By Robert Weintraub
Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders. Today, it's the Atlanta Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons went from the cusp of a Super Bowl trip to the cusp of the first overall pick in roughly the time it takes for the paints to blend at Home Depot, where team owner Arthur Blank made his fortune. Injuries to key players, a lack of depth, and awful play on both lines were the main culprits in torpedoing the season. So the line of scrimmage, where most games are won and lost, needs to receive the primary offseason attention.
There are multiple pathways for improvement in Flowery Branch. The team is in a tricky spot, at the moment anyway, when it comes to the draft. The team could desperately use either defensive end Jadaveon Clowney or left tackle Jake Matthews, but with three quarterbacks projected for top-five status, that means the Falcons would have to trade up to grab either one. The best thing that could happen over the next few months is for Derek Carr to continue to impress scouts and vault into the top five as well, pushing one of the linemen down.
As it stands now, Tradin' Thomas Dimitroff would probably need to deal up once again. Since a lack of depth badly hurt the team this season, they are probably a bit gun-shy about dealing away yet more picks. But there should be plenty of cap space to play with in restocking the empty lines via free agency, so swapping a couple of day two picks, one this year and one next, to move up a spot or two and grab Clowney (if he's there) is possible. Making the Julio Jones-esque mega-move to get up to ensure Clowney is probably a non-starter.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other possibilities.
Problem: A dire lack of pass rush.
Solution: Devote cap space to the problem.
The Falcons ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' pass rush metric, Adjusted Sack Rate, and only the Jaguars had fewer actual sacks. They were also 32nd in the league in defending the pass overall, a direct result of giving opposing quarterbacks the pigskin equivalent of a chaise lounge and a cocktail while scanning the field for open receivers.
So obtaining some pass rushers is paramount. The Falcons would love to pry Greg Hardy out of Carolina, thus simultaneously weakening a division rival, but that is unlikely -- Carolina will move mountains to keep him. Instead, the Falcons should sign Cincinnati end Michael Johnson, who went to Georgia Tech and would probably love to return to the south. After playing 2013 under the franchise tag, the Bengals are likely to let him go.
Johnson's sacks were down after a big 2012, but was plenty impactful nonetheless. He would immediately anchor the right side, set the edge against the run, and swat down a half dozen passes with his long armspan. Look for Blank to show up at Johnson's door at 12:01 a.m. on March 11 with all the material needed to build Johnson his dream home in the Atlanta suburbs.
The defensive end market surprisingly crashed last offseason, so further help could come more cheaply. While it's hard to see Arthur Jones' price coming down as severely as, say, Michael Bennett did a year ago, the Falcons could get him for a relatively affordable salary. If not, someone like Brian Orakpo or Justin Tuck are guys for whom a change of scenery will be a blessing, and still have the ability to pursue the quarterback.
The Falcons will mine the draft for help as well. An intriguing later round prospect they should tab is Aaron Lynch, a prized recruit who left Notre Dame for South Florida after one season. Lynch had a good season on a bad Bulls team, and maintains the athleticism to perhaps become a pass rushing specialist, either standing up or from a stance.
The interior of the line was pretty bad as well, but only so much can be done in a single offseason. Re-signing Jonathan Babineaux, the only rock on the front for the last few seasons,won't get folks excited, but improving on the aging but still solid player is unlikely. If cat-quick tackle Ego Ferguson from LSU is available on the third day of the draft, however, the Falcons may well scoop him up.
Problem: The offensive line was offensive.
Solution: Draft Jake Matthews, for starters.
Matthews should immediately help lower the fearsome hit rate Matt Ryan has been subjected to in his career. Imagine the upgrade in Ryan's confidence when he has an elite tackle on the left side. If Sam Baker can ever stay on the field, he can flip to the right side, where he might well be better suited.
Should Matthews be gone already, the Falcons can stand pat and take Auburn's masher Greg Robinson, who some feel will be a better pro in the end than Matthews, though he's more of a running game force at this point.
Brandon Albert is the top left tackle available in free agency, but the money he would require, combined with what Baker is already making, is probably beyond what the Falcons can afford. One intriguing alternative is Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Collins, who stepped in in midseason and was excellent for the Bengals.
Meanwhile, the interior of the line was a disaster. Peter Konz was overmatched at center, moved to guard when Garrett Reynolds was benched there, and wasn't much better. The drafting on the line has been poor, which is why the Falcons will make multiple selections there. Atlanta desperately needs beef inside, so Baylor's Cyril Richardson or Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, who go 350 and 338 pounds, depending on whether they ate three steaks or only two for breakfast before weighing in, make perfect sense in round two. North Carolina's Russell Bodine could be a late-round target for further depth at guard. Florida State center Bryan Stork could also get a look as a mid-round selection.Many locals want the team to sign Cleveland's Alex Mack or Zach de la Puente of New Orleans as a plug-and-play center, but neither option is likely or affordable if the other moves are made.
There is one more move to make, one that may be too controversial for this franchise to pull the trigger on, but is necessary for the team to get tougher, as even Arthur Blank thinks is required (I believe the term the courtly owner used in reference to his team was "grow a pair").
The Falcons should sign disgraced guard Richie Incognito.
Since they parted company with Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, two similarly maladjusted ruffians who ply their trade in the trenches, the once potent Atlanta running game has wandered into a ditch. Incognito would provide a needed jolt of badassery and solid play at guard while the rookies learn the league.
Problem: Said running game in ditch.
Solution: Free Antone Smith!
Steven Jackson is still eager and runs hard, but the injuries that plagued his 2013 are only more likely to recur as he ages. The Falcons may as well cut him now and give more carries to the woefully underutilized Smith. Smith hung around the Falcs as a deep backup and special teamer until finally getting a crack last season, running it five times for an astounding 145 yards. That boosted his career carries, in a four-year career, to six. Sure, that's a microscopic sample size, he has a rep as a poor practice player, may not be able to consistently handle pass protection, and is smaller than your average lead back (he doesn't provide an obvious physical counterpoint to Jacquizz Rodgers).
But Smith was the number one back coming out of high school in 2005 for a reason. He has the potential to be one of those guys who slip through the cracks, only to bust out when at last given a real shot. Sure, the Falcs could sign a free agent like Tashard Choice, or even UGA legend Knowshon Moreno, but the better bet is to go with the guy on the roster with almost no tread on his tires. Give him 15 carries a game, and let the league wonder where he came from.
Problem: Safety Thomas DeCoud stinks.
Solution: Cut him.
DeCoud's lofty Pro Bowl status was always fluky, the result of a couple of right-place-at-the-right-time interceptions and playing alongside William Moore. DeCoud was awful last season, and the team needs the cap space, so sayonara. Cheaper free safety options abound on the open market, and versatile and hard-hitting Dion Bailey of USC would be an interesting mid-round pickup, allowing Mike Nolan to move him around in the hybrid scheme variants he likes to deploy.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.