Everyone's eagerly anticipating this offseason. Combine a 4-12 record and quality cap space and it's not hard to see why Falcons fans can't wait to see if Thomas Dimitroff and the front office can make the kind of moves that will bring the team back to the playoffs in 2014.
It's January, but the early estimates regarding cap space are favorable. Scott Carasik at Bleacher Report has the Falcons working with quite a bit of cap space now, with the potential for Atlanta to exceed $30 million if they make a fairly extensive round of cuts.
Atlanta is currently 14.8M under the cap. If they cut Snelling, Reynolds, Biermann, Nicholas, Osi, Samuel and DeCoud, they are 32.7M under.— Scott Carasik (@ScottCarasik) January 30, 2014
None of those players are so stellar that they should be off-limits in discussion about cuts. That said, I can't see the Falcons booting all of those players to the curb in 2014, and I can't see them needing $32.7 million in cap space to have an effective offseason. Scott makes a strong case for doing so and you cannot rule anything out in January, though, so brace yourself for anything.
What I was interested in reviewing after reading these cap estimates and polling Falcons fans on their free agent wish lists was Thomas Dimitroff and the front office's forays into free agency while he has been in Atlanta. While a 4-12 season changes the calculus a little bit, my memory would suggest that the Falcons are not a team that would cannonball into free agency to a degree that would warrant carving out massive cap space. I decided to see if my memory was up to snuff.
This is a rundown of each off-season through April. We're not touching the draft with this one, but trying to understand who the Falcons jettisoned and where they allocated their free agent dollars. With a handful of exceptions, I've limited the scope of this to the March-to-June time period and to free agents who were interesting or impactful enough to merit inclusion on this list.
Let's get to it.
Notable Released/Waived: TE Alge Crumpler, QB Byron Leftwich, T Wayne Gandy, CB Lewis Sanders, WR Jamin Elliott, LB Marcus Wilkins, DT Rod Coleman, RB Warrick Dunn
Traded: CB DeAngelo Hall
Signed: DT Rashad Moore, DT Kindal Moorehead, DE Simon Fraser, DT Tim Anderson, S Erik Coleman, RB Michael Turner, TE Ben Hartsock, CB Von Hutchins, C Alex Stepanovich, TE Jason Rader, K Jason Elam, K Kevin Lovell
The first offseason under Thomas Dimitroff and the new front office was a transformative one primarily through the draft, but it's worth remembering that the Falcons cleaned out a ton of players and signed a bunch of gambles as replacement. Some of those gambles worked out in spectacular fashion, while many others did not.
The Falcons worked to clean out aging players like Coleman, Dunn, Crumpler and Gandy who were not going to be part of the rebuild in Atlanta. They jettisoned depth and replaced it with their own players, which is natural. But the team also did something that would come to define future free agency periods: It didn't use free agency as a way to sign multiple impact players.
Michael Turner is the big name of the group. He got six years and $34.5 million from the new regime to be the lead back, which he was for five seasons. That was by far the splashiest signing in 2008, and it was also the one that worked out the best. Turner was a driving force behind the team's success from 2008-2010, at minimum.
Next up would be Erik Coleman, who provided real stability at safety in 2008 while amassing 95 tackles and picking three passes. Jason Elam provided a solid veteran kicking option in 2008, though he fell apart in 2009. Von Hutchins was hurt, my bad and Ben Hartsock was useful blocker. Everyone else was a depth signing the Falcons hoped would become something better, but none of them really did.
The Falcons weren't anticipating instant success, and their free agency reflects that. They sought one impact player (Turner), a few solid veteran pieces and the kind of depth you need to weather growing pains and injuries from young players. Their unexpected success in 2008 gave them reason to head into 2009 and pick up the missing pieces.
Notable Released/Waived/Allowed to Walk: LB Keith Brooking, LB Michael Boley, S Lawyer Milloy, DT Grady Jackson, CB Dominique Foxworth
Traded: FOR TE Tony Gonzalez
Signed: LB Mike Peterson, C Brett Romberg, CB Brian Williams, T Will Svitek
The Tony Gonzalez trade was a huge, year-defining move for the Falcons, and he gave Matt Ryan an awesome security blanket. The rest of free agency was extraordinarily quiet.
Mike Peterson was a solid veteran presence who did good work for a couple of seasons. Brett Romberg was a backup who bounced on and off the roster for the Falcons. Brian Williams was solid enough as a corner before an ACL tear in October cost him the rest of the year. Will Svitek proved to be an invaluable swing tackle who got some starts on the left side. The Falcons lost four veterans from the previous regime, none of whom went on to great things.
It was also the worst year for these Falcons before 2013, as they lost Matt Ryan and just narrowly missed the playoffs. It's fair to wonder whether having Ryan all season would have led to a playoff berth, but this was arguably the quietest offseason the Falcons have put together since Dimitroff arrived in town. The Falcons were not thrilled with their secondary, which would lead into the next offseason's big move.
It's worth noting that the Falcons signed Matt Bryant after releasing Jason Elam, which turned out to be a brilliant move. Because that happened in December, we're not counting it here.
Notable Released/Waived/Allowed to Walk: CB Tye Hill, S Matt Giordano
Traded: CB Chris Houston
Signed: CB Dunta Robinson, re-signed CB Brian Williams, re-signed CB Brent Grimes
Robinson was this offseason's big signing, inking a deal worth $54 million over six seasons. It would prove to be a colossal overpay for the former Texans cornerback, and Robinson would be on his way out the door following the 2012 season.
Aside from that, it was a second straight quiet offseason for the Falcons in free agency. Robinson was expected to elevate a secondary featuring Brent Grimes, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, and the team had plenty of weapons, a strong offensive line and some potentially intriguing young pieces up front on defense. The team's reluctance to dip in and scoop up multiple free agents was apparent at this point, but the Falcons went on to have a tremendously successful regular season capped off by a disappointing playoff loss.
The biggest weakness the Falcons identified was the lack of a pass rush. They rolled into the next offseason ready to remedy that.
Notable Released/Waived/Allowed to Walk: WR Michael Jenkins, DE Jamaal Anderson, G Harvey Dahl
Signed: DE Ray Edwards, TE Reggie Kelly, CB Kelvin Hayden
This offseason turned out to be problematic, even if it didn't look like it at the time. The Falcons missed out on Charles Johnson and elected to pay Ray Edwards later on in the year instead, signing the former Viking defensive end to what looked like a very reasonable deal. Reggie Kelly was supposed to give them stellar blocking at tight end, while Kelvin Hayden should have added consistency to the secondary. Dahl was a big loss, but the Falcons tied up significant cap money re-signing Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, and they simply couldn't afford to ink all three to extensions. Jenkins and Anderson were released after several years of diminishing returns.
Of course, Edwards played extremely poorly as a pass rusher, Hayden got hurt and Kelly was (as widely anticipated) basically useless. The Falcons limped into the playoffs a bit and suffered a hugely embarrassing loss against the New York Giants. The Falcons once again went into free agency to pick up one major target, mortar over some depth concerns and then relied heavily on the draft to upgrade the roster. Stop me if you're sensing a pattern here.
James Sanders wound up being a key signing for 2011, but he wasn't signed until August, so he's not counting here.
Notable Released/Waived/Allowed to Walk: LB Curtis Lofton
Traded: FOR CB Asante Samuel
Signed: QB Luke McCown, TE Chase Coffman, S Chris Hope, CB Robert McClain, LB Lofa Tatupu
This was a year where the Falcons elected not to make any major moves. Their trade for Asante Samuel wound up being incredibly shrewd, as did the signing of Robert McClain. Chris Hope and Chase Coffman provided quality depth, while Lofa Tatupu got hurt before ever showing anything on the field.
Losing Curtis Lofton made sense in light of the team's cap crunch coming in 2012, which was the result of the team working with quite a few long-term contracts, including Clabo's and Blalock's. They could have cleared more space but elected to keep the team's nucleus more or less intact, and 2012 turned out to be one of the best season in team history, with a 13-3 record and NFC Conference Championship berth.
Notable Released/Waived/Allowed to Walk: RB Michael Turner, FB Mike Cox, OT Tyson Clabo, OT Will Sviek, C Todd McClure, DE John Abraham, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Vance Walker, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta Robinson, CB Chris Owens, S Chris Hope
Signed: DE Osi Umenyiora, RB Steven Jackson
Facing another cap crunch coming into 2013 and not satisfied with falling just shy in 2012, the Falcons made the fateful decision to clean house. They released or opened the door for Michael Turner, Tyson Clabo, Todd McClure, John Abraham, Vance Walker, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the single largest roster purge since 2008. Given the caliber of player on this list, it was an even bigger deal.
The Falcons used some of the cap space freed up by those moves to sign Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, the first time the team had locked up two surefire starters in free agency since 2008. Both signed for slightly below market deals for players of their caliber, but Umenyiora had a less-than-elite season and Jackson suffered through a miserable year full of injuries and poor line play. The Falcons went 4-12, and many will point to the offseason purge as part of the cause.
This is not a perfect list, but I believe it illustrates the team's free agent philosophy quite well. The Falcons are never going to go on crazy free agent spending sprees like the "Dream Team" Eagles. They believe in building primarily through the draft and using the pre-draft period to sign one or two quality free agents and bolster depth. We now have six years' worth of evidence to suggest that the Falcons will never view free agency as the best team-building tool while Thomas Dimitroff is in charge.
Over these six years, the Falcons have grabbed a total of four free agents I would consider high-profile (Dunta Robinson, Osi Umenyiora, Steven Jackson and to a lesser extent Michael Turner). They acquired a few other starters, but none of them were truly "name" free agents, unless you're particularly fond of Erik Coleman or Mike Peterson.
The Falcons have had two true purges of talent in six seasons, so that is uncommon but far from impossible. They have proven that they are not gunshy about releasing veterans they feel have not played up to their contracts, particularly when they can save money by doing so.
Ultimately, while many make reasonable, intelligent cases for opening up additional cap space and making an outsized splash in free agency, I don't see it as a strong possibility. There is nothing from these last six years to suggest that stance will wind up burning me.
Yet the circumstances demand that we at least be open to the possibility that the Falcons will again clean out multiple players and perhaps consider signing up to three high-end free agents for the first time since Dimitroff came to Atlanta. There are significant holes in the roster today and the Falcons will have more cap space to address them than they've had in years, after all. If we use history is our guide, though, we should expect the Falcons to address a couple of major holes (guard? free safety? defensive tackle?) and take care of other needs when May rolls around.
What do you think the Falcons will do in free agency?