? Will he be watching what Stephen Gostkowski receives as the other top quality free agent kicker? Low stakes poker, but interesting, nonetheless.
Punter Matt Bosher has been a top 5 punter each of the last two years, and he just signed an extension in September through 2019 for $2.5 million per year. Unbelievably, this annual amount only ranks 10th in the league for punters. Saints’ Thomas Morstead makes $3.6 million yearly, so Bosher is a relative bargain. Please excuse the physical reaction from discussing these elevated punter salaries.
Devin Hester still returns punts and kickoffs here. Although he only had TD this year on a punt return, he is still much more of a threat as a returner than a receiver. Long snapper Josh Harris is only slightly below average, but he’s signed for a while, so he’s probably the guy there.
Initial cap space: $23.4 million
Re-sign: A. Smith ($850K), DiMarco ($750K), Pascoe ($850K), Scott ($1 mil), Matthews ($745K), Peters ($2 mil), Stupar ($585K), Weatherspoon ($3 mil), McClain ($2 mil), J. Wilson ($1.2 mil), Bryant ($3.2 mil) – with a net $3.2 million needed to sign draftees, these are projected to leave approximately $8.8 million in cap space.
Let walk: Yates, J. Rodgers, D. Davis, Weems, M. Johnson, Carimi, Biermann, Umenyiora, Lowery, Godfrey, Arenas
Best cap cuts to clear up room, if desired: Steven Jackson ($3.8 mil), Harry Douglas ($3.5 mil), Devin Hester ($2 mil)
Biggest Team Needs: MLB/SLB, DE, WR, CB
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Other team analysis reports and depth charts can be found in the archive.