|Free-agency preview: Falcons||
Team Overview: The Falcons finally secured a playoff win, but anyone who tells you Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan are satisfied with 2012 is lying. This was a Super Bowl-caliber team that could've easily prevailed in a battle of the birds were it not for the 49ers strong second-half performance in the NFC Championship Game.
There's plenty to like: Ryan took a major step forward in 2012 under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter (who, fortunately for the team, elected to stay). Julio Jones continued to progress and the rumors of Roddy White's demise were greatly exaggerated. Sean Weatherspoon quietly emerged as a blue-chip defensive player on the other side of the ball with Mike Nolan guiding the defense to an impressive season.
But the offseason brought tough cuts and the Falcons have plenty of holes to plug if they want to return to the mountain again in 2013.
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What the depth chart tells you: Seeing Michael Turner released wasn't surprising since he's turned into a glorified rushing guard at this point of his career (that being said, the Falcons can't complain about their first major signing of the Dimitroff-Smith era). It was a little surprising to see John Abraham and Dunta Robinson get dumped with him. The loss of those three big-name free agents won't destroy the Falcons depth, because they had faults of their own. But they will expose weaknesses.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Antone Smith isn't a backfield you can feel entirely comfortable with; it would be shocking if Atlanta didn't address their running back position in free agency or the draft.
Atlanta's still feeling the sting of whiffing on free agent Ray Edwards -- what a different world it would be if they'd landed Charles Johnson instead -- and Kroy Biermann is their top rusher as of this moment. Yikes. Cornerback is equally disturbing, with Asante Samuel being the team's top coverage option. Free agency could punish the secondary, with cornerback Brent Grimes (who went down early in 2012 with an Achilles injury) and safety William Moore (somewhat surprisingly not tagged) potentially walking.
The secondary isn't the only place where free agency could hurt the Falcons, as Sam Baker, the Falcons other first-round draft pick from 2008, is set to hit the market as well. Atlanta's fortunate in that Baker, who's been up and down in his career, enters a market that's stacked with offensive linemen.
"What [Gonzalez has] done on and off the field for us -- it has changed our opinion of what a tight end is, or what our goals are in acquiring a tight end," Dimitroff said at the NFL Scouting Combine recently.
Whether or not Atlanta can bring Gonzalez back will dramatically alter their approach to free agency and the draft.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: First of all, Dimitroff convinces Gonzo to come back for a year. It's not about money or other teams with Gonzalez, only if he wants to play any more. That shores up a major offensive need (although Atlanta would be wise to draft and develop someone who can spend a year under Gonzo).
Two veteran free agents make a lot of sense for Atlanta, even if they want to get younger, and it wouldn't be surprising if Dimitroff inked defensive end Dwight Freeney and running back Steven Jackson. Both are past their prime and have plenty of mileage, but can contribute off the bat and have plenty of good snaps left. Atlanta's been linked to both players and it's logical they could be had for reasonable money given Atlanta's contender status.
Bringing back Grimes, who might very well be the top cornerback on the market even with his injury, would be a big-time boon. He was given the tag last year and losing him was a big blow. If that doesn't work out, someone like a Greg Toler or Keenan Lewis makes sense as a fit.
With a deep tackle class on the market, the Falcons can see how much interest Baker draws and then re-sign him at a cheaper price if he's not getting heavy action from other teams.
It wouldn't be stunning to see Dimitroff move around in the draft either. I wouldn't expect anything as dramatic as his move up to No. 6 to grab Julio Jones (although if the Browns are listening) but hopping up a few slots to grab a pass rusher or a tackle in a draft stacked with both of them makes a ton of sense.
What will happen in 2013: Atlanta will fill their voids with reasonably-priced veteran talent that won't take a ton of time to incorporate into their scheme. They'd love to immediately add young, impact talent -- and probably will in the draft -- but it would be surprising if they made any "splash" signings in free agency. Though the NFC South is a tough spot to play in, the other three teams are, largely, still transitioning in one way or another. With a core worthy of contending for a title immediately, the Falcons should be able to bring in the right pieces to keep the train running.
-- By Will Brinson
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