Posted on: January 27, 2010 12:46 pm
The short version of the CBA talks = nothing's happening. At least nothing good. We're now 90% likely (and rising) to have 2010 as an uncapped year. (We're also starting to feel the possibility of a lockout/strike in 2011. It's getting ugly.)
But... if we assume that we will actually have NFL Football in 2011, the odds are that the new deal will restore the salary cap system regardless of which side "wins". This uncapped year is probably a one shot deal. That's something teams will have to consider when approaching this year's free agency market.
Now that the draft season is underway, the chatter regarding the Falcons usually centers around the cornerback and defensive end positions and the first round draft pick.
Those are fun discussions, but there are other areas occupying the minds of Atlanta's front office and coaching staff as well. They've already started on two of them at the staff level by replacing the secondary coach and sacking the head trainer.
We're now within five weeks of the start of free agency, so the real roster changes around the league will begin soon. With that in mind, here are five roster issues facing our Falcons that have NOT received much attention yet:
(1) Backup quarterback. Other positions are more popular topics of conversation, but for the next five weeks no spot on the roster is more important than the #2 QB.
Chris Redman is an unrestricted free agent. He had one rough outing but put in a respectable performance this season. He demonstrated that he's capable of stepping in at a moment's notice and running the offense effectively.
To put his 2009 performance in context, he finished the season with a higher QB rating (78.4) than many other better known backup and even starting quarterbacks - including Chad Pennington, Derek Anderson, Daunte Culpepper, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Jay Cutler, Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck, JaMarcus Russell, Kerry Collins, Todd Collins, and Charlie Frye.
In other words, he's a legit candidate for ANY team wanting a solid #2 - and he's a better option than many teams have as starters. If he decides to test the waters to learn his real market value rather than re-sign early, he WILL attract interest from around the league.
That leaves us with a big, big problem. John Parker Wilson and D.J. Shockley are our only backups under contract, and neither has played a single NFL game.
ALTERNATIVES: The Falcons would want a veteran presence. If Wilson or Shockley could somehow emerge and become the #2, that's fine - but the team would still want experience for the #3. Unfortunately, nothing out there jumps out as a better alternative than re-signing Redman. He already knows the offensive scheme. He's familiar with the receivers here. And he's proven that he CAN step in and run Mularkey's scheme. That might be an issue with any other potential #2 out there.
So, let's hope our front office decides to throw enough money at Redman to keep him from testing the open market.
(2) Punter. Michael Koenen is a gem. But he's also the second highest paid punter in the NFL (behind only Shane Lechler, who signed a multi-year deal last season to remain with the Raiders), and the Falcons have already used the franchise tag once to hang on to him. That's pretty scary when you consider he hasn't even hit true free agency yet.
The guy is fabulous. But the question is whether we can justify spending $2.7 million or more on a punter.
If so, now would be a GREAT time to lock him in with a long term deal, since the team could front-load the contract and avoid most of the cap hit in future seasons after the next CBA kicks in.
And if not, now is an equally good time to start looking at cheaper alternatives, so that the extra money could be used to sign guys at other positions. There are plenty of adequate punters out there that could be had for $500k or less.
ALTERNATIVES: punter is one of the few positions where you really don't mind going with a rookie. The playbook isn't particularly thick. There will be several undrafted free agents this April, and there are still plenty of candidates from last year floating around.
But just for giggles, allow me to be the first to tell you about a certain 32-year old rookie free agent who is available right now. His name is Anthony Rocca.
Sound familiar? His brother (Saverio Rocca) is currently the punter for the Eagles. And like his older brother Sav, Anthony Rocca has made his career up to now playing Aussie Rules.
I've been wondering for years if this guy would hang up the boots and come to the U.S. He has by far the strongest leg of any of the Australian players that have made the switch. And when the AFL season wrapped up in September, he finally did announce his retirement - and has reportedly been training in American football since then, intending to follow Sav to the NFL.
He'll make a GREAT punter for somebody. Sav Rocca and Ben Graham are both doing fairly well, and he's got a much, much better leg than either of them.
(3) Offensive line depth. I have not heard this first-hand from the Nasty Boys themselves, but I'm told that Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl aren't thrilled with this year-by-year tender stuff. It's not the money that's rubbing them the wrong way. It's the uncertainty over whether they're really part of the team's plans for 2011 and beyond. RFA tender offers are only one year contracts.
And consider the rest of the unit, which featured just nine total players on the main roster. Key backup Quinn Ojinnaka is another "limbo" restricted free agent likely to be tendered this season. Justin Blalock, Will Svitek and Brett Romberg all have contracts that expire after 2010. Todd McClure isn't getting any younger.
So if the Falcons tender the three RFAs now, we could be facing a nearly complete turnover of our line - including the backups - after the end of the 2010 season. While it's not an immediate crisis, it's a serious issue that the team should start to handle immediately.
Are the Nasty Boys the long term future of our right side? If so, sign them to long term deals and get it out of the way.
ALTERNATIVES: if our coaching staff views The Village Idiots (Boudreau's nickname for Atlanta's line) as merely stop-gap measures until better players can take over, the tender thing really is the way to go for now. It would work, but the O-line would have to be a serious draft priority, with at least one early round and one late round prospect joining the fold.
I suspect our braintrust is happy with Clabo/Dahl and that at some point this year we'll hear about efforts to lock them in long term. And personally, I'd still like to see how they'd do if they switched places, using Clabo's size at guard and Dahl's agility at tackle.
(4) Life without Babs? The 2009 Falcons were much improved at DT in spite of losing Peria Jerry after only two weeks. Thomas Johnson became the team's Out Of Nowhere man, beginning the year as a futures contract prospect and finishing it as a starter. Vance Walker improved throughout camp, earned a promotion from the practice squad to the regular roster, and ended up performing well with significant playing time. Trey Lewis wasn't in top form, but he worked his way back into action after a pair of major knee reconstruction surgeries.
But the clear star of the Falcons defensive line this season was Jonathan Babineaux. Babs was banged up for much of the season yet started every game, notched 47 total tackles (second among the d-linemen in spite of the bad shoulder), and led the team with 6 sacks.
There's just one catch... he's now facing a felony possession charge. Depending on the outcome of his legal case, the team may be without him for at least half the season. Even if he's acquitted, he's likely to face at least a four game suspension under the league's controlled substance policy.
If the team is planning on releasing him, they haven't given any indication of yet. Quite the contrary - Dimitroff's comments in one press session suggest that Babs has a future here in Atlanta. All the same, the Falcons will have to make preparations now for a potential lengthy suspension.
Everyone else in the DT group has question marks too. Was Johnson a one-year flash that has already reached his maximum potential? Will Peria Jerry be able to return to form after his injury? And after getting hurt three times last summer, can he stay healthy for a season? Is Walker ready for starting duty? Will Lewis step up and play like the beast he was before his 2007 injury?
ALTERNATIVES: the best bet is probably to stand pat and simply rearrange the roles of various players if needed. The Falcons play a three man rotation at DT. They have four candidates in hand, not counting the DEs taking reps in the middle on passing downs. So while Babs would be a noticeable loss, there are at least enough bodies available to continue without him. They aren't stars, but they're at least competent when healthy.
And the remaining DTs have enough versatility that any two could be paired together. Peria Jerry was the starting NT, but he really has the build and skill set of a three-technique under tackle. Trey Lewis clearly has the NT build, but he also filled in at UT when Rod Coleman was out early in the 2007 season. Thomas Johnson can fill in at either DT position. Vance Walker hasn't been asked to play NT yet, but he probably could if needed.
Scary thought: If Trey Lewis steps up this year and Peria Jerry is fully recovered by the start of the season (both Smitty and Dimitroff have said they expect him back), they might play some in tandem - giving us the Jerry-Lewis DT line. (Insert rim shot here.)
If so... Lewis would command a double-team. So would Jerry. That would make it difficult to contain John Abraham and Kroy Biermann on the ends, and it would make blitzing a lot easier for the linebackers or the nickel corner.
In other words, keep your fingers crossed that they're both at full speed in training camp. They could make our pass rush surprisingly effective next season. Lewis really was a monster early in his rookie year, and we saw what a difference having Jerry in the middle made for Abe and Biermann in the season opener.
(5) WE NEED A KICKER. We can talk about the inexperienced cornerbacks and the lack of pass rush all day long. But we all know that the failures in the kicking game cost us a few wins and made the difference in the Falcons not making the playoffs.
No other single position on the roster needs to be addressed this offseason more than place kicker. It isn't necessarily hard to address or expensive in terms of contract or draft picks.
But the Falcons have no area of need that is more important. They MUST solve this problem.
Smitty noted in the postseason press conference that when the team signed Matt Bryant and Steven Hauschka, both were signed for 2010 as well as the remainder of 2009. Well gosh, that's great. Between the two of them we'll certainly have our kicker, right?
Bryant has only made 16 of 26 field goals from 40-49 yards over the last four seasons. He went 0 for 2 from that range after replacing Jason Elam. Oh, and he'll turn 35 in May.
The Ravens let Hauschka go in midseason when his accuracy proved to be only marginally better than that of Elam. With two half-seasons (eight games last year, nine this year) of experience, he's an unproven commodity and is off to a really shaky start.
He might come through with more experience. After all, Matt Prater turned out okay - which is why the Broncos let Elam slip away to us in the first place. Hauschka has a strong leg and would be able to handle kickoff duty as well as field goal attempts. The question is whether the 2010 Falcons should be the team that serves as his proving grounds.
Since they're both under contract, we might as well give them both a shot at winning the job in camp. But the Falcons need to bring in someone else as well.
ALTERNATIVES: While teams carry only one kicker during the season, they typically use two or even three in the offseason. Until September, that makes it tougher to bring in many of the street free agents on the verge of breaking through and sticking on a roster. And those Aussie Rules guys are punters, not place kickers. Can't help you there...
The best bet will probably be to use the seventh round compensatory pick - or even bite the bullet and use the sixth round pick - on one of the top kicking prospects in the draft. Three of them (Alabama's Leigh Tiffen, Michigan State's Brett Swenson, and Ohio State's Aaron Pettrey) have been invited to the Combine. A few others (such as Hunter Lawrence from Texas and Joshua Shene from Ole Miss) will get serious attention during their Pro Day workouts.
Most teams prefer not to use draft picks on specialists, but the Falcons otherwise have very few holes to fill on the roster. With potentially eight picks in hand, the team can afford to use a late pick (the last compensatory pick is likely to be in the #230-240 overall range)on the position that might have put them into the postseason this year.
Posted on: January 2, 2010 10:38 am
The NFLPA has always voiced strong opposition to the salary cap system, and has always insisted that the final year under each CBA be uncapped. The purpose of this is that if no new agreement is reached and a stoppage occurs, the status quo will be without a cap.
The wisdom or absurdity of the union's position is fodder for another time. For now, the key point is that when the owners brought in the cap system, the concession they offered as a trade-off was early free agency. Before the cap system, players had to have six years of service to become true (unrestricted) free agents. Until they reached six years of tenure, they could only be restricted free agents. But with the salary cap in place, unrestricted free agency began after four years of service.
The catch is that since we don't have a new CBA in place for 2011, 2010 stands to be an uncapped year. And when the cap goes, so does the early free agency. So all over the league, guys with four or five years in the league who would become free agents will find themselves RFAs (restricted free agents) rather than UFAs.
Their current teams will be able to tender (offer) them standard one year contracts. There are several levels of tenders. If the tender offer is a higher level, the team will get draft picks as compensation if another team signs that player away. At the highest tender level, the price tag is a first round AND a third round pick.
Also, the current team has the right to match any offer made to a tendered RFA to keep the player. It becomes that team's choice - match the offer and keep the player, or let the other team sign the player away and take the draft picks.
According to several reports, there are currently a total of 212 potential free agents that will be affected. These are players who would become true (unrestricted) free agents if we get a new CBA to restore the cap before March but will drop back to RFAs without a new deal.
Here's the list:
Atlanta Falcons - T/G Tyson Clabo, G/T Harvey Dahl, T/G Quinn Ojinnaka, RB Jerious Norwood, P Michael Koenen, S Charlie Peprah, S Jamaal Fudge.
Arizona Cardinals – SS Hamza Abdullah, FB Justin Green, G Duece Lutui, K Mike Nugent, WR Jerheme Urban and NT Gabe Watson.
Baltimore Ravens – G Chris Chester, WR Mark Clayton, K Billy Cundiff, P Sam Koch, SS Dawan Landry, T Tony Moll, TE Quinn Sypnieski, T Terry Adam, CB Favian Washington and WR Demetrius Williams.
Buffalo Bills – OLB Keith Ellison, QB Gibran Hamdan, G Richie Incognito, TE Joe Klopfenstein, SS George Wilson and CB Ashton Youboty.
Carolina Panthers – OLB James Anderson, OLB Thomas Davis, TE Jeff King, CB Richard Marshall and T Rob Petitti.
Chicago Bears – DE Mark Anderson, FS Josh Bullocks, NT Dusty Dvoracek, FS Danieal Manning and OLB Jamar Williams.
Cincinnati Bengals – MLB Abdul Hodge, OLB Rashad Jeanty, LB Brandon Johnson, G Evan Mathis, and DE Frostee Rucker.
Cleveland Browns – SS Abram Elam, LB Arnold Harrison, RB James Harrison, LB D’Qwell Jackson, FS Brodney Pool, LB Matt Roth and FB Lawrence Vickers.
Dallas Cowboys – WR Miles Austin, DE Stephen Bowen, CB Cletis Gordon, DE Jason Hatcher, WR Sam Hurd, T Pat McQuistan, C Duke Preston, G Cory Procter, SS Gerald Sensabaugh, DE Marcus Spears, SS Pat Watkins and K Shaun Suisham.
Denver Broncos – LB Elvis Dumervil, G Chris Kuper, WR Brandon Marshall, QB Kyle Orton, TE Tony Scheffler and DE Le Kevin Smith.
Detroit Lions – SS Daniel Bullocks, C Dylan Gandy, DE Jason Hunter, WR Adam Jennings, G Daniel Loper, FS Ko Simpson and LB Cody Spencer.
Green Bay Packers – SS Atari Bigby, CB Will Blackmon, G Daryn Colledge, FS Nick Collins, DE Johnny Jolly, FB John Kuhn, FS Derrick Martin and C Jason Spitz.
Houston Texans – FS John Busing, T Rashad Butler, TE Owen Daniels, RB Ryan Moats, SS Bernard Pollard, LB DeMeco Ryans and C Chris White.
Indianapolis Colts – WR Hank Baskett, FS Antoine Bethea, FS Aaron Francisco, LB Tyjuan Hagler, CB Marlin Jackson, CB Tim Jennings, T Charlie Johnson, LB Freddy Keiaho and CB T.J. Rushing.
Jacksonville Jaguars – LB Clint Ingram, DT Montavious Stanley and WR Troy Williamson.
Kansas City Chiefs – OB Brodie Croyle, LB Derrick Johnson, LB Corey Mays, C Rudy Niswanger, T Ryan O’Callaghan and FS Jarrad Page.
Miami Dolphins – RB Ronnie Brown and TE Anthony Fasano.
Minnesota Vikings – T Ryan Cooke, DE Ray Edwards, NG Red Evans, QB Tarvaris Jackson, CB Karl Paymah and FB Naufahu Tahi.
New England Patriots – K Stephen Gostkowski, G Logan Mankins and LB Pierre Woods.
New Orleans Saints – RB Mike Bell, T Jammal Brown, G Jahri Evans, DT Tony Hargrove, SS Roman Harper, FS, Hernandez Jones, WR Lance Moore, WR Courtney Roby, T Zach Strief, TE David Thomas and CB Leigh Torrence.
New York Giants – LB Chase Blackburn, G Kevin Boothe, FS C.C. Brown, NT Barry Cofield, CB Kevin Dockery, WR Derek Hagan, WR Sinorice Moss, T Guy Whimper and LB Gerris Wilkinson.
New York Jets – QB Kellen Clemens, CB Drew Coleman, WR Braylon Edwards, NT Howard Green, G Wayne Hunter, WR Brad Smith, SS Eric Smith, RB Leon Washington.
Oakland Raiders – LB Jon Alston, T Khalif Barnes, LB Ricky Brown, QB Charlie Frye, LB Thomas Howard, LB Kirk Morrison and CB Stanford Routt.
Philadelphia Eagles – WR Jason Avant, C Nick Cole, LB Omar Gaither, LB Chris Gocong, CB Ellis Hobbs, G Max Jean-Gilles, TE Alex Smith and RB Leonard Weaver.
Pittsburgh Steelers – T Willie Colon.
San Diego Chargers – LB Tim Dobbins, WR Malcom Floyd, DT Antonio Garay, C Eric Ghiaciuc, LB Marques Harris, WR Vincent Jackson, DE Travis Johnson, T Marcus McNeill, LB Shawne Merriman, RB Darren Sproles and QB Charlie Whitehurst.
Seattle Seahawks – LB Lance Laury, P Jon Ryan, G Rob Sims, C Chris Spencer and DE Darryl Tapp.
San Francisco 49ers – G David Baas, LB Ahmad Brooks and CB Marcus Hudson.
St. Louis Rams – DE Victor Adeyanju, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, T Alex Barron, RB Sam Gado, DT Gary Gibson, WR Ruvell Martin and G Mark Setterstrom.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Mark Bradley, WR Brian Clark, LB Matt McCoy, T Donald Penn, LB Barrett Ruud, WR Maurice Stovall, T Jeremy Trueblood, RB Carnell Williams and LB Rod Wilson.
Tennessee Titans - DE Dave Ball, DT Tony Brown, TE Bo Scaife, LB Stephen Tulloch, DT Kevin Vickerson and RB LenDale White.
Washington Redskins – QB Jason Campbell, SS Reed Doughty, DT Kedric Golston, LB Rocky McIntosh, DT Anthony Montgomery, C Will Montgomery and CB Carlos Rogers.
Tags: Ashton Youboty, Atlanta, Bears, Bills, Braylon Edwards, Broncos, Browns, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Carlos Rogers, Carnell Williams, Chargers, Charlie Peprah, Chiefs, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Danieal Manning, Dolphins, Eagles, Falcons, Gerald Sensabaugh, Giants, Harvey Dahl, Jamaal Fudge, Jerious Norwood, Jets, Kevin Dockery, LenDale White, Lions, Michael Kownwn, Miles Austin, Packers, Panthers, Quinn Ojinnaka, Raiders, Rams, Ravens, Redskins, Ronnie Brown, Saints, Seahawks, Shawne Merriman, Texans, Titans, Tyson Clabo, Vikings
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: November 30, 2008 11:35 am
As the 2008 regular season winds down, more and more posts on the Falcons message board are looking ahead to free agency and the draft, sizing up the team's likely targets and areas of need.
One key thing to remember: this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL this decade, not just this season. The Falcons have 31 players - including 11 starters - that are age 26 or younger. This is important for two reasons. First, many of these young guys are still developing and will improve naturally with experience. A few areas that might be perceived as weak points for the team may not be liabilities next season. Those positions wouldn't necessarily be targets for the draft, because the newly drafted players would have to go through the same growing pains as our current players did last year and this year.
Second, every player coming in next season will have to replace someone currently on the roster. We don't have a whole lot of guys who are likely to retire, we really don't have that many free agents in key roles, and Dimitroff is working to sign our potential free agents early to avoid having them hit the open market. The team will have quite a few currently injured guys returning, plus we have more solid prospects on our practice squad than most teams. I'm expecting at least 10 players from those lists to be with the Falcons in minicamp next season and competing for roster spots.
So if you'd like to play GM and start designing your 2009 roster, keep those players in mind.
Here's a rundown by unit:
Quarterback: Ryan, Redman, Shockley. No issues there at all, and all three are under contract for 2009. Feels nice, doesn't it? One catch - both Redman and Shockley are free agents after next season. Expect the team to pick up a fourth guy for camp next year to compete with them and perhaps a developmental project for the practice squad.
Running back / fullback: Turner, Mughelli, Norwood, Snelling, Brown, Barclay. The team is likely to carry five players in this unit. Snelling was a hybrid RB/FB who dropped some weight this season to focus on the RB role - but ended up with the FB#2 duty as well as the RB#3 role. With Brown returning, he may bulk back up to focus on fullback.
Receiver / tight end: White, Jenkins, Hartsock, Robinson, Douglas, Peelle, Finneran, Zinger, Rader, Weems, Chandler Williams, Noriaki Kinoshita. The WR side of this unit is loaded with Jenkins already re-signed. The only question is whether the team will keep five or six on the roster next season.
Tight end will be a significant issue. The team doesn't have a true receiving tight end, and Mularkey will likely want an upgrade for a blocker. Note that Peelle is a free agent at the end of the season. Zinger, like all practice squad players, is a free agent even now. Rader is a stop-gap who is in his third stint with the team this season. Best guess: the team will aim for three TEs on the roster next season. Re-signing Peelle is likely but won't be considered a top priority. Likely scenario = Hartsock + drafted TE + Peelle.
Offensive line: Baker, Blalock, McClure, Dahl, Clabo, Ojinnaka, Wilkerson, Stepanovich, Weiner, Batiste, Foster, McCoy. Wilkerson (center/guard) is a free agent, while Dahl and Clabo are restricted free agents. Gandy will also be available if needed but isn't likely to return.
This unit has a lot of what-ifs. Let's simplify it with a kind of worst-case scenario. Suppose that Clabo, Dahl, and Wilkerson all sign elsewhere. In that case, the Falcons still have Baker, Blalock, and McClure starting on the left side and at center, with Stepanovich holding down the backup center role.
Weiner has played fairly well in spite of being far from 100% back from his rehab. He'll be better next season after another winter of rest and rehab. Ojinnaka can play either guard spot or either tackle spot and is ready to step up as a starter. Batiste, Foster, and McCoy would all challenge for the first-unit jobs.
That's nine solid prospects already in house. The team would be in pretty good shape even without anyone else. If we could hang on to at least one of Clabo or Dahl, it would be a sweet bonus. The coaching staff may elect to bring in someone new via free agency or the draft to add competition, but it certainly shouldn't be considered a weakness or a top priority.
Defensive end: Abraham, Anderson, Davis, Biermann, Fraser, Evans. Abraham, Anderson, and Biermann appear to be locks. Chauncey Davis is a free agent. He'll get attention from other teams, and keeping him may be difficult if he isn't signed before he hits the open market on March 1. Evans is a practice squad prospect hoping to break through and win a regular roster spot as a backup.
A late rounder here for competition is a strong possibility, but the spot might also be handled on the cheap in free agency. In particular, if Brandon Miller becomes available again at the end of the season, there's a strong chance Atlanta will bring him back.
Defensive tackle: Babineaux, Moorehead, Lewis, Jefferson, Parker, Grady Jackson. The nose tackle will be a high priority position for this offseason. The team is well stocked at UT with Babineaux and Moorehead. But with Grady likely to retire (and not capable of playing every down even if he returns), the team needs answers in the form of run-stuffing big men. Lewis may become the starter, but that still leaves an opening as his backup.
The only in-house candidate is practice squad signing J'Vonne Parker. It's possible that they may be the guys for the job, but Vital and Dimitroff are almost certain to bring in some new blood. I've mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating. For Smitty's defensive scheme to work here, we have to have the big men in place. We don't necessarily have to have a 350-pound Jabba The Lineman, but a pair of guys in the 320 ballpark would help the entire defense.
At the moment, when Grady is off the field we have nobody on the line that even tops 300. In run situations, the opposing offense can match up one on one on our linemen, leaving one offensive lineman plus a tight end and a lead blocker free to block the linebackers. That's a big part of why our safeties lead the team in tackles. It puts extra pressure on the safeties to make plays against the run, which leaves them vulnerable to play fakes. That in turn leaves the corners vulnerable. We've had a lot of big play passes against us where the young corners appeared to have been burned but were actually playing their double coverage assignments - expecting help from safeties who weren't there. It may seem odd, but a key to getting improved play from Brooking, Boley, Coleman, Grimes, Houston, and Chevis Jackson is to get the nose tackle resolved so that everybody else can focus on their own jobs rather than having to cover for our lack of size in the middle of the front line.
Linebacker: Boley, Lofton, Brooking, Nicholas, Wire, Gilbert, James. The only four bodies locked in for 2009 are Brooking, Lofton, Nicholas, and James. The team has not kept a linebacker on the practice squad at all this season. James returns from IR next season, but he's a prospect that hasn't played a single snap. He'll be the equivalent of a newly drafted player.
Suffice to say this unit will need extra depth even if Boley re-signs. Wire has played well and can also play safety in an emergency. Look for the team to try to retain him.
Secondary: Houston, Foxworth, Hutchins, Jackson, Grimes, Irons, Coleman, Milloy, Decoud, Harris, Fudge, Brock, Sharpe. This will be an interesting unit to watch. It is overloaded with bodies already, but there are still depth issues. Milloy and Foxworth are free agents while Fudge is a restricted free agent. Hutchins will return from IR, making the CB side very crowded. The wild card is Foxworth. He was acquired mainly as an insurance policy but has quickly developed into our best defender. If the team can re-sign him, the primary CB spots will be held by Houston, Foxworth, and Hutchins at the start of minicamp, with Jackson, Grimes and Irons competing to take those jobs away and also to hang on to what will probably be two roster spots. Someone will have to go even if the team doesn't pick up anyone new in free agency.
Safety will be the greater concern. The team drafted Decoud to groom as the heir apparent to Milloy, and they already released Daren Stone and Deke Cooper to save a roster spot for the third rounder. The whisper in the wind is that he probably won't be ready to step in as a starter next season. That makes it more likely the team will give Milloy an extension or bring in another safety, probably via free agency rather than the draft. And just like at cornerback, the wild card is Foxworth. The coaches may try to solve several problems at once by moving him to safety.
Specialists: Elam, Koenen, Schneck. Koenen will be a free agent. He is one of the more precise and reliable punters out there, and since he also kicks off, the team is very likely to re-sign him rather than try to replace him.
Posted on: November 13, 2008 10:07 pm
The media has already jumped on the story of Jason Elam and Domonique Foxworth facing their former teams. (Tyson Clabo also started his career with the Broncos, signing with them as an undrafted free agent in 2004. Jamaal Fudge is likely to remain on the inactive list, but he's also a former Bronco.)
But the best story of a player coming back to face a former team goes the other direction... A Falcons staffer told me in preseason that our Birds would probably have won four more games last season if we only had a kicker. I always get a chuckle out of that idea, because we actually had several of them.
First we had Aaron Elling, but we cut him in camp to go with Billy Cundiff. Cundiff kicked extremely well in camp and was rock solid in the first three preseason games. Then, in the final week of preseason, Matt Prater became available. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg had been watching the kid for a while and liked what he saw, and he had GM Rich McKay invite the young kicker in for a workout with the coaching staff.
Petrino never even had him practice with the team. He didn't even watch a complete workout. He simply had McKay sign the young kicker, had Prater kick the final exhibition game (when he had the entire first unit take the night off), and unexpectedly cut Cundiff the next morning in favor of the kid with the tribal armband tattoos on BOTH arms.
Falcon fans remember the rest of the story, though hardly any can even remember the kid's name. Prater was working through a brief period with some mechanical issues. He had pulled one of his three kicks in that final exhibition game. He also pulled one of his two attempts in the first regular season game against the Vikings - but hardly anyone cared, as the game wasn't particularly close, and the Falcons had many other problems to occupy everyone's minds.
But in the second game, against Smitty and the Jags no less, he shanked both of his attempts. Both were from short to middle range, and the Falcons ended up losing the game by... six points. The ever-so-patient hog caller released him immediately, and by that Wednesday Atlanta had once again dragged Morten Andersen back into action.
Meanwhile, the Broncos had a tendency of carrying a second kicker strictly for kickoffs in order to save Jason Elam's leg. (This was what I had hoped the Falcons would have done with Cundiff and Prater.) In midseason, they picked up Prater as their second kicker.
He worked out the mechanical problem he had during his whopping 17-day Falcon career and became their full time kicker after Elam's departure. Today, many Bronco fans claim he's better than Elam.
Mike Shanahan was asked if he's looking forward to seeing Jason Elam again. Shanahan joked of course not - he's kicking against us. I feel the same way about Prater. Rosburg was right. The kid has astounding potential, and Petrino cast him aside after just one bad game.
I'm glad things worked out well for him, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in action again. Considering that Petrino did more damage to Atlanta than General Sherman, Prater was probably lucky to have been set free so early. He missed the misery of the next 12 weeks that followed here in Atlanta (which many of the players compared to a form of purgatory - except worse), and he landed on his feet in a great situation for a young kicker.
Unfortunately for us, the kid has a cannon of a leg. If the Broncos choose to have him kick deep, expect to see the Falcons starting at the 20-yard line after any Denver kickoff. And if anyone in the league right now is capable of kicking a game-winning 60+ yard field goal, my money would be on Prater as the guy most likely to do it.
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.
Posted on: October 19, 2008 11:35 pm
Edited on: October 19, 2008 11:52 pm
It's the bye week, so conversation on the Falcon message board has been general rather than focused on specific opponents. I have mostly taken the week off from posting on the board or the blog, and I certainly enjoyed taking a break from the Member Mayhem writing contest. But now it's time to get back at it ...
I've been asked several times recently about how active Atlanta may be in free agency in the coming offseason. I thought it would be a good idea to post that info here, so that others won't have to search through various threads on the message board to find the list of free agent Falcons.
The Falcons have a fairly large number of their own players that will become eligible for free agency after the 2008 season. That will have a big impact on the team's offseason activity - they'll have to scramble to keep many of their own players, which will affect the amount of cap space available to try to sign other free agents.
The current Falcons that will be up for grabs include starters Michael Boley, Lawyer Milloy, Jonathan Babineaux, Grady Jackson, Michael Jenkins, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, plus punter Michael Koenen. (Clabo and Dahl will be restricted free agents, but both will be potential targets for other teams, so the Falcons will have to make at least some effort to keep them.) Backups who will become free agents include DE Chauncey Davis, TE Justin Peelle, LB Coy Wire, DT Jason Jefferson, CB Domonique Foxworth, C/G Ben Wilkerson, LB Tony Gilbert, and (restricted free agent) S Jamaal Fudge.
I do not know if any of the other players have clauses that would void their contracts after 2008 if certain goals are reached. DeAngelo Hall had one that would have made him a free agent at the end of 2008, but obviously the team traded him rather than have him play one more season and then watch him walk away with nothing in return. The key players who might become free agents if they do have void clauses are Keith Brooking, Roddy White, and Jerious Norwood. Their contracts will otherwise expire after the 2009 season.