2013 Team Needs: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons finally got the playoff monkey off their backs, picking up their first postseason victory in the Matt Ryan/ Mike Smith era. However, they couldn’t make it past the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, which ultimately must count as a disappointment for the team with home-field advantage.
Like all NFL teams, even the ones with the league’s best record, the Falcons head into 2013 with several positions they’ll look to address. Let’s take a look at three, each with a potential free agent target — and you can see a complete list of their own free agents here.
Outside of an aging John Abraham, the Falcons didn’t get a whole lot in terms of pass rush this season. Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker created decent push from the interior — well, enough to grade positively in both cases — but the team could use an upgrade on the edge, especially given Abraham’s age. His counterpart on the outside, Kroy Biermann, played well in run defense and excelled in a ‘joker’ role for Mike Nolan, lining up across the line and dropping deep into coverage at times. However, he couldn’t consistently get to opposing quarterbacks and ended up grading at -11.3 for his efforts rushing the passer in 18 games. As we saw in the team’s two playoff games, the defense’s inability to create consistent pressure was a significant part of their struggles late in games, though they had the challenge of containing two mobile quarterbacks.
Atlanta has few edge rushers on its roster outside of the aforementioned Abraham and Biermann, especially after the team’s midseason release of Ray Edwards. Cliff Matthews showed some promise in extremely limited playing time, but this is an area that they’ll likely address in free agency and the draft.
Free Agent Fix: Michael Bennett
As one of the top free agent rushers, Bennett could command more than Atlanta is willing or can afford to pay, but he would be a valuable acquisition as a young player with potential. One of the most productive 4-3 ends this season, the Buccaneer produced nine sacks and an additional 63 combined hits and hurries while providing more than adequate run defense. In fact, only six other 4-3 DEs bested Bennett’s grade of +10.6 against the run.
Playing in Mike Nolan’s hybrid defense, Bennett would likely have to adjust to lining up in a two-point stance more often, something he’s seldom done in Tampa, whereas Biermann and Abraham both played frequently from a standing position — more than 75% in the case of Abraham. Nevertheless, potentially adding a player of Bennett’s caliber would go a long way in the team’s efforts to reach the Super Bowl.
With Tony Gonzalez is expected to head into retirement after a long, illustrious career, it’s paramount for Atlanta to promptly look for his replacement in free agency or through the draft. Even at his age, no tight end was a better than Gonzo, as he caught 93 balls, dropping just four in 121 targets, while his grade of +20.3 in the passing game led the league at the position. In his four seasons with the team, he played nearly every snap and averaged more than 86 receptions, 870 yards and seven TDs per year. Even with receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White, that kind of production will be sorely missed in the Falcon passing game, especially in the red zone where Gonzalez was as dangerous as any player in the league.
Left on the roster at tight end are Chase Coffman and Tommy Gallarda, as well as Michael Palmer, assuming the Falcons choose to bring back the restricted free agent. While Gallarda and Palmer are better blockers than Gonzalez, neither provides much in the passing game, where they combined to catch just seven passes on the season. As for Coffman, the fourth-year man out of Missouri has seen only eight snaps in his NFL career, though he did flash some potential with an impressive catch in Atlanta’s divisional playoff game against Seattle.
Free Agent Fix: Jared Cook
Certainly there’s no replacing a hall of famer and arguably the all-time best at the position, but a good place to start would be giving Jared Cook a look. Much like Gonzalez, the fourth-year player brings a scary combination of size and speed that’s tough to match in the passing game. The last two seasons, despite less-than-stellar QB play in Tennessee, Cook has put up solid numbers, combining to catch 93 balls for 1,272 yards and seven TDs. Pair him with a quarterback like Matt Ryan and duo of great receivers and he could see those numbers in a single season. He’s not a traditional inline tight end per se as he lined up split out or in the backfield on more than 70% of his snaps this season but neither was Gonzalez. He would likely have to play a more complete TE role in the Falcons’ offense than he’s played with the Titans, as he spent just 18.6% of his snaps run blocking, while on passing plays he stayed in to block even less frequently, less than 5% of his snaps. Cook possesses the requisite size to be an effective blocker but hasn’t had to do that much with the Titans having been rather raw in that area coming out of South Carolina. While it may be difficult to project it wouldn’t take much to be better than Gonzalez, and he’d nevertheless be a weapon in the passing game.
Of the five players who saw snaps at linebacker in 2012 for the Falcons, Robert James was the only one to grade positively. Unfortunately, he played just seven snaps, with all of them coming in Atlanta’s Week 5 matchup against the Redskins. Stephen Nicholas was the worst of the bunch, as while he playing the most snaps for the Falcons, only four linebackers finished the regular season with a worse grade in coverage than his -6.7. This includes when he came up small in the team’s two playoff matchups, with overall grades of -2.7 and -4.1. Akeem Dent showed some promise in run defense, playing more than 550 snaps in his second season, but failed to make an impact in the passing game, as he struggled in coverage and proved to be an ineffective blitzer. As for Sean Weatherspoon, a season after grading at an impressive +19.9, he regressed in his first year under Mike Nolan, particularly in run defense with 16 missed tackles in 15 games. However, as he showed in 2011, the talent and capability is definitely there.
The team invested high picks in both Weatherspoon and Dent, so neither is going anywhere, but that shouldn’t stop them from trying to upgrade a lackluster linebacker group and a defense that, with some improvement, could put the Falcons over the top when paired with their explosive offense.
Free Agent Fix: Thomas Howard
For the Falcons, Howard being limited to 62 snaps could be something of a blessing in disguise. His value has taken a hit and his name is bound to be off the radar of a number of teams, but he’s what the Falcons are missing at the linebacker spot which is a guy who can hold his own in coverage.
Go back to 2011 and Howard was our third-ranked outside linebacker in coverage, highlighted by 14 defensive stops in coverage. Capable of playing an every-down role, he could be the guy that keeps Stephen Nicholas out of situations that leave him exposed.
Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_JManey