In the midst of these bleak months without any actual football, it doesn't take much to provoke excitement about the coming season, which is why we're all willing to discuss free agency and the draft over, and over, and over again. Good news: the NFL draft begins in just eight days, and the new league year officially begins one month from today, so we're getting closer to discussing actual roster moves instead of talking about theoretical ones ad nauseum.
For 2013, the Falcons have 48 players under contract, and I've seen their total cap figure estimated at anywhere from $113 million to around $117.1 million. The reality is, no matter what that actual number is, the Falcons have immediate positional needs, limited time to develop "projects" acquired through the draft, and not much money to work with to fill those holes. There are a number of players who contributed greatly to the team's success in 2012 who are free agents in 2013, and it's a good thing Thomas Dimitroff is a genius, because it's going to take some maneuvering to field a team that can surpass the achievements of the 2012 squad.
The offensive line has the potential to be shaken up quite a bit, with left tackle Sam Baker, hybrid guard/tackle Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Will Svitek, and center Todd McClure all hitting free agency. Baker, much-maligned during his tenure with the Falcons, had a considerably better season in 2012, and quality left tackles are hard to come by, so there will be demand for Baker, and he will be pricy. Reynolds landed on injured reserve early in the season with a back injury, and Svitek hit IR before the regular season even began. McClure seemed to have lost a step this season. Establishing and maintaining chemistry along the offensive line is fundamentally important, but cap space is going to force some changes.
Tony Gonzalez is an unrestricted free agent in 2013, but his contract status doesn't matter much, as he will probably retire, and if he does not retire, which is my sincere hope, he did state that he would return to the Falcons next season.
Fullback Mike Cox will hit free agency, and with Bradie Ewing returning from the knee injury that kept him on IR last season, it's unlikely that Cox is on the 53 man roster next season. Rounding out the offensive unrestricted free agents is backup quarterback Luke McCown, who probably won't be particularly expensive or in high demand.
On the defensive line, DE Lawrence Sidbury and DT Vance Walker are both unrestricted free agents. Sidbury just hasn't panned out, no matter how confusing that is to all of us. He was on the field for 2.94% of the defensive snaps last season, and didn't inspire awe in any of them. Vance Walker, on the other hand, had a very solid season. He played over half of the defensive snaps in 2012, and finished the season with four sacks, one hit and 15 hurries. His performance in 2012 may price him out of Atlanta's plans for 2013.
At linebacker, Atlanta's depth is perilously thin, and only seasoned veteran Mike Peterson is entering free agency. Peterson is well-liked and respected by players and fans alike, and if he does not return to Atlanta in 2013, the elder statesman of D-Block will be missed, but it's time for the linebacker corps of the Falcons to get younger and faster and more effective in coverage and against the run.
William Moore is apparently always ready to test the waters of free agency, and backup veteran safety Chris Hope is also an unrestricted free agent. Chris Hope has a great team-first attitude, but he's aging, and re-signing him is probably unlikely. Willy Mo, on the other hand, should be a priority for the Falcons. There are other strong safeties available in free agency, but can any of them even rap? I doubt it.
Brent Grimes, sidelined in 2012 with an Achilles injury, and Christopher Owens are both unrestricted free agents in 2013. It will be interesting to see what the Falcons do at cornerback--there's a lot of discussion of cutting Dunta Robinson for cap space, and it's hard to know what kind of market will develop for Grimes after he missed significant time with a knee injury in 2011 and all but the first game of the 2012 season with the Achilles injury. Owens struggled with injury this season--a concussion, a nagging hamstring injury--but when he was on the field, he fit Mike Nolan's scheme well and was quite good in coverage.
Tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith are both restricted free agents, and neither is going to be wildly expensive to sign. I'd be surprised if they both aren't on the Falcons roster in 2013.
How do you think free agency will shake out for the Falcons? Are you concerned about the Falcons filling their needs with limited cap space? Are you excited to see the Comrade work his roster magic?