I'm sure I'm not the only fan suffering through this season who has realized our roster needs some serious adjustments. Unfortunately, there's not much the front office can do at this point in the season to help the situation so for the time being we're all going to have to have faith in Mike Smith, who for the majority of his tenure has been a sound decision maker. Though I've watched my fair share of football- and played in school while growing up as well- I can't say I've ever coached so I'll leave the conjecture about possible scheme adjustments to better minds.
What I'm more concerned about is the rash of injuries that have exposed the Falcons depth, or lack there of. Thomas Dimitroff was heralded for assembling a winning team from a roster stripped of talent in the wake of the Michael Vick debacle, but since that off season there have been questionable decisions made that have ultimately lead us to our current state. Now I know hind sight is always 20/20 and I am most certainly thankful and appreciative of our current regime that's lead us to success we've never had before, but complacency leads to irrelevance so I'm going to highlight a couple areas where I think there should be some changes made.
In my opinion there are 3 major factors contributing to our lack of depth:(1) Players who are not worth what they're paid (2) Total neglect of the offensive and defensive lines (3) "Conservative" draft strategy
(1) Players who are not worth what they're paid
There are a number of players on the team right now who currently are not playing up to their contracts. Some of these guys were worth what they signed for at the time but just as a result of age have declined. Some were never worth a second contract. Whatever the case these players need to be addressed whether it be cutting ties with them or asking them for a pay cut. Here are the guys I could come up with off the top of my head: SAM BAKER(!!!!), Osi Umenyiora, Thomas DeCoud, Stephen Nicholas, Jason Snelling, Justin Blalock, Asante Samuel, Roddy White, Steven Jackson
Sam Baker: I'm not quite sure what Dimitroff was thinking resigning Sam Baker- he's underachieved his entire career for the exception of 2012 which was not so coincedentally his contract year. Could have let him walk and signed Jermon Bushrod who signed a near identical contract with Chicago this offseason. I personally think he should be cut at season's end and replacement found assuming Lamar Holmes does not prove he can be an improvement
Osi Umenyiora: Osi is not the same player he was in NY. He may have 4 sacks, but his stats are misleading as he's been non existent except for in spurts against the Dolphins and Jets whom he's recorded all 4 of his sacks against. It should be noted that both Dolphins and Jets have been poor at pass protecting this year, and one against the Jets was because he was literally untouched. He may be the best defensive lineman we have, but his play isn't good enough to justify a 4.5 million dollar contract (which could escalate to even more $). I think we should cut ties with him and try to develop one of our own defensive lineman for once in the Mike Smith era
Thomas DeCoud: I'm really hoping 2013 is an aberration in DeCoud's career because he's seriously regressed since breaking out last year as a ball hawk. Maybe a lack of pass rush has something to do with part of his troubles, but it can't be denied that some of the fundamentals of his game like tackling and pursuit angles need to worked on. He's currently in the 2nd year of his 2nd contract, and he's still got a some good years left in him before one would expect a physical decline in his abilities, so I'll remain cautiously optimistic about retaining DeCoud. One thing is certain if he doesn't improve by season's end I'm sure his contract will be reworked
Stephen Nicholas: To be honest I've never seen anything in his play to be impressed by, in the past he was always average at best but this season his play has declined to the point he's been benched begind an UDFA rookie linebacker. definitely can't be paying a backup LB in the millions. He should be cut
Jason Snelling: I've always loved Jason Snelling so it pains me to include him on this list, but the truth is the Falcons just don't give the man enough touches. He's shown a LOT in so few snaps so it has really irked me that the Falcons would give him a 2nd contract but then hardly ever play the man. While I would love to keep him, having Quizz on a longer, cheaper contract makes Snelling expendable.. I know he'll be a contributor somewhere else.
Justin Blalock: He's our best offensive lineman this year but not necessarily by any great improvement by his part but by the downgrade of talent around him. To his credit he has improved since last season, but at a 4.5 million dollar cap hit it's fair to wonder if he's maxed out before his contract has. We'll keep him on board purely because there are so many holes in the O-line we can't afford to create another, but his level of play should be watched closely to see if he could be a possible candidate to restructure his contract
Asante Samuel: I love the guy. He's got attitude and smarts, but he hasn't been healthy this season and he isn't getting any younger. The age factor is especially cruel in the NFL and he's already been significantly limited with injuries this season in which he's owed 3 million. The Falcons have to assess if a hypothetically healthy Samuel would be worth 3.5 million in 2014. I would love to see Samuel back in black and red for the nuances he could teach to Trufant and Alford but not for 3.5 million. It's unlikely he'll take a second pay cut though, which may lead to him being cut.. fortunately the Falcons have some depth at the corner position
Roddy White: I know I'm sure to catch heat for this one-and though its not entirely fair to judge his numbers by this season alone because of injuries- there has been a subtle steady decline in White's production. He's still a great route runner and clutch on third downs, but Roddy's TD's have been declining since 2010. Maybe it's because Tony and Julio have been taking potential looks away from him, but the change from a run 1st offense to a pass happy one should in theory compensated for those touches. Good news is that Roddy is under contract until the end of the 2014 season, which should give him plenty of time to get healthy and prove his worth. I would love to see Roddy resign with the Falcons and be a Falcon for life, but the cap situation is an ever changing situation from season to season and the Falcons have to weigh what he's asking against what they'll have to pay Julio Jones when his contract is up- who is already a top 3 receiver in his short career. Hopefully White's request will be reasonable
Steven Jackson: Last but certainly not least is the big fella Steven Jackson. Let's be honest, the Falcons brought Jackson in to make a Superbowl run THIS year and that's also why Jackson came to Atlanta. The man is a workaholic and a consummate professional, but he's getting older and for his production to pay value it wouldn't be too difficult to find a cheaper, long term successor through the draft in today's NFL( he's owed 3 million and 3.75 million over the next two years). I say cut the man loose at season's end and let him find a contender to join forces with while freeing up much needed cap space on our end.
(2) Total neglect of the offensive and defensive lines
The Falcons might have drafted Sam Baker and Peria Jerry in 2008 and 2009 respectively, but neither of those selections worked out and we knew this well before the start of the 2013 season. First, let's go back to 2008 when Dimitroff and Smith took over the team. The New York Giants had just won the first of their two Super Bowls, and their win against the seemingly perfect New England Patriots was predicated on the prowess of their offensive and defensive lines. They had Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Michael Strahan on defense and David Diehl, Chris Snee, and Shaun O'Harra anchoring their offensive line. and all 6 were probowlers/ All-Pros between their two Super Bowls ( though maybe not all in the same season). The point is that they had shown laid out the blueprint of how to win in the modern NFL: Get to the QB on Defense and Protect the QB on Offense. Seeing that Mike Smith's success as a D-coordinator in Jacksonville was based largely on the DT tandem of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson I thought it would be a no brainer we'd draft to build a stingy front 7 and a mauling offensive line, but we didn't. Dimitrov took a "If it ain't broke why fix it" approach and up for much of their tenure the lines we've been fielding were holdovers from the Jim Mora Jr. and Bobby Petrino regimes. If depth is important at any position it's in the trenches, and while I'm not complaining about the blockbuster that landed us Julio Jones, I do think we should have invested more quality draft picks in linemen beyond the 2008 and 2009 drafts.. Baker and Jerry were both reaches for where we took them in their respective drafts anyways.
(3) Conservative draft strategy
This is what has bothered me the most, no matter how good a player is Dimitrov won't ever draft a guy if he has character concerns. There was even an article written where even Arthur Blank was surprised and concerned at how many players were eliminated from Dimitroff's draft board with red flags for "character concerns". Let's be real, a lot of good football prospects are from what most would say are "rough" backgrounds. A good number of those prospects get a bit of a big head when they go to college and are regarded as rockstars around campus. Some of those guys get to thinking they're invincible and end up doing something stupid. It happens, and while being wary of these incidents is smart the degree to which the Falcons limit their draft pool based solely on this is putting them at a disadvantage. Other teams are landing elite talents with some maturity issues in the middle rounds while the Falcons are reaching on guys like Akeem Dent and Lamar Holmes (both were graded as 5th rounders who we took in the 3rd). I understand after the Mike Vick disaster why it would be important to have guys with a positive energy in the locker room, but this is a completely different team who is long removed from that time. Honestly, do you think Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzales, Asante Samuel, Osi Umenyiora, or Steven Jackson would tolerate any rookie's antics? These guys are professionals who are dedicated to winning, and any rookie coming into that locker room would recognize what kind of mindset it takes to win based on the example they set. I'm not saying we should become the Cincinatti Bengals and pick up every guy who hits the waiver wire due to a DUI, but they have found some talent to be had and turned a few careers around with their approach. It's a low risk high reward kind of investment, and I could live with it if we rolled the dice a couple times and not hit but we're not even considering it, and for a team with serious lapses in talent we can't take a potential talent pool like that for granted any longer
Now this brings me to another related point, but Mike Smith is so biased towards "his guys" he's drafted it's detrimental to the team. I feel like Mike Smith will hand starting jobs to certain players because they're guys he's drafted and not based on who is the best player. Case in point, I don't know what Garret Reynolds has ever done to be a starter ( or Sam Baker for that matter) because over the course of 2 seasons now I haven't seen it. Another one is Peria Jerry. Granted its sad a knee injury derailed his career before it could even really get started, but sticking with him is just stupid! I know he isn't starting anymore, but paying a backup a 1st rounders contract isn't exactly what I'd call fiscally sound. Another flaw I see in his approach is the fact that no matter how good a rookie is he won't ever start him, he always gives the job to a less talented veteran. Look at teams like the 49ers, Seahawks, and Texans. they have a surplus of quality talent at multiple positions because they coach is truly committed to playing the player who proves they are the best regardless of draft position or who's regime drafted the player. If a player knows he has a legitimate shot to seize a starting job he will play his hardest to earn it, and that's how those teams maximize the talents of otherwise marginal prospects. I mean seriously look at the roster turnover of the Seahawks over the past couple season, I'm pretty sure they set a record with the THOUSANDS of personnel moves they've made over the years. I hate them, but you got to look at what they're doing right, and one thing you can see in that organization for sure is that they're loyalty is to the player who best proves he belongs on the team and can help them win. Look how fast they shipped Aaron Curry out of town when they knew he was a bust, and he was a top 5 pick! The Falcons on the other hand are handing out charity contracts to the likes of Sam Baker because the administration is too proud to admit they whiffed on that selection.
The Falcons, namely Dimitroff and Smith, need to do some soul searching this off season, because changes need to be made with how they've gone about doing certain things. The Falcons need to capitalize on every opportunity possible of adding the BEST talent available this offseason other wise we could be suffering through another disappointing season next year and those two will probably be out of a job.