I want to take a step back now that the FA and draft are finally over with and take a full look at what transpired, what was new, what was the same, the successes and failures of our front office, and ultimately what we learned.
The goal of this off-season was to get bigger, tougher, and grittier as a team and to control the line of scrimmage. Obviously we can only know so much before we see some of these guys play, but I feel we definitely accomplished that goal. The additions of Soliai, Jackson, and Hageman on defense and Asamoah and Matthews on offense should go a long way in helping us control the line of scrimmage. This was a long time coming and we did an admirable job of accomplishing that goal.
We needed to add some quality depth at several positions and create some competition for our incumbent starters and we certainly did that. I think we added quality depth at almost every position on the team except for Center, Offensive Guard, and Tight End. While we didn't get the pure pass rushing linebacker that we had all hoped for, we certainly have a lot of competition there, and hopefully some cream will rise to the top.
Addition by subtraction. We got rid of some guys like Reynolds and Decoud who just couldn't get it together, and we finally let some bad players walk. I imagine that by the end of camp Jerry is another casualty. We have to know when to let guys go and move on, and I think we have made some steps in the right direction where that is concerned.
I think we completely screwed up with the FS position this year, but not so much in the draft as FA. Ward went to Denver on what appears to be a pretty reasonable contract, and the Saints stole Byrd for a very small amount this year. We thought we would be able to sign Bush, but then the Saints matched our offer, and by that time all of the decent FA safeties were gone. I appreciate the upside of Southward, but it is pretty unlikely he will be ready to start this season.
Overpaying for FA. Unfortunately with a year of increased salary cap, you are going to have to pay a lot for FAs, and so we did. While we got quality players, I think we overpaid for Soliai, Jackson, and Hester. Soliai hit us especially hard with a huge up front payment this year, money we could have used to get a safety or pass rusher. Luckily our salary cap is in pretty good shape for next year.
Failing to find an edge rusher. This is probably the biggest failure of this off season but it wasn't entirely the front office's fault. FA pass rushers came at a very high price, and outside of Ware, I think most teams ended up over paying for sub-par talent. Unfortunately, though I am certain we tried, the price wasn't right to trade up for Clowney and Mack, and there just weren't a lot of talented pass rushers in this draft. By taking BPA at 37, we pretty much surrendered the possibility of getting a quality edge rusher. I know the F.O. tried to trade back up into the 2nd and possibly even back into the first, but they couldn't find a partner.
I think we can say with a certainty that bringing in Pioli certainly had a big effect on our off season. We got 2 free agents from his former employer KC who he had drafted. We put an emphasis on drafting and signing quality interior linemen even at the expense of some other positions.
I think there is evidence of some tweaks, if not total changes in philosophy for both the coaching staff and front office in the draft. The first thing that comes to mind is competition. Where before it was pretty much a guarantee that the incumbent starter would at least start the season with his job secure unless we brought in a 1st or 2nd rounder, I think that is out the window. The only players who I think are absolutely set as starters are Ryan, Julio, Roddy, Trufant, Blalock, Asamoah, Soliai, and Moore. There is going to be a ton of competition at OT, all the linebackers, free safety, corner, running back, and defensive end/tackle. Veteran loyalty is being tossed aside to give everyone a chance.
The next tweak I noticed was a change in drafting strategy. There are a few things this draft that are certainly reminiscent of other TD drafts. We prefer seniors and team captains. We look for players who offer a lot of versatility and can play multiple positions. TD is always going to reach for a player who most of us had projected 2 or 3 rounds later.
However, there were definitely some changes. For one I think we started to see the Falcon Filter loosened a bit, though the F.O. would probably not admit it. I am 90% sure Lewan was one of the 6 players TD talked about who he would be happy with if we stayed at 6, so we clearly had him on our board. Shembo certainly has a question mark on his record as well, but it appears after doing our due diligence we were satisfied and decided not to exclude the player. One of the knocks on Hageman is that he takes plays off and may not give 100% but we still decided he was worth the risk. We also deviated somewhat from total needs based drafting and took Hageman who was BPA at 37 rather than a safety or edge rusher. Now the front office may say that Hageman is an answer for our pass rushing woes, and maybe he is, but I think clearly the need at OLB and FS was more pressing than another 3 technique DT or 5 technique DE. Finally I think there was more value placed on what we would be willing to give away in trade. I think it's pretty clear that the Falcons wanted to move in this draft, but when they saw that the price would be prohibitive, they backed off and waited for their picks. Perhaps TD has placed more value on future picks than he has in the past, and is thus not willing to give up quite as much just to get his guy.
Finally I think the biggest thing that we can gain from this off season is a major change in philosophy on both sides of the ball. On offense, we have recommitted to controlling the line of scrimmage and improving our run game and protecting Matt Ryan. "Explosive" is no longer the adjective that you will hear the coaches and front office talking about like it was when we brought in Julio. I think we are trying to transition away from a finesse offense and back to what we were in 2008/2009, a team with a nasty O line that could run the ball well, who uses play action effectively. We'll see how well we are able to do it, but all the moves made so far point towards that being a goal.
On the defensive side of the ball there is little doubt in my mind that we are going to be primarily a 3-4 team moving forward. I know the talk has all been about a hybrid front, and I am sure that we will still use some 4-3, but all of the moves this off season point towards the 3-4 being our bread and butter. We brought in a true NT, and signed and drafted 5 technique DE's. We now have 2 linebacker coaches, and after the draft we now have a ton of linebackers on the roster. Our 3 potential starters on the D line for a 3-4 Jackson, Soliai, and Hageman combined add up to almost 1000 lbs. They certainly accomplished the goal of getting bigger and nastier on the D line, and that could be a truly dominant DL in a year or two.
I think we are refocusing on special teams. Obviously the big signing was Hester, but a lot of the players we drafted late are special teams aces. Last year we did not return kicks well, nor did we cover them well. Coverage especially used to be one of our strengths. I think a lot of the late draft picks were made with the intention of immediately upgrading our special teams. This unit should be greatly improved.
Finally I want to address expectations going forward. This team is absolutely much better today than it was at the start of 2013. We have addressed a lot of our needs, and corrected some mistakes that we have made along the way. Unfortunately, it's still a work in progress. I don't think there was any way that we could have adequately addressed all of our needs in one off season. Furthermore this team has a lot of youth and unpolished players especially on defense. The entire right side of our offensive line is new, and we are moving towards a more power blocking scheme. It's going to take some time for them to gel. Our defensive line could be entirely replaced in base packages from last year. It is quite possible that we will have newly signed FA's, rookies, or 2nd year starters for 8 of our 11 starters on defense. You can count on a lot of new looks from the defense as well and a lot of new packages now that Nolan has a set of players that suit his style of defense more. There are going to be some growing pains. That being said, I think the future of this team is quite bright, we got a major influx of talent, but we have to be patient. Another 4-12 season is absolutely unacceptable and unlikely, but it is naive to think that we will be right back to 13-3. You'll notice this is a very different roster from the one that was 10 yards away from the Super Bowl, especially on defense. Vegas has us at an over/under of 8.5 wins this season and that is fair. If we catch a few breaks, and avoid serious injuries we could have between 9 and 11 wins, and maybe a shot at the playoffs. On the other hand injuries are going to be more common now since players aren't allowed to hit high. You will continue to see a lot of torn ACL's and we have to expect to lose a couple players this season. If we lose the wrong ones, and/or it takes a while for our second years and our new acquisitions to adjust to new schemes we could easily be a 7 or 8 win team. Lets temper our expectations a bit and be optimistic about the future, but give it another off season before we start talking Super Bowl.