Posted on: October 30, 2011 2:35 pm
One of the rare weeks where I'm in Atlanta for the weekend, and naturally it's our bye week... Oh well. That makes it a pretty good time to take a look at this coming offseason.
The Falcons had it easy with free agency heading into the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as the team was loaded with young players locked under contract. But the pendulum swung the other way this season and will be full tilt this coming offseason.
John Abraham will be a free agent. So will Brent Grimes, since we only tendered him as a RFA this year. Ditto for Eric Weems. The team only resigned Jason Snelling for a one year deal. He's a free agent again this year too. Same story with linebacker Mike Peterson.
Tony Gonzalez is in the final year of his contract. So are Todd McClure and Chris Redman, plus Joe Zelenka (long snappers are people too). And so are the second and later rounders from the 2008 draft: Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann, and Harry Douglas.
And except for DE Ray Edwards, who inked a long term deal, all of our new Falcons are only signed for this season: Kelvin Hayden, James Sanders, Brett Romberg, Reggie Kelly, Kirk Chambers, Mike Cox.
That's 19 unrestricted free agents on the current 53-man roster. Yikes...
At quarterback, Matt Ryan is still here. But John Parker Wilson is already a free agent - all practice squad members are free agents who could be plucked at any time. It's not a good sign for his future that the team chose to expose him rather than keep him on the roster. And Redman will turn 35 before the start of training camp next year. He may still have another year or two left in the tank, but I wouldn't depend on it. So figure at least one new quarterback - and maybe two - in our future next year.
At running back, the Falcons are in reasonable shape for 2012 - mainly because serviceable running backs are so easy to come by, and because the backups are still so underused. (Michael Turner has 138 carries going into the bye. The other RB/FBs have a combined total of 24.) Antone Smith has yet to carry the ball this year at all. He's likely to be a fringe player once again next summer.
At tight end, Michael Palmer is an exclusive rights free agent. That means the team can simply renew his contract, which makes him the only tight end they have locked in at all. Gonzalez has said he feels like he can play a few more years. He has also said before that he'd like to end his career with the Chiefs, so there's no telling whether he'd resign with Atlanta. Practice squad players Marquez Branson (injured) and Tommy Gallarda are likely to be here for camp on futures contracts. But we'll probably need more - I wouldn't expect to see Kelly back for another season.
At wide receiver, I would guess that Douglas wouldn't be too difficult to resign. Roddy White and Julio Jones are both here long term, and Kerry Meier is still under contract and likely to be more involved in his second year back from ACL surgery. The interesting question is whether one of the prospects might challenge for a roster spot. The front office reversed course last season. Instead of going for big guys with good hands but who are slow as molasses, the team started looking at speedsters. D.J. Davis and Kevin Cone are both lightning quick, and they're both getting a chance to learn the offense on the practice squad.
(I'm thrilled to see the change - finally. Too bad they couldn't have gone that route back in 2009, when we really could have used a speedster. Our scouts had seen Johnny Knox at the Texas vs The Nation game - but after trading away Laurent Robinson, Dimitroff left Knox sitting on the draft board to take cornerback William Middleton instead.)
For all the fuss about how Atlanta's offensive line would supposedly be devastated by free agency this season, we turned out to be overloaded instead. McClure is getting banged up pretty hard this year, and it's the final year of his contract. Don't be surprised if Ol' Mud Duck hangs up the cleats. But except for fill-ins Romberg and Chambers, everyone else is under contract at least through 2012. (One caveat: Sam Baker may be on one of those option or voidable years.) And there's already extra depth in the pipeline, as both Andrew Jackson and Jose Valdez are still sitting on the practice squad.
Specifically at center, Romberg would be likely to resign. He came aboard this season as a street level free agent. He's mainly working as a backup guard right now, but he's a natural center and was here previously as the #2 behind McClure. He became expendable last year when the team drafted Joe Hawley. Now he'd be a pretty obvious choice to bring back as Hawley's backup.
At DE, we're in trouble. Both Abraham and Biermann will be free agents. Can we even afford to sign both? We'd need at least one of them returning to supplement the remaining trio of Edwards, Lawrence Sidbury, and Cliff Matthews - and Sidbury will be a free agent after next season. If we're going to stick with the current 4-3 scheme, the DE position will continue to need attention every year.
At DT, we're set. Vance Walker will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and if he's still here, Carlton Powell would be a restricted free agent after 2012. But the trio of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry won't be free agents until 2014.
At linebacker, resigning Lofton will be a priority. But otherwise, Peterson is the only free agent this year, and Spencer Adkins is the only one set to become a free agent next year.
At cornerback, the question is whether we'd be able to hang on to Grimes at all. He was hoping for a long term deal this year but only got a tender. He's coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and continuing to make highlight reel plays. If he hits the open market, somebody is bound to offer him the big bucks, as the Ravens did with Domonique Foxworth a few years back. Hayden will also be a free agent this offseason, and Chris Owens will be entering the final year of his contract. The team has already started preparing for 2012 by keeping undrafted rookie Darrin Walls on the roster, while Dominique Franks also continues to develop.
One potential scenario: Grimes bolts for the big bucks, but the team resigns Hayden. Even before the draft, that gives Atlanta a quintet of Dunta Robinson, Hayden, Owens, Franks and Walls. Throw in few futures contract or two - perhaps bringing Kamaal McIlwain in for another run at training camp - and the group as a whole would at least be no worse off than in 2009 and 2010.
At safety, Decoud and Sanders are both free agents. That leaves William Moore (who will be in the final year of his contract) and Shann Schillinger as the only safeties locked in. The team opted to expose Rafael Bush to the practice squad instead of Walls, and he has already been plucked away. Suaesi Tuimaunei is getting a chance to learn the system as the replacement for Bush on the practice squad. He's an intriguing possibility as a long term project, but he won't be ready for real action in 2012. At least one more safety will be a must.
Tags: Andrew Jackson, Atlanta, Brent Grimes, Brett Romberg, Chris Owens, Chris Redman, Curtis Lofton, Falcons, James Sanders, Jason Snelling, John Abraham, John Parker Wilson, Jose Valdez, Kelvin Hayden, Kroy Biermann, Michael Palmer, Sam Baker, Suaesi Tuimaunei, Thomas Decoud, Thomas Decoud, Todd McClure, Tony Gonzalez, William Moore, William Moore
Posted on: December 10, 2009 6:31 pm
If anyone missed the news, Chris Houston is OUT for this weekend against the Saints with a bad hamstring. Justin Peelle has a concu... er, "head injury". He hasn't officially been scratched yet, but that's likely to change with tomorrow's injury report. I've already scratched him from my projected lineup.
Jonathan Babineaux, Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Sam Baker and Will Svitek are all limited but practicing. If they hold up, they'll all be available. The question is how effective they'll all be. We've seen Baker get torched while trying to play hurt earlier this season, and Roddy wasn't particularly effective either the first couple of games after he got banged up. So while Jenkins might be in the lineup, it's questionable how effective he'll be.
Todd McClure returned to limited practice today. He's going to try to play this weekend if the medical staff will clear him. They probably will.
Harvey Dahl isn't doing quite so well. He has been resting his ankle and working with the trainers rather than practicing. He'll start with the training staff tomorrow before practice. If all goes well, he'll be listed as "questionable" on tomorrow's injury report and will be a game time decision.
Best guess... Baker and McClure play. Brett Romberg will be active but will NOT start for Dahl since McClure is also dicey. Quinn Ojinnaka likely starts at right guard. The backup tackle will be a game time decision between Svitek and Garrett Reynolds.
The best news of the week: Chris Owens is fully back in action. Unless something happens to him in practice tomorrow, he'll probably start this weekend. No word yet on who will start across from him, but it's not all that significant since the coaches are expected to once again rotate the remaining corners.
And of course the story all the media is covering: Michael Turner and Matt Ryan are both still being held out completely. The team hasn't announced that either of them will be scratched, and the official word from the coaching staff is that the team hopes they'll both be able to play. Unfortunately, the unofficial word is that the chances are less than 50/50 that either of them will see the field this weekend. It's possible, but they'll both have to make some significant progress in the next two days.
So we'll probably be up against the undefeated Saints without our starting quarterback or running back to go along with our patchwork defense. It's a good thing I'm not in Vegas like last weekend. I'd be tempted to put a chunk of money down AGAINST us this week - regardless of the spread.
Posted on: March 17, 2009 3:35 pm
I started to do a piece on how building/maintaining a roster during the offseason essentially boils down to a really big math problem. Each team has constraints in the form of limited cap space, a defined number of roster spots, practice squad spots, and draft picks. The GM's objective is to get the maximum benefit of the available resources in order to establish the best roster year after year.
To do this, you evaluate what you have and what resources are available, and you move in the direction that will give you the most benefit. Then you evaluate again, make the next move(s), etc.
Several GMs understand the concepts even though most do not define the problem in purely mathematical terms. Thomas Dimitroff and Rich McKay both fall into this category, and head coach Mike Smith is on board with the approach as well.
I'll skip the heavy-duty math and keep this as short as possible. The first step in "The Process" is to form a baseline. You define your potential roster using as few resources (cap space, draft picks) as possible. You fill in any holes with prospects (not draft picks - we're not there yet) or dirt cheap free agents.
Note that this isn't the actual roster. It's just the starting point. And you don't actually have to sign any cheap free agents yet - just knowing they're readily available is enough.
The key is that as soon as you can form a reasonably competent roster, the moves you make from that point forward can all be to improve the team rather than to plug holes. That's when you have the freedom to go in any direction you want in free agency and the draft, and when you can stockpile for the future rather than scramble to keep a roster together for today.
Here's our current potential roster:
Offensive line: Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, plus four of Quinn Ojinnaka, Brett Romberg, Nate Bennett, Renardo Foster, Alex Stepanovich, Will Svitek, Michael Butterworth, Ben Wilkerson. (The competition in camp will be extremely tight, so for now I just listed them all. Pick your favorite four and roll with it.)
Two at-large roster spots remain. Key in-house candidates include an extra offensive lineman, Eric Brock at safety, Simon Fraser at DE, Eric Weems and Chandler Williams at WR, or any of several DT or CB prospects.
Something I find very interesting: in general, this baseline is already better than our 2008 opening roster. Considering we haven't even hit the draft yet, that's encouraging. (With the team being so young, even the names that haven't changed are upgrades. For example, Matt Ryan has now started 17 games. Heading into 2008, he had started none. The extra experience will be a major factor for four of our starting offensive linemen, two of our WRs, and too many of our players on defense to name them all.)
One thing that continues to jump out at me is that we don't have a lot of holes to fill. We do have some, and they're certainly important, but there aren't a lot of them. That's a part of why we haven't signed as many no-name free agents as last year. Our baseline is already at a level where there isn't much point to bringing in another dozen or so guys off the street the way we did last season. They would have virtually no chance of beating out the guys we have in house. (And this year, we know it.)
It's also noteworthy that with fairly few roster spots that could be upgraded via the draft, the likelihood of trading away one or more of our draft picks increases. In the last two seasons we made deals to increase our total number of picks and ended up selecting 11 players in each draft. This year, we simply won't have room for another 11 prospects. The extra picks would end up being wasted. We're far more likely to go the other direction, either packaging picks to move up or trading picks out to future drafts. We'd get far more benefit from three really good prospects than our full complement of seven picks scattered throughout the draft.
Posted on: December 21, 2008 7:53 am
The classic meeting was of course the NFC Championship ten seasons ago, but the last time Atlanta played Minnesota was in week 1 of last season... the debut of Bobby Petrino as Falcon head coach.
Our alleged offensive genius had known for most of the summer that he'd be without a particular left-handed QB at least for the first four weeks of the season, yet Coach Booby never altered his protection schemes.
With a left-hander taking the snaps, the blind side would have been in the hands of Todd Weiner and Kynan Forney, two veterans with considerable pass blocking skills. But with a right handed QB, blind side protection fell upon a first game rookie at left guard and the oldest man on the roster at left tackle.
Minnesota had a field day, logging SIX sacks on the way to an easy win. (But don't get big heads, Viking fans. The Jaguars outdid you the very next week, racking up SEVEN sacks.)
But the overhaul of Atlanta's front line was well underway even then, and a lot of good young prospects got valuable playing experience during the horror show of 2007. It's paying off this season, as the Falcon O-line is deeper than it has been in decades and is evolving into an elite unit.
The left side now features a rookie and a second year player. The right side consists of a pair of undrafted 27-year olds that bounced around the league, went to NFL Europe and spent time on practice squads before getting their chance at full time starting positions in Atlanta this season. Center Todd McClure is the veteran presence that holds the unit together.
This no-name group had some communications issues early on, but they have steadily improved all season. They have allowed only 14 sacks all season, only 7 in the last 10 games, and only 2 in the last 6 games. They're also powering a rushing attack that is tied for the league lead in yardage.
All the media attention will be on that classic from a decade ago, but only Keith Brooking remains from that 1998 roster. It will be interesting to see how the others, especially those on the offensive line, fare when they return to the scene of that first-week disaster from last season.
Posted on: October 21, 2008 4:30 pm
(aka Where The Previews Went Wrong, part two...)
The emergence of the young players on the Falcon offensive line has been one of my favorite topics over the last two seasons. The overhaul of this unit has been two years in the making, and this young group has been the main beneficiary of the new coaching staff. Last year's staff had a rookie head coach in Petrino, a rookie offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, and a rookie offensive line coach in Mike Summers. None of them were up to NFL standards. But this year's coaching staff has a grizzled veteran for a line coach, an experienced offensive coordinator (who understands the concept of making adjustments, unlike last year's staff), and a no-nonsense but approachable head coach. In particular, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has been around a long time and knows what he's doing. He inherited a roster filled with young linemen, and he has done very well with their development.
The performance of this group might be a surprise to the national media (who don't pay much attention), but for those around Flowery Branch it really is no surprise at all. We've known for years that Tyson Clabo was a gem who was ready to be a true starter - at either guard or tackle. Add three-time All-American Sam Baker as a first round draft pick, a season of experience for 2007 rookie Justin Blalock, and valuable game experience for several other prospects, and it should have been pretty obvious that things were improving for this unit.
At least it was clear to us. Yet every offseason roundup and preview declared the Falcon line to be a hopeless bunch in need of a massive overhaul and one of the team's most critical weaknesses. That made no sense to me at all then, and obviously it doesn't ring true now.
Here's a news flash for anyone in the national media that still doesn't get it: the Falcons have even more young prospects. Quinn Ojinnaka played well at left tackle last season and can play any position on the line if needed. Renardo Foster, D'Anthony Batiste, and Pat McCoy are still works in progress, but any of them might figure into the team's plans for 2009 as well.
I've written quite a bit about the young players on the Falcon roster during training camps, minicamps, and the 2007 and 2008 seasons. A lot of those pieces are no longer available on the message board. The one below was one of my personal favorites because it didn't get a particularly favorable response at the time. The "general consensus" was that the line is horrible, so anyone who says otherwise must be wrong. (The odd thing about that: I don't remember seeing the so-called general consensus at minicamp or training camp.)
A few Falcon die-hards agreed, but most readers simply wondered what flavor of Kool-Aid you'd have to drink to think the line was remotely close to competent.
Of course, I didn't have it pegged completely either. Forney was released rather than traded. McClure bulked up a little more and had no trouble hanging on to his starting job. Foster is still out, though he'll be coming off the PUP list this week.
And I had figured that the team would return Clabo to guard rather than keep him at right tackle. Instead, backup tackle Harvey Dahl broke through by switching to guard and won the starting job working next to Clabo. (Dahl was one of three prospects the Falcons picked up from other teams after the injuries started piling up. He was taken from San Francisco's practice squad and did not appear for the Falcons at all until the season finale against Seattle.)
That one surprised everybody - even those of us serving up the Kool-Aid on a hillside in Flowery Branch...
Here's the piece from early April:
The pre-draft minicamp starts today. I'll go out on a limb and say that I believe the coaches will like what they see from the younger players we have on the offensive line.
The regulars here know that I like a lot of the prospects, but for the newer folks on this board, that might be a surprise. The popular opinion is that the Falcons have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.
It's easy to understand why from looking at last year's stats: 47 sacks allowed (2.94 per game, tied-25th in NFL, league average = 2.15), one sack allowed per 12.8 pass plays called (24th in NFL, league average = one sack per 16.46 pass plays), 95 rushing yards per game (26th), and 3.94 yards per carry (T-20th).
Yep, that's certainly a sub-par set of numbers. But take another look at the line on a game by game basis. And here's the important part: don't hold the poor performance of the original lineup that started the season against the up-and-coming kids who finished it.
The original starters were healthy and played the first five games. In those games, they averaged 3.6 sacks allowed per game - which would be the worst in NFL if extended over the full season, with 9.9% of all pass calls resulting in a sack (one per 10.1 pass plays called, also worst in the NFL).
Twice they had first and goal inside the one yard line and could not pound in a short yardage run for a score. The longest run during that stretch was a special teams play - 49 yards on a fake punt. The "real" offense averaged just 81.8 yards per game on the ground and 3.325 yards per carry - both of which would rank 30th in the NFL if extended over the full season.
So without a doubt, the line left a lot to be desired in the first five games under Petrino. And then the injuries started kicking in.
Over the next eight games, the younger players started getting some experience. With Gandy hurt, Renardo Foster got his first starts - until he too got hurt. Tyson Clabo had his first playing time at tackle as well (he played last year at guard). Rookie guard Justin Blalock added to his game total, and D'Anthony Batiste and Quinn Ojinnaka got to play the first games of their careers.
The youngsters certainly had their growing pains, but the results still beat the original starting lineup: in that span, the team allowed 3 sacks per game (compared to 3.6 for the first five games), 3.86 yards per carry (vs 3.69), and one sack allowed per 13.8 pass calls (vs one sack per 10.1 pass calls.)
And then came the watershed moment that proved to be the breakthrough for the line: Arkansas hired themselves a new head coach.
For the Falcon line, the difference was night vs day. The line (with Clabo and Ojinnaka at tackle, Batiste, Blalock and Forney splitting time at guard, and McClure at center) gave up just 1.67 sacks per game, with only 5.6% of the pass calls resulting in sacks. On the ground, the offense averaged 4.61 yards per rushing attempt. Compare those numbers to the league averages of 2.15 sacks per game, 6.1% of pass calls resulting in sacks, and 4.06 yards per carry.
It's a scary thought, but Clabo, Ojinnaka, Blalock, and Batiste ended up becoming a competent NFL offensive line. When the season began, Clabo was the only one in the group who had ever played a single NFL game - and even he had never played the tackle position.
The key here is not to panic. Web sites tend to claim the team is in dire need of a massive overhaul on the line. That assessment is a bit out of date, because the overhaul is nearly complete. Matt Lehr is already gone. Wayne Gandy is already gone. Kynan Forney is presumed to be in jeopardy heading into camp (a likely trade to a team that uses zone blocking). Todd McClure faces real competition for his job. And all those hopeless backups from 2005 and 2006 are long gone.
Yes, an upgrade or two would be nice, but at this point the Falcons could even stand pat on the line and be much improved over last year. In all seriousness, this unit really isn't bad. Petrino's offense with Gandy, Forney, McClure, and Blalock as a rookie was dreadful. But a potential lineup including Clabo, Stepanovich, Foster, Batiste, and the second-year Blalock is a completely different story - especially playing for coaches who have a clue.