With the offseason officially under way, Around The League will examine what’s next for all 32 teams. The series continues with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the most interesting teams to monitor because they appear to have devolved from annual contender to rebuilder in the span of just one season. The guess here is that general manager Thomas Dimitroff still views his squad as one that can reclaim the NFC South title with a series of touch-ups via free agency and the draft. The offseason process has already begun with the releases of veterans Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas to free up salary-cap space. Although Tony Gonzalez’s retirement will create a void at tight end, it will also give Dimitroff more flexibility to play the market. Julio Jones’ return will more than make up for the future Hall of Famer’s absence.
Biggest Free Agents
» DT Jonathan Babineaux: The 32-year-old has been Atlanta’s best defensive player over the past two years, which is sort of like being the top quarterback in Jacksonville. Babineaux has spent his entire career with the Falcons, and both sides have expressed an interest in re-upping for a few more years. He’s been one of the NFL’s underrated interior linemen.
» DT Corey Peters: After struggling in 2012, Peters rivaled Babineaux as the team’s premier run-stuffer until tearing his Achilles in late December. Facing an offseason of rehab, Peters likely will be forced to sign a one-year, make-good contract to re-enter the open market at age 26 next year.
Other key free agents: CB Asante Samuel, LB Stephen Nichols, OL Mike Johnson, OL Joe Hawley
What they need
The Falcons desperately need competition or an upgrade at three spots on the offensive line, in addition to Gonzalez’s successor at tight end. The rest of the needs are on the other side of the ball where pass rushing takes precedence. At least two impact edge rushers are needed on the defensive line. With Samuel already gone and Thomas DeCoud a potential cap casualty, reinforcements are needed in the secondary as well.
On the way out?
» FS Thomas DeCoud: Failing to live up to a five-year, $17.5 million contract signed in 2012, DeCoud was a liability in coverage and tackling last season. The Falcons can clear $3 million in cap space by cutting DeCoud and his $4.2 million salary.
» DE Osi Umenyiora: The team’s leading sacker would “love” to stay in Atlanta, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and set to count $4.75 million against the cap. Umenyiora has passed the “impact pass rusher” stage of his career.
» DE Kroy Biermann: A fair bet to start the season slowly coming off Achilles surgery, Biermann is no longer worthy of tying up $4.1 million in cap space. He’s a favorite of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, so perhaps a restructure would be palatable for both sides.
Offseason crystal ball
The Falcons are projected to have more than $20 million in cap space and as many as 11 draft picks. A new contract will be a priority for Julio Jones, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Dimitroff can free up more money by extending Roddy White and restructuring Justin Blalock.
Lucking into Jadeveon Clowney in the draft would be a boon to the ailing defense. Potential free-agent fits include Georgia Tech alum Michael Johnson, Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and one of a half-dozen impact offensive linemen available. Outside of the Jones blockbuster, Dimitroff hasn’t had a good draft class since his 2008 debut. With a bevy of compensatory picks and cap space this year, the pressure is on the two-time NFL Executive of the Year to regain his magic touch and turn the franchise around.
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