Drawing lessons out of the first few days of free agency is easy to do, but tough to get right. Signings may seem to indicate a direction or rapid improvement for a team, but we won't know until this summer at the earliest how the moves the Falcons made the first day of free agency will truly impact the on-the-field product.
Nonetheless, we can take away a few key lessons from the start of free agency and the moves the Falcons chose to make. Let's hit you with a list of signings and cuts since Tuesday, as well as what we've learned.
G Jon Asamoah, 5 years, $22 million
C Joe Hawley, 2 years, $6 million
OT Mike Johnson, 1 year, $645,000
DT Jonathan Babineaux, 3 years, $9 million
DT Paul Soliai, 5 years, $32 million
DE Tyson Jackson, 5 years, $25 million
It's worth noting that these deals all have unique structures, with Soliai taking on some big cap hits when the Falcons have more space, Hawley being a reasonable cut in 2015 if he doesn't win the starting job and Jackson being quite reasonable to cut after three seasons.
FS Thomas DeCoud, $3 million in cap savings
TE Tony Gonzalez, $7 million in cap savings
Here's what we've got.
The Falcons weren't kidding about getting bigger up front
Thomas Dimitroff threw around words like "grittiness" and "toughness," but size was also a factor for the Falcons as they look to convert to more 3-4 looks upfront. Soliai tips the scales at 340-plus pounds and Tyson Jackson is close to 300 as an ideal 3-4 defensive end. Jon Asamoah is a tough, big guard for the other side of the ball.
You can trace so many of the Falcons' 2013 woes to the line that it barely seems worth rehashing them all. The team couldn't pass effectively behind a makeshift line and they certainly couldn't run. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons were stunningly terrible at stopping the run and not much better at getting after the passer, placing additional strain on the secondary and giving teams an easy road to the end zone.
These moves were made to remedy that. Soliai provides a pocket-collapsing anchor to the center of the defensive line, and he can stuff the run effectively from that spot. Jackson isn't much of a pass rusher on his own, but he'll chip in there and seal the edge for a Falcons team that was sieve-like around the tackles in 2013. Having those two to occupy blockers should create additional opportunities for some of the Falcons' promising young players, as well as any draft picks or free agents still to come.
Asamoah is just better than Garrett Reynolds, too. With three new signings, the Falcons have taken concrete steps to improve both lines. It may not work out just the way they envision, but this goes far beyond grittiness.
Competition will reign at center
Many fans came into 2014 expecting a concrete upgrade at center, but the Falcons haven't given them any fresh faces. Instead, they're banking on improvement, youth and Mike Tice to make the difference.
The Falcons will go into 2014 with three spots locked down at left tackle, left guard and right guard. They'll let competition roll on at right tackle unless they select a rookie pretty high in the 2014 NFL Draft, but center will just be Hawley and Peter Konz. The team is banking on Hawley's solid play giving them a perfectly acceptable starting option for 2014 at best, and a quality insurance policy for a Konz injury or implosion at worst. If Tice is able to work some of the same magic he has in past stops with either of these guys, the Falcons will be set and won't have needed to commit huge dollars to the position to upgrade it from its 2013 form.
There's an element of risk here, but the position is finalized barring an injury.
Free safety isn't a priority position
The Falcons would have liked to get a Jairus Byrd or a Mike Mitchell to play safety for them next year. It's fairly obvious that they're on the hunt for a new safety after releasing Thomas DeCoud, and those would have been signings that made a difference.
Instead, the Falcons watched the safety market empty out to the point where it's just Nate Allen, Ryan Clark, Chris Clemons and the draft ahead of them. It's fair to argue that the team didn't view the position as an urgent priority, and with the options left, that's doubly true now.
The Falcons are likely to make calls in free agency and add someone who can compete for a starting job with a safety from the draft. The Falcons will hope that by upgrading up front and bolstering their pass rush—still to come, by the way—that they can get by with an average or young player at the position. That may not be a terrible bet.
The Falcons haven't forgotten about the pass rush
It may seem like that, given that approximately zero of the Falcons' signings have bolstered the pass rush, unless you count returning Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux. They're not done, though.
It's fait accompli that the Falcons will wind up drafting a pass rusher, whether that's Clowney or Khalil Mack in the first or someone like Dee Ford or Scott Crichton in the second. What's less clear to fans because of the veil of silence this front office operates in is whether the Falcons will chase anyone in free agency.
They will, and they have. Chris Clemons, who just signed with Jacksonville, told reporters he was contacted by Atlanta before settling on the Jaguars:
Clemons said Oakland and Atlanta reached out yesterday.— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) March 13, 2014
While the deal may not be right, the Falcons won't hesitate to bring aboard anyone who can get after the quarterback, particularly in a 3-4 front. Whether this dooms Osi Umenyiora or just leads to guys like Cliff Matthews and Stansly Maponga finding themselves on the block is unknown, but don't be surprised to see a budget signing designed to help out the anemic pass rush of years past.
What lessons have you learned?