Will Atlanta enter the Michael Bennett sweepstakes if available? They'd be silly not to.
The madness of free agency starts in five days. We’ve already seen several releases across the NFL, especially in Atlanta. Steven Nicholas, Garrett Reynolds, and Asante Samuel have been released. Thomas DeCoud will soon be joining that list according to reports. All of those moves are understandable, even though Samuel and Nicholas could still be valuable role players.
I’ll be breaking down the top five biggest needs for the Falcons in terms of free agency. Obviously their flaws will be looked at, but also the available free agent s at that position were considered. Then I'll separate it into two categories. The first category will be based on the most ideal free agent they can pick up at that position. This will be a player that won't be substantially expensive.
Then the second category will feature a player that Atlanta would have to break the bank on most likely. We know that they will make at least one splash in free agency. It occurs every year, where their will be at least one major move to get Falcon fans buzzing. That should be followed by a mid-level pickup as well.
It’s no secret that the Falcons desperately need to make serious upgrades to their non-existent pass rush. I’m expecting the organization to address that need with their first pick in the draft, whether it’s trading up for Jadeveon Clowney or drafting someone like Khalil Mack. Even though he’s not a natural defensive end, Mack will still be a huge asset.
The Falcons still need more support on the defensive line. They’ve realized Osi Umenyiora is a role player (that should be released, but I digress), along with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi. They are all role players, who can’t be counted on to play thirty snaps. Therefore another free agent will be needed.
Most Ideal: Lamarr Houston would be an excellent addition. You never know what Oakland's front office is doing, so there is a good possibility that he’ll be available. Houston is very versatile in using his athleticism to stop the run and create pressure. His first step is explosive for someone, who weighs about 285 pounds. If he can drop 15 pounds, who knows what he’s capable of. As long as they don’t expect him to be the lead pass rusher, basically the complete opposite of what they did signing Umenyiora last year. Houston would be a fine addition without breaking the bank.
Dream Addition: Michael Bennett has always been under appreciated. You don’t see many defensive ends that are as well rounded than him. He’s always been a top-notch run stopper, but has now become a productive pass rusher over the past two years. He’ll command a heavy price, especially after you heard his Costco reference about returning to Seattle. I could see Seattle bringing him back, but they’ve shown in the past how they can bring in top defensive ends in a flash. Similar to Houston, don’t expect Bennett to be your top pass rusher. He's an excellent supporting pass rusher, as he showed last season. The major difference between them is that Bennett has more lineage in the league and had a huge post season in 2014 that will earn him a few extra millions.
The free agent class at right guard is weak for the most part. I’m expecting Atlanta to look to add a right guard in the second round, if the talent is there. For now, I’ll look at the tackle position that offers much better talent. Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson are being closely looked as potential options for Atlanta. That could potentially be one reason why Atlanta doesn’t sign a free agent tackle. They need to bring in someone, regardless of whether it’s from the draft or free agency. Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes aren’t reliable enough to be trusted. Competition and potential upgrades are needed.
Most Ideal: Anthony Collins’ versatility is something that may attract Atlanta’s interest. He’s shown that he has the ability to play both tackle positions. The issues with him are simply due to a lack of starting experience, despite being mostly durable in his career. He’s been in a tough situation behind Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth. In 2013, he had the opportunity to play left tackle and shined after Whitworth had to move to left guard. With Atlanta unsure of Baker and Holmes, Collins could prove to be great competition for both of them. His chances of returning to Cincinnati are at 45 percent according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. If he’s available, Atlanta should make a move.
Dream Addition: Ozzie Newsome made a sneaky move in October by trading for Eugene Monroe. Jacksonville wasn’t going to resign him, so Baltimore brought him in to bring stability at left tackle. Monroe continued to play at a high level in helping their mediocre offensive line and will be looking to get paid this off-season. He’s only 27 years old and his prime years are ahead. I highly doubt Atlanta would make a push for him, considering his price tag. The reason that I mentioned him was mostly because Baltimore’s negotiations with Monroe are still far apart. Even though Brendan Albert is also available, Monroe would be my first choice out of all the free agent tackles.
Thomas DeCoud will deservingly be released in the upcoming days. That leaves another hole in a defense that needs to be rebuilt. After resigning William Moore to a five-year deal last year, I’m skeptical of Atlanta paying big money for another safety. Nevertheless they need a replacement and the draft class for safeties isn’t very impressive according to many analysts. Similar to tight end, which is a position that will be mentioned below. Free agency is likely the only place for Atlanta to acquire an upgrade at safety.
Most Ideal: There is always a big concern about signing someone coming off a serious injury. While they may not be as expensive as other free agents, you aren’t sure what you are going to get out of the deal. Stevie Brown is coming off a torn ACL and could very well be returning to the Giants, but let’s not forget that they let Kenny Phillips go after a major injury. My reasoning behind Brown is that he’s the only true cover safety out there not named Jarius Bryd. The next two top safeties are T.J Ward and Donte Whitner, who are very similar to William Moore. They are much better run defenders than cover safeties that you can leave out on an island. How would that help their defense? Malcolm Jenkins is likely returning to New Orleans, after they released Roman Harper. I’d take a chance on Brown, if he were available.
Dream Addition: It’s no secret that Jairus Bryd is in demand. He will be one of the most coveted free agents in 2014. Besides Earl Thomas, there is no other safety that can cover like him. He’s a ball hawk that is entering his prime. It’s highly unlikely that Atlanta brings him in though. While it would be a tremendous splash that would excite fans, their off-season objective is to get bigger on both lines. They will need a lot of money to accomplish that objective. Moore is one of the true leaders on their defense, who they invested a lot in. My heart tells me that Dimitroff won’t break the bank on a player that isn’t a lineman. It would be incredible to see Bryd and Moore as a tandem. We can only dream though. The price tag will scare them away in the end.
Even though Atlanta’s offense should be productive without Tony Gonzalez, it still remains to be a position that needs to be addressed. I’ll be shocked if Atlanta doesn’t try to add a veteran tight end to compete with Levine Toilolo for the starting spot. Toilolo was drafted in the fourth round last year, which makes me believe Atlanta would like to bring in a veteran at a medium price to compete with him. Both tight ends will have their opportunities to make plays, regardless of who wins the training camp battle.
Most Ideal: The list isn’t very long, so it came down to narrowing down the options. Brandon Pettigrew drops too many passes and tends to fade away in games. Scott Chandler doesn’t bring much as a receiver. With the emergence of Charles Clay, I’d be shocked if Miami re-signs Dustin Keller. Even though he’ll be relatively cheap, Miami rarely uses two tight end sets. Keller is coming off a major injury and has had issues in the past with drops. He’s also been suppressed by poor quarterback play his entire career. A change in scenery could be beneficial for Keller, along with being the third option (at best) for Matt Ryan. The Jets relied on him too much, when he should have never been a focal point of any passing game.
Dream Addition: It seems wrong to choose another player coming off a serious injury. It's hard not to choose Jermichael Finley. Could you imagine Finley and Julio Jones in the same offense? Roddy White would be abusing single coverage by running underneath routes, while Jones and/or Finley would be going deep. Even though he won’t be that expensive, I can’t see Atlanta’s front office being that adventurous. They are probably scared off by the serious injury, as are most teams. Finley seems primed to be back in Green Bay or New England will take a chance on him to try to resurrect their dynamic two-tight end set offense. I’ll still continue to dream about Finley and Jones on the same side of the field.
It came down to defensive tackle or linebacker for my final choice. With Atlanta having much more depth at linebacker, I decided to choose defensive tackle, as the last major need. Corey Peters is back in Atlanta, which was the right decision. There have been no talks with Peria Jerry, which was expected. The big question will be about Jonathan Babineaux’s future.
We know Atlanta wants him back, but how much are they willing to pay him? It could come down to another John Abraham situation, where business comes before production. Hopefully they learned their lesson, after seeing Abraham shine in Arizona. Babineaux should be back in Atlanta for being their most consistent defensive lineman.
Most Ideal: Mike Nolan’s influence will play a key part in this one. Paul Soliai or Randy Starks would be an realistic addition. Not too long ago, Nolan was the defensive coordinator in Miami. Regardless if Babineaux comes back or not, their needs to be more depth added towards the defensive tackle position. Not to mention, Peters will be coming off a serious Achilles injury and it may take some time before he starts playing like his old self again. Starks would be a better fit, based on Atlanta playing a 4-3 scheme. Soliai is a nose tackle, who is best at mostly clogging running lanes. He does move well for being a 355-pound nose tackle and Atlanta likes to switch up their alignment at times. Starks fits in perfectly at 312 pounds, along with being more versatile. Pro Football Focus rated him as the seventh best 3-4 defensive tackle in 2013.
Dream Addition: There isn’t a specific player for this one. Linval Joesph, Jason Hatcher, and Arthur Jones will likely be re-signed to their respective teams. B.J Raji is extremely overrated, while Tyson Jackson wouldn’t be a great fit. The dream scenario would be that Babineaux returns and Starks would be brought in. I wouldn’t be upset if Soliai was brought in, especially if Atlanta plans on moving to a 3-4 scheme in the future. Right now they seem complacent on the 4-3-hybrid scheme. If they can put together a trio of Peters, Babineaux, and Starks for the upcoming season, then I'll give a round of applause to Thomas Dimitroff. He may be 30 years old, but Starks has at least 2 to 3 good years left. For future purposes, Atlanta would be wise draft a defensive tackle in the latter rounds this year. Hopefully they can comply with Babineaux’s demands and Nolan’s influence will bring in either Starks or Soliai.
I'm not going to make an exact prediction on who Atlanta is going to exactly bring in. It's too unpredictable on which exact player is going to signed I'd like to see Houston and Starks from a modest perspective. If there was any specific dream choices, I'd love to see Finley and Bennett in Atlanta. That would be incredible, although I'm a realist and those moves happening are highly unlikely. Hopefully Dimitroff has something special planned for next week. The franchise and fan base needs it after an abysmal 2013.