Paul Soliali is one of the three major free-agent signings from yesterday. Will he live up to his contract and be the force that Atlanta desperately needs?
You may look at the title and think I’m already being over-critical. What Falcon fans have been complaining about over the past few years has been their lack of toughness. They are tired of seeing both lines get bullied around in the trenches. They’ve became irritated by the league perception of the Falcons being soft. The organization had realized that and has made it an objective to address both lines in the off-season.
They began making cap room by releasing several veterans, including star cornerback Asante Samuel. It was clear that they wanted to be major players in free agency. Atlanta has prided themselves on winning consistently, which they’ve done from 2008 to 2012. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith know that the pressure is on following an abysmal 2013. Another disappointing season and they could very well be back to having secondary jobs for other franchises.
One of the main flaws in Atlanta has been the offensive line, particularly at the right guard position. Many fans were bitter that Harvey Dahl wasn’t re-signed in 2011, while they decided to invest in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock. The Falcons haven’t recovered from that loss, as Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz failed miserably in trying to replace Dahl’s grittiness. Neither player came close to filling Dahl’s shoes, which made them realize that they had to go out and sign a proven player.
With the influence of Scott Pioli, they signed Jon Asamoah to provide stability at right guard. The connection made sense considering Pioli did draft him in Kansas City. While he was benched in favor of Geoff Schwartz, it was more of an indication of Schwartz’s stellar play than Asamoah underperforming. He’s gained a reputation for being a reliable pass blocker over the past few years. At age 26, he still has tremendous upside and won’t have to worry about any competition in Atlanta.
According to Chiefs fans, one concern is that he seems to be a better fit in a zone-blocking scheme. That is more of an indication that he tends to rely on his athleticism more than actual strength. With the change of scenery and a guaranteed starting job, he’ll have all every opportunity to prove those critics wrong. He’ll be paid about 4.5 million a year, which seems fitting for him. With the re-signing of Joe Hawley, the Falcons’ interior offensive line is set for the upcoming season. That was one major positive from yesterday, after having so many issues last year in keeping a set lineup due to poor play all-around.
In other positive news, they did re-sign Jonathan Babineaux. Thankfully they avoided another John Abraham situation, where money became more important than an actual player’s value. It was a fair deal and Babineaux will rightfully be paid three million for the next three years. He’s one of the true leaders on defense and still remains to be an asset on a defense lacking assets. That was a wise decision and everything seemed to be positive going into 4:30 pm.
Then the first major splash had finally occurred with the signing of Paul Soliai. I had mentioned him as a player that the Falcons could potentially sign. There is a clear connection between him and Mike Nolan, who was the Dolphins defensive coordinator before joining Atlanta. They were either going to add Soliai or Randy Starks. When it was announced that they signed Soliai, it made me believe even more that the rumors of switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme were becoming more realistic.
On Monday morning, there were reports surfacing around that Atlanta would shift towards a 3-4 scheme in 2014. Nolan is most comfortable running that scheme and the defense could use a makeover. With Soliai now coming in, it made me realize that the makeover had gotten its first major tool. From a personnel standpoint, this is an excellent move to bring in a true nose tackle. My main issue with the signing comes from a financial standpoint.
Soliai was given a five-year deal for 33 million, along with 14 million guaranteed. They are basically giving him six million a year for him to become the main anchor on the defensive line. That contract is for a player that has proven to be a dominant player or is entering his prime with the potential of becoming dominant. Soliai is already 30 years old and has never been considered as a force to be reckoned with.
He’s still a legitimate one-gap nose tackle that can take on consistent double teams and free up linebackers to make plays in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. Soliai has been productive in his career, but not on the level to be given such a massive deal. Now he’s 30 years old, where he's essentially in the latter stages of his prime. Now nose tackles can be productive into their mid thirties, we’ve seen that with the likes of Sam Adams and Pat Williams. Is that really worth six million a year though? That’s my major problem in signing a two-down player.
With the signing of Soliai, it seemed like a pairing of Babineaux, Soliai, and Corey Peters would fit well on the defensive line. Then the Falcons decide to make another splash and sign another former Scott Pioli draft pick in Tyson Jackson. Now I had wrote my free agency wish list down on Thursday not knowing about Atlanta’s plans of converting to a 3-4 scheme. With the signing of Jackson, that validates the reports of Atlanta moving towards a 3-4 scheme. There is no way that Atlanta signed Jackson, with the intention of making him a 4-3 defensive end.
In his five-year career, Jackson has a grand total of nine sacks. He was always considered as a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, due to his size and ability to stop the run. Does that mean he should be paid 25 million for five years? That contract absolutely boggles my mind for someone who doesn’t play a significant position. He won’t be counted on to be one of the main facilitators in fixing the Falcons’ anemic pass rush.
According to Pro Football Focus, he had a grade of +15.5 against the run. That shows that at least he has the pedigree of being an outstanding run defender. He knows how to fill up gaps well and is deceptively quick for being 296 pounds. I’ll still never understand how that translates into investing five million a year on strictly a run defender. In Kansas City, he was always taken out on third and longs because of his limitations as a pass rusher. Once again, they invested a significant amount of money on a two-down player.
Unless it’s third and short, both major free agent signings will be off the field on third down. Atlanta had the worst third down defense in the NFL, which goes back to their non-existent pass rush. How do you invest nearly 60 million dollars without addressing the pass rush needs or Thomas DeCoud’s replacement? That’s what frustrates me greatly. Sure these moves will make Atlanta tougher and it'll assure them of not getting completely manhandled against power running teams. Still this isn’t the 1990’s, it’s well documented that this is a passing league.
I’m confident that the front office has an agenda on how to improve the pass rush. That is why I’m not completely burying them for these decisions yet. Could they be adding pieces to the 3-4 scheme as a ploy to bring in someone like DeMarcus Ware? That would erase all my rage towards the front office. It couldn’t be more obvious that the Falcons are in dire need of a game changer on defense. That would be a brilliant move, if the entire makeover were to lure in a productive pass rusher who can possibly complement Khalii Mack.
Hopefully their agenda isn’t to just draft Mack and not give him any support. Osi Umenyiora should be released in the upcoming weeks. Kroy Biermann will always have a role, but he shouldn’t be counted on as the number two pass rusher. 2010 and 2012 were clear indications that he’s not capable of being that player. If the Falcons can bring in Ware, then I’ll once again be calling Thomas Dimitroff a mastermind.
We’ll see in the upcoming days, if Atlanta will continue to be aggressive. Besides tight end and free safety, their focal point should be to upgrading their pass rushing options. The NFL is a passing league and they have to adapt to these times. They now have the personnel to force teams into second/third and longs thanks to Soliai and Jackson. Now can they get off the field on third downs? That will be up to the front office, because the current crop of players on the roster clearly showed last year that they are incapable of consistently doing that. Hopefully Atlanta's flawed day one free agency frenzy turns into a well-structured plan towards becoming a playoff team once again.