There can be no denying how important the 2014 offseason will be for the Falcons.
Sure, every offseason is important for every team. It always is. But for Atlanta, this is especially the case for reasons obvious to both you and me. Nobody's happy with 4-12 and everyone wants to see a quick turnaround.
Thankfully, it seems general manager Thomas Dimitroff has also reflected that in his media appearances over the last few weeks. On Tuesday, he took part in a Google hangout session where he fielded questions from fans and gave, surprisingly enough, some candid responses. Or at least about as candid as an NFL GM can be these days.
The first question was a pretty standard one: what do you hope to accomplish during the offseason? Dimitroff answered with one of the overarching themes of 2013: toughness (or lack thereof in Atlanta's case).
"One of our main focuses will be to truly add that element of ruggedness to this football team... Watching [Mike Tice and Bryan Cox] here at the Senior Bowl, I'm very encouraged by their approach, which is definitely rugged, definitely gritty."
If toughness is what Dimitroff wants (and I think he should want it), then Tice and Cox sound like solid first steps.
And for those of you who feel as though Pat Hill was made the "scapegoat" for the poor O-line play of 2013, well, Dimitroff didn't shy away at least taking partial blame. He doesn't outright say "this is my fault," because, really, the offensive line disaster cannot be put entirely on him, or any one player or coach. But that also doesn't mean there wasn't a misjudgment, or two, or three when it came to cobbling together the line.
"I've said this a number of times, as well. I believe in the end when people look back on this past season, I believe I and we as an organization mis-assessed the readiness for that offensive line to come together. From the standpoint of having some young people on the offensive line, we were hoping they were going to develop quicker. Doesn't mean they aren't adept enough to be a solid offensive line going forward. We need to keep developing those guys."
Bottom line: the Falcons paid dearly for deciding to spend money elsewhere and hoping the inexperienced (Konz, Holmes) developed enough to hold their own.
Dimitroff also brings up a point I think was hardly discussed during 2013: Matt Ryan's contract extension. If we're looking at that deal on a yearly basis, he's owed double-figure salaries (in the millions, of course) from here until the year 2019. That's a big chunk of the salary cap. There's no question Ryan is worth every penny, but it also forced the team to cut costs on other areas of the roster.
In last year's case, that wound up being (in part) the departures of Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo on the offensive line. Dimitroff addresses this when asked about the lack of leadership up front last season:
"Mis-assessing the readiness, that goes in line with what your question may be as far as the leadership. In the NFL, there's a challenge and you have to be very creative about making sure that when you have a $104 million quarterback, you have to be smart about how you're putting all your pieces together. Some players end up being cap casualties... With that this past season, we made some moves on our team. It wasn't individual moves, but the aggregate. It was a combination of different moves that caused us to falter a little bit with leadership on the O-line."
Spot on, I'd say. Speaking of lost veteran leadership, the Falcons will have another huge hole to fill at tight end this offseason, left by the nearly retired Tony Gonzalez (he's got that Pro Bowl gig, now).
Dimitroff obviously couldn't give specifics on who he has in mind as a replacement, but he did talk about his desire to see continued diversity at the position.
"[Gonzalez] was great for Matt Ryan's evolution as a quarterback and this team's evolution as an offense. We know it's a high-percentage shot, we know it's very important to have adept tight ends in the scheme. We picked up one last year in Levine Toilolo. We like how he's developing. Sure, you can never replace Gonzalez. We'll do all in our power to make sure we situate our offense properly with the right tight ends...There are "F" tight ends. Those are more move tight ends who are much more athletic, route-running tight ends. There are "Y" tight ends who are much more blocking tight ends. On a roster of three, you want a blocker, a Y tight end, an F tight end, a move tight end, as well as that combo guy guy that can do both."
I can't think of a year under Dimitroff when the Falcons didn't carry three tight ends. From that statement, I'd say they'll stick with the M.O. there. Toilolo is, of course, the "Y" tight end. He can be a red zone weapon, sure, but his strength is what he does in-line. Then there's Chase Coffman, an impending free agent who's probably more of the guy that can do both. Obviously with Gonzalez gone, they need that "F" type of production.
But that's far from the biggest need. Two of the biggest names (at least as far as the draft goes) being tied to the Falcons are Clowney and Barr, along with offensive tackle Jake Matthews. Dimitroff was asked about all three and, obviously, couldn't say a whole lot.
"Both of those players are top-notch talents. They are game-changers. I would be giving away my draft secrets if I talked about who I would rather have. Suffice it to say, both could come in and impact defenses that need the type of defense that's not only going to stop the run, leverage at the point of attack but also rush on the passer. That's something that everybody in this league could use."
"Jake's got such a background as far as being around an historic football family... He's got such strong technique about him. Such a very developed mind as far as offensive line, technique, ability to adjust. Those are special traits that not everyone comes to the line of scrimmage with. This guy's going to be a top-10 pick if not a top-5."
If you recall, a couple of the names tied to Dimitroff's wandering eyes at the Senior Bowl have been Zack Martin and Seantrel Henderson. The team's interest in offensive tackle is real. But (and I think Dimitroff's comments hint at this) the interest in an outside pass rusher, especially with the hiring of Bryan Cox, is greater.
Another area the Falcons clearly want to upgrade - and perhaps this gives us an idea of how the team handles the free agents at the position - is defensive tackle. Dimitroff received a question about what he looks for on the defensive line.
"Whether it's a defensive end and a defensive tackle, sometimes we're looking at those big hosses inside. The 330, 40, 50-pound guys. We need some girth in there. Some guys that are just gonna hunker down, anchor in there. Those guys, usually they have that gritty, rugged element to them."
If you look at the defensive tackles on the roster, none are heavier than 300 pounds. Corey Peters, as good as he was, would likely be better suited lining up more to the outside and not being forced to take on double teams as he did last season. That's not his forte. So adding a big guy that can eat up some space would make sense.
There was also a bit of promising news on the injury front with regards to Julio Jones.
"We've had some tough injuries. Fortunately, we haven't had a lot of soft tissue injuries. That's important for us. That allows us to know and realize we are moving in the right direction as far as training the right way, as far as keeping our guys healthy... Everyone's on target. The fan base will be happy to hear Julio, No. 11, he will be back healthy and ready to go."
And lastly, where would we be without a bizarre / out of left field question that only Dimitroff could field: how would one become a GM?
"There's something called fantasy football. I think that's probably the easiest way to do so."
True that, Comrade.