In the past when producing these…and I think this is something we’ve all done, we’ve focused on personnel. We need this position or that position. But my outlook has changed somewhat over the years to be more focused on what do we need to do better in 2018 that we didn’t do so well in 2017. So solving for that issue isn’t so position focused, but rather focused on solving a problem and improving for next season. For me, here are the two primaries…
Playmaking – Offense
I talked about this in my initial off-season post mortem. To summarize, I think we have overestimated the ability of our skill position talent. It’s good…but not special as a whole. Top heavy is the best description I would say.
No doubt the transition from Shanahan to Sark was a downgrade and all of us (and the NFL watching world save for Heath Evans) underestimated it. He’ll have to do better and that starts with getting a much better handle on how best to leverage and weaponize his personnel.
I like Mohammed Sanu. Think he’s been a good player for us and should remain such for at least the next couple of seasons as a big possession target. But aside from his outlier 14.1 YPR season in 2014…his career YPR is 10.6. Justin Hardy sits at 10.0 for his career on the nose. As superhuman as Julio can be…he needs compliments that can hurt a defense if they focus too much on him, not just take what the defense gives. In 2016, the Falcons took and took and took. 13 players caught a TD pass. Defensive coordinators didn’t know left from right when trying to stop the Falcons. The combination of a lot of players having career years and the brilliance of Kyle Shanahan was a potent offensive cocktail. In 2017, the offense felt like it was strangling itself to death…game-by-game.
Comparing YPA figures between 2016 & 2017 on passes attempted travelling more than 21 ‘air’ yards, this is what you need to know about how much fear we instilled in defenses in 2017.
2016: 25 Completions; 52 attempts; 19.13 YPA 2017: 15 Completions; 59 attempts; 9.2 YPA (23rd in the NFL)
Matt Ryan’s YPA for all his passes last year was 9.2.
Now…19.13 is extremely high…it would have ranked 2nd in the NFL in 2017 (behind KC at 20.68). In actually attempting 7 more passes of this variety in 2017, we completed 10 fewer. Now again, a 48.1% (in 2016) completion rate on these type of passes is extraordinarily high (only 4 teams in 2017 exceeded 40%)…the Falcons completion rate in 2017 of 25.42% ranked 28th in the NFL. In short, the fear factor of our 2016 offense, disintegrated in 2017.
So a full review and course correct needs to be considered. Shanahan is long gone. Getting the offense back to the historic level it achieved in 2016 seems a fools errand. But somewhere in between – with red zone success more than failure…? We have to look not only at coaching, but personnel as well.
Playmaking - Defense
What scares offenses isn’t being stopped. Fact of the matter is that a majority of drives end up with a punt…or at least a significant amount of them. Nope – what scares offenses is turning the ball over. It’s what gives QB’s a moments pause in their reads.
And even dating back to 2016, our defense simply doesn’t force many (26th in the NFL over that period). Drilling down further, we’ve only intercepted 20 passes over that time – 30% of which were courtesy of Deion Jones. He’s led the team in INT’s over each of the last two seasons.
If you look at the Falcons secondary…we have two highly paid talents who most would agree are better than average to very good CB’s in Trufant and Alford. Since 2016, they’ve combined for but 6 INT’s. Throw Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal into that production view and they’ve only added 4 more. So from our starting secondary…we have 10 INT’s the last two seasons (13 if you include all secondary players like Jalen Collins from 2016). That’s just not enough takeaway production from your secondary as it relates to QB’s worrying about throws they have to make into it.
Consider some of the defenses most view as top tier and looking at the production of (just) their secondaries:
MIN: 24 INT’s since 2016
JAX: 18 INT’s in 2017
DEN 24 INT’s since 2016
BAL 19 INT’s in 2017
This really needs to become a point of emphasis for the Falcons. There are times when both Trufant/Alford seem like they could be in a position to create the turnover, but are content to break the play up. The difference between an offense facing 2nd & 10 versus walking off the field is enormous. So, their mindset needs to be more aggressive, however, as veterans now, can they simply flip the ‘pick’ switch instead of ‘break-up’ switch?. So we may need to look at how to add personnel that has an Asante Samuel type of mentality.
We may also need to look at personnel as well. Brian Poole was a nice story as a UDFA contributor his rookie season, but thru two seasons, he has 1 INT. Do we have to look at players like Poole and Rico Allen who have yet to display takeaway chops to this point in their careers?
Player Priorities – Immediate Decisions Required
Contract Extensions; Still Under Contract in 2018
Right now, if you were to look at Spotrac and our salary cap situation, you’d likely not be encouraged with only $10M in space (the average if $37M).
One caveat: When you look at the 2018 figures in Spotrac, practice squader Marcelis Branch is slated to count $4.8M against the 2018 cap. I suspect that the folks who enter the data over there may have added a stray zero to his cap charge. If this is the case, the Falcons have more along the lines of $14.5M.
But there are certain players who I believe the Falcons will look to extend that will alleviate a lot of ‘tightness’ to allow some FA moves.
Matt Ryan – 2018 will be the last year of the 5 year extension he signed in 2013. His salary cap charge is $21.65M. I’d anticipate a significant decline in that figure for 2018 as the Falcons lock him up for 5-6 years more years. Dimitroff/Blank have said this is priority #1. 100% chance this gets done. High probability within the next 6-8 weeks (but after Cousins gets his).
Est. Deal: 5 years $145M; $92M guaranteed
Jake Matthews – He hasn’t developed into a ProBowl level talent like we hoped he would drafted where he was. But he’s solid. The Falcons picked up his 5th year option last off-season at a cap hit of $12.5M. Chances of him getting locked long term are at least 50/50 using Desmond Trufant as an example of a 1st round talent the Falcons prioritized in getting locked up long term.
Est. Deal: 5 years $52.5M; $26M guaranteed
Andy Levitre – In the final year of a 6 year deal he signed with TEN (that the Falcons acquired), he’ll count $8.375M against the cap. Heading into his age 32 season and showing well prior to his injury, the Falcons likely have him penciled into their 2018 plans. A 2 year extension that converts his $7M salary into a signing bonus makes sense tying him to the Falcons thru the 2019 season whereby, the contract can be structured get out of easily enough.
Right now those three players account for over 25% ($42.5M) of the Falcons 2018 salary cap space. Shaving enough to provide the Falcons in upwards of $30M in cap space should give them the flexibility necessary to do what’s necessary on the FA market and draft.
I’ve seen a lot of folks looking to dump Levitre. My counterpoint to that desire would be how a OL needs to operate as one unit, all on the same page, play after play. Levitre has shown that when healthy, he’s very solid. The last 3 seasons have seen him resuscitate his career. He’s 6 months younger than Alex Mack and he’s under contract, so it would take a proactive move to rid ourselves of him so that we would have 40% turnover of our line (if the first priority is to find a replacement at RG).
Est Deal: 2 years $10.5M; Convert $5M of 2018 $7M salary to signing bonus and this work out to what amounts to a 3 year $17.5M deal with ability to re-evaluate after 2018 with likely out after 2019.
Falcons Free Agents; Sign or Move On?
I see FA in terms of prioritization and fill-in roster gaps later on. The initial wave are guys I look to sign prior to start of the new league year.
Sign: Dontari Poe; 3 years $27M; $14M guaranteed
Last off-season, I was an advocate of going long term at this position (my target was Bennie Logan). For the Falcons, they did well to secure a player like Poe on a 1-year deal and see what the fit was like. Now I don’t confess to know the dynamics which made the DT FA market in 2017 so 1-year contract intensive…but the deal I used was top line structured like the one Johnathan Hankins signed with the Colts well into free agency. I’d likely offer a signing bonus versus roster bonus since the Colts were amongst the teams in 2017 with the most cap space (henceforth could take the 1-year immediate cap hit with ease).
Matt Bryant; 2 years $10M; $6.5M guaranteed
The guy is simply money. Until he goes all ‘Jason Elam’ he should be amongst the highest paid K’s in the NFL. Falcons don’t make the playoffs without him. At 43 though, anything longer than this would require Bryant to have to adopt the TB12 Method. Likely the Falcons will feel him out in terms of what his plans are, so the years above may change, but the best K’s make $5M/year. Bryant is one of them.
Kemal Ishmael; 1 year $2M
Ishmael is the most versatile Falcon who can fill in at S or LB on defense and is the only player on the Falcons on all ST units. Likely not coveted around the league, but has specific value to the Falcons who should prioritize on year-to-year basis.
LaRoy Reynolds; 1 year $1.25M
A stalwart on Special Teams, doesn’t do much on defense…but he’s depth familiar with Quinn/Manuel and vice-versa.
Speed Dial (Plan - Courtney Upshaw; 1 year $1.25M
Upshaw has been OK. But at this point in his career, he’s nothing more than that. Ultimately, he’s a fall back plan in case better options in FA and the draft don’t pan out. But I’d offer few guarantees. He offers nothing on Special Teams and I suspect given the Falcons woes in this area, they’ll likely want to replenish those units.
Move On: Adrian Clayborn
I think we kind of understood that Clayborn had the game of his life against DAL, but he’s not a 10-sack guy. He’s been a more than serviceable player for the Falcons since Quinn became HC. But with Takk McKinley having showed well his rookie year and poised to take on a larger role in 2018 including a much more significant workload, the Falcons should move on, not to mention his inflated stat line will likely put him in line for a decent sized deal.
Move On: Taylor Gabriel
Gabriel’s limitations were exposed this season away from Shanahan. He wasn’t able to produce big plays like in 2016 as his YPR decreased 5 yards YoY. Given his size and fragility, the Falcons likely need to develop a plan to restock their WR depth chart. It starts by creating a roster spot here.
Move On: Andre Roberts
About the best I could say on Roberts was he was reliable fielding punts. But he provided no presence on offense and his value as a returner was ordinary (finishing 18th in the NFL). Don’t think he’ll be at all coveted on FA market so could be re-signed post draft.
Move On: Derrick Coleman
This felt like a misguided signing a year ago and I wonder if given the chance to make a different decision, the Falcons would have looked to secure Patrick DiMarco. Coleman was out of the league in 2016 and spent most of 2017 demonstrating why.
Ricardo Allen; 2nd round
Whether Allen is the long term answer at FS remains to be seen. But his versatility is a plus and he’s become a leader in the Falcons locker room – one of the Falcons ‘Chiefs’. In Dan Quinn’s words; the embodiment of what they want an Atlanta Falcon to be. But he has a low ceiling and in a secondary devoid of playmakers, the Falcons would be wise to play this out regarding his future with the club.
Terron Ward; Original Round UDFA Tender
Ward has carved out a nice niche as a ST performer and 3rd string RB. But not indispensable and likely not coveted on the open market.
Trade; 2018 7th round selection for Trevor Siemian
With rumors of a Trevor Siemian trade circulating, I’ll endorse that scenario assuming he can be had for a 2017 7th round selection. The positives are that it frees the Falcons of having to pay Matt Schaub’s roster bonus due sometime during the 2018 league year. Schaub’s value was his background in the Shanahan system, but he rarely sees the field and with Shanahan gone, no longer provides a level of detailed expertise on the offense being run. Siemian slots in as a cost effective back-up. I’d trade a 6th rounder if it came to it, but the importance of having a quality back-up is showing itself this post-season.
Given the fact that as it relates to 2018 cap space, the Falcons are in the lower quartile of the NFL teams in terms of space and the recognition that we’ve got young players coming through the pipeline over the next 2-3 years who will require long-term contract decisions and investments, we’re likely shopping at Kohl’s, not Nordstrom.
Josh Kline 6’3 300; RG – 4 years $22.5M; 6’3 300; $10.5M guaranteed
In September 2016, the Patriots traded Kline to the Eagles…for a day. The deal fell thru and the Patriots simply waived him. The Titans using their priority waiver position prior to the start of the season snapped him up. A year and a half later, Kline has positioned himself well for a nice payday having spent the past two seasons at RG for the Titans. He can play both guard spots but will slot in at RG for the Falcons.
His NE Patriot lineage bodes well for him understanding the concept of ‘do your job’ and while his physical ability rests in his mechanics, not his raw athletic attributes, he represents a mid-level investment along a veteran OL that focuses on operating as one unit. It also allows the Falcons to keep Wes Schweitzer for depth with an eye on him potentially competing for a starting gig in 2019 depending on what happens with Andy Levitre.
Why Not a Better, More Renowned FA; Pugh/Norwell?
Norwell is going to cost $10M+/year. As attractive as he is as a player, I think he gets a Kevin Zeitler type deal. Just not keen to bestow that type of deal on a FA guard, especially since Mack is still playing at a high level with 3 years left on his deal, Schrader being locked up long term and Matthews about to be.
Pugh would likely be a better fit, but looking at it from his perspective 1) because he’s been injured so much, while his talent would suggest that he could garner a significant multi-year deal, I think teams might try and come in low, pointing to his back/injury history. As such, I can see him betting on himself on a 1-year deal and seeing what he might be able to do to re-establish his value in 2019 or simply stick with the Giants and 2) he’s been a LG or RT…I don’t know how much RG he’s played. If I’m him, am I going to be willing to go to a new team in a new position? I just don’t think he’s the right fit.
Ross Cockrell 6’0 190 – 1 year $1.75M
Cockrell followed up a very solid 2016, with a disjointed 2017. A lot of that had to do with his sudden trade from PIT to NYG right prior to the start of the season when PIT signed Joe Haden. In NY, Cockrell struggled but still managed to pick off 3 passes (which would have tied for the Falcons team lead). The CB market is loaded this off-season which means it’s possible Cockrell will get the type of long term security he might desire. The Falcons lost Jalen Collins from a depth perspective at the outside CB slot and are quite thin behind starters Trufant/Alford. Cockrell is veteran insurance that allows the Falcons to not necessarily having to develop a young Day 1 or 2 selection. He played last year under a 1 year $1.1M deal, so this represents a premium. He could come cheaper.
Jordan Hill 6’1 305 DT – 1 year $855K
Drafted in the 3rd round in 2013 by the Seahawks, 2014 was what looked to be his breakout season when he racked up 5.5 sacks and 4 batted passes. But Hill has had difficulty staying healthy since. But Quinn and Manuel have familiarity with him (since both were on SEA’s staff during that time). If he’s going to resuscitate his career, he likely would need the coaching staff to have some knowledge and experience with him working in his favor. Our braintrust did pass on him last year when he could have been had for a song, but our depth chart was a little deeper.
He was trending quite well in TC in 2017 with the Lions prior to going out. If Hill can come in and win one of the back-up DT jobs and give around 300-350 defensive snaps, it would be a nice low cost win.
Jeremiah Attachou – DE/LB – 1 year $1.25M non-guaranteed
Two years ago, Attachou seemed to be one of the rising defensive players in the NFL. But injuries and depth chart logjams have hurt that career progression significantly and he likely will have to rebuild his career (value) on a 1-year deal. A tweener type player, he can come back to a familiar city/locale (he went to Tech) where he established himself as an NFL talent (2nd round selection in 2014). His best year came in 2015 when he notched 6.5 sacks.
Since Dan Quinn was named HC of the Falcons, the Falcons have spent 6 of their 8 Day 1 & 2 picks on the defensive side of the ball (including all Day 1 picks – Beasley, Neal, Takk).
1:26 – Christian Kirk; WR – Texas A&M
The Falcons are sorely lacking in playmakers out wide. Past Julio, the rest of their WR depth chart strengths are in their hands, not their legs. And past Sanu, it’s debatable if those attributes are much good.
Kirk provides an instant infusion of playmaking ability who can eventually assume the #2 WR role for the Falcons while providing the Falcons a weapon in the slot. The Falcons likely will be able to play around with formations in their 11 sets and Kirk in the line-up. More than that, Kirk’s presence has the potential to open the secondary back up and create space again for the Falcons receivers. In 2017, with Gabriel not producing the same deep threat as 2016 and
The bonus is that he can become the Falcons primary PR/KR. While more of a side benefit, Kirk has shown an ability to impact the game here as well and allow the Falcons more roster flexibility than keeping a player in this/these roles solely for this function (Eric Weems/Andre Roberts).
2:58 – DeShon Elliott; FS – Texas
I talked about playmaking on offense AND defense. When I watched Quinn/Dimitroff’s season ending press conference, Rico Allen was specifically asked about.
My interpretation – obviously room for debate here, was that they love Rico Allen but do recognize that there are limitations with his skillset. Some of the attributes that he brought to the defense during Quinn’s first three years here, are in more plentiful supply now given a lot of the Falcons young talent is growing up. The fact remains that the last two seasons, Allen has accumulated but 3 INT’s and 5 PD’s. Since the season-ending press conference, there have been some murmurs on a long term deal for Allen. If I’m making the call, I tap the brakes.
You might like what a player brings to a particular unit from an intangible standpoint, but ultimately, Allen has some fatal flaws. On a defense that that has invested in Trufant and Alford long term who are quality CB’s but not guys who put up big takeaway numbers, the Falcons have to find a way to infuse that element into their secondary somehow.
Elliott is a rangy 6’2 safety who had a big junior year at Texas. A willing and solid tackler as well, Elliott profiles as a do-it all S who can add a desperately needed playmaking element to the Falcons secondary. Allen’s versatility could serve him well as he has nickel CB experience so becoming a jack-of-all-trades type player for the Falcons, even long term, isn’t out of the question. But he needs to be upgraded.
3:90 – Justin Jones; DT 6’2 310 – NC State
The interesting aspect of the Falcons DL rotation in 2017 was how much both Jarrett/Poe were on the field (75%+ of the time). In Quinn’s previous two seasons, the Falcons rotated DL (and DT’s specifically) quite a bit more. I suspect a lot of that had to do with the depth at the position being compromised (Hageman release, Crawford injury), but I imagine Marquand Manuel as the new DC had a voice in the big snap shares of both players. Poe wasn’t stellar, but he was pretty solid and that’s why I get him re-signed. To expect Poe to have done more than he did for the Falcons in 2017 was asking him to play at a level he hadn’t exhibited in a long time. He came through with his best season since 2014.
So for me, you sign Poe, you have your starting rotation, but you do need to look at bolstering the depth chart of your interior lineman. Do you do that though in Round 1? It’s not illogical to do this, but I think the Falcons can figure out a way to build depth without that major an investment in draft capital since even a 1st rounder likely is rotating.
Jones who attended South Cobb High comes back home, fits in as part of the Falcons DT rotation. While Poe/Jarrett held up reasonably well, as mentioned, having a rotation of interior lineman has generally been preferred by Quinn in the past and would likely help the Falcons close out games on defense with fresher lineman. It also gives the Falcons a better succession plan at DT down the line. Jones held his own on a talented DL at NC State and blew up the Senior Bowl frequently rag dolling some high pedigree OL talent along the way (Will Hernandez/Sean Welsh). If he can give the Falcons 300 quality snaps on defense in 2018, this pick will have merit.
4th – Kentavius Street; DE/DT 6’2 285 – NC State
The Falcons go back to the NC State DL well which was intensely NFL-talent laden. Street was a player that many felt underperformed given his physical gifts in college. Street is an animal in the weight room and ran a laser timed 4.58 40. Some have opined that his athletic gifts rival if not surpass Aaron Donald. But he was far from dominant during his college career never quite living up to expectations as a 5-star recruit.
As can be the case with a kid like Street, his versatility and physical talent allowed for him to be moved all over the DL. And given NC State will have three other DL drafted in 2018 (one is Bradley Chubb, a Top 5 candidate), he was eclipsed as a prospect.
He played both DT and DE for NC State, his final two seasons – he stuck at DE, but I think his position in the NFL is as an interior rusher where his size/speed combination can be turned against slower and less athletic interior lineman. However, his versatility which was displayed at NC State could have him move to DE in a rotation with Beasley.
I think an HC like Quinn and DC like Manuel will see an opportunity to put a kid in the right position and coach him up and see what they can create.
He had a HUGE week at the East-West Shrine game, and while his projection on a lot of sites has him as more of a late Day 3 pick, I think you’ll need to snatch him here (especially since the Falcons traded their 5th for Sambrailo).
6th – Steve Ishmael; WR 6’2 210 – Syracuse
Yes, if you haven’t gotten the sense about my seriousness about WR, allow me to double down. Ishmael is more Mohammed Sanu than anything else in terms of projection…but he has great hands, does a solid job of high pointing the ball in traffic (a trait the Falcons could use in the RZ/EZ) and can slide into a development role on a replenished depth chart.
And if the last name looks familiar, it should. He’s Kemal’s brother.
Hate Round 1. We have so many other needs than WR. Why?
I’m in favor of giving Sark one more season. Two years ago, most here were despondent at another year of Kyle Shanahan running the Falcons offense. Shanahan was vilified after the 2015 off-season, but the Falcons invested significant FA/Draft capital that mapped to the type of players he felt he required to be successful.
Tevin Coleman – Round 3 – 2015 Draft
Justin Hardy – Round 4 – 2015 Draft
Andy Levitre – Trade TEN 2015
Mohammed Sanu – 2016 FA; 5 yr $32M
Alex Mack – 2016 FA 5 yr $45M
Aldrick Robinson – 2016 FA
Austin Hooper – Round 3 – 2016 Draft
Taylor Gabriel – WW 2016 (from prior Shanahan experience)
Bottomline is that the Falcons invested the necessary resource into providing the type and volume of players Shanahan needed across the offense for it to be successful. To be fair to the Falcons, the sentiment coming off 2016 was rightly, Sark – you adjust to us. We scored 540 points last year. The learning is that running an offense isn’t turnkey. The Falcons, if they hope for Sark to be successful moving forward, need to provide him the same platform to request and get the secure players he needs based on his vision that can certainly incorporate concepts still that made them so successful in 2016, but allows Sark to build/construct ‘his’ offense. Whether Kirk is that player after the Falcons go thru their FA/Draft evaluations remains to be seen. But ultimately, after Julio – we are subpar at the WR position.
Only 1 mid-tier FA signing to bolster the OL?
When the Falcons went thru the 2016 season unscathed at OL – they were the only team to have started each guy along the OL for all 16 games, the percentage of offensive snaps played by non-starters was 2.1%. Obviously you can’t count on what happened in 2016 to occur again, but at the same time, if you have a ‘starting line’ which with the signing of Kline, would give the Falcons a veteran laden starting 5…the investment you make in your back-up has to be measured.
Was Schweitzer the weak link in 2017? Yes…but he’s a young player who plays along the interior who I think the Falcons would still like to develop for another year and make a determination if he can be a Levitre successor (or move Kline to LG and slide Schweitzer back into RG). Sambrailo cost the Falcons a 2018 5th rounder – he had a 2nd round pedigree and in limited time in 2017, showed decently enough to think he’s at least competent depth. And then you have 2017 4th round pick Sean Harlow who essentially took a professional redshirt year. So to the extent the Falcons make any more personnel investments here, it probably needs to be via UDFA – diamond in the rough PS type player.
Our TE’s suck – nothing on that front?
I think the window on TE and re-structuring that position is next off-season, if he requires restructuring.
Hooper – yes, I was hoping for a bigger leap. But he did show progress. Is he going to be Zach Ertz, probably not, but I think he can be a legitimately solid complimentary piece in the passing game.
Toilolo – his 3 year extension he signed last off-season, becomes more palatable to get out of after this season
Saubert – the kid went to Drake. He was considered incredibly raw coming out of school. This will be a big off-season for him. You’ll know more about what you have in him this time next year
I’ve seen some scenarios that propose a try-and-buy deal on Tyler Eifert. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but ultimately, there is just a lot of gray area here and financially, your flexibility is better next off-season to rework the room if you need to – along with providing another year to settle on a long term assessment of the players you have.
What areas after your off-season are dangerously thin?
To the degree Sark uses/needs a FB, I know Coleman didn’t perform well. But even an elite FB like DiMarco with a great OC was on the field less than 40% of the time. However, I also know Tevin Coleman was extremely productive in the I-formation in 2016.
LB is also an area that even with the re-signing of Ishmael…if we get hit with an injury at that position, I worry. I think we can expect more out of Riley in 2018, but he needs to learn how to corral his speed. Felt the coaching staff kind of redshirted him after he came back from injury mid-year.
QB: Ryan, Siemian RB: Freeman, Coleman, Ward, UDFA RB/FB (?) WR: Julio, Sanu, Kirk, Hardy, S. Ishmael, Hall TE: Hooper, Toilolo, Saubert OL: Matthews, Levitre, Mack, Kline, Schraeder, Sambrailo, Schweitzer, Harlow DL: Takk, Poe, Jarrett, Beasley, Jones, Street, Reed, (Attachou, Crawford, Shelby, Hill – fighting for 2 spots) LB: Debo, Riley, Campbell, Reynolds, K.Ishmael
DB: Trufant, Alford, Cockrell, Poole, Elliott, Neal, Allen, Kazee
P: Bosher K: Bryant LS: Harris