Free agency kicks off on March 11th, and the Falcons can start talking to impending free agents on Saturday. The news and rumors are going to start flying at last.
While we gear up, I thought it might be a good idea to collect the team's biggest needs in one article. I've focused on the five most important and then listed five others I believe the Falcons will invest time, money and possibly draft picks in before the start of the 2014 season.
Feel free to quibble with my list and the order in which I've assembled it in the comments.
#1: Right Guard
In-house options: Harland Gunn, Peter Konz, Gabe Carimi
The Falcons were a bus crash from center to right tackle in 2013, but there's not a bigger need on the roster heading into 2014 than right guard.
The Falcons look likely to bring Joe Hawley back. Hawley is a decent starting center in the NFL and gives the Falcons a fallback if Konz falls flat on his face this summer, so while it's not ideal, center should not be a gaping vortex. At right tackle, the Falcons have Lamar Holmes, Gabe Carimi, Ryan Schraeder and potentially a draft pick to duke it out for the starting spot. Holmes was not an awful right tackle in his limited snaps and Schraeder showed real promise, so again, we're short of ideal but have options and an honest competition to look forward to even if the Falcons stand pat.
Guard is a different story. With Garrett Reynolds gone, the Falcons have Gunn, Konz and Carimi, none of whom are natural right guards. Socking a legitimate above average starter at the position would help to stabilize the line, make life easier for both center and right tackle and provide stability at a position that has been largely a revolving door since Harvey Dahl left.
The Falcons appear serious about rolling with Sam Baker at left tackle in addition to the position battles I've described at center and right tackle, so the one spot for an obvious upgrade is RG. Given the pass protection and run blocking woes, it's the priority position this offseason.
#2: Defensive Tackle
In-house options: Corey Peters, Travian Robertson, Adam Replogle, Cliff Matthews
The Falcons rolled with a three-man rotation in 2013, and while the tackles were a relative bright spot, there are major question marks heading into 2014.
The first question is whether Peters will even be ready for the start of the season, given the long recovery time associated with Achilles. If Jonathan Babineaux returns, he shouldn't play the same number of snaps he did in 2013, and it seems like a virtual lock that Peria Jerry will be finding a new deal elsewhere. That leaves Cliff Matthews, who is a part-time DT, and unproven commodities in Robertson and Replogle.
The Falcons sorely could use an impact defender in the middle, whether they draft a slashing type like Aaron Donald or sign a space-eater like Paul Solali. While it's possible to add a significant talent infusion at other positions, the Falcons can't roll with what they've got at defensive tackle, and it's critically important they draft or sign a starting-caliber player at defensive tackle.
#3: Free Safety
In-house options: Thomas DeCoud, Zeke Motta, Kemal Ishmael
The in-house options here consist of a man likely to be cut in the next week and two 2013 seventh-rounders who aren't known for their coverage chops. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success to me, and that's because it is not a recipe for success.
The Falcons don't necessarily need to add Jairus Byrd to get more consistent play out of the free safety position, but they desperately need to add a starter. Right guard and defensive tackle are more necessary, I'd argue, because of how thin those positions are and how thirsty these Falcons are for quality up front. Rolling into 2014 with Zeke Motta as the starting free safety would be grounds for mutiny.
Byrd is an expected target, but a short-term deal with a solid safety over 30 is a strong possibility if they can't get him. Atlanta needs a better safety net for Mike Nolan's schemes.
#4: Defensive End/Linebacker
In-house options: Osi, Umenyiora, Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Massaquoi, Joplo Bartu, Sean Weatherspoon, Stansly Maponga
Pass rusher isn't technically a position, but that's what we're talking about here.
The Falcons lack a dominant pass rush, and they need to add one-to-two legitimate pass rushers to the front seven to combat that. It doesn't matter if you're talking about a true 4-3 pass rushing end like Jadeveon Clowney or Michael Johnson or a hybrid player like Khalil Mack, as long as they're capable of getting after the passer from wherever they're lining up.
The reason this need is down here is the pressing nature of the ones above it, as well as the potential for Mass, Bartu and Maponga to turn into at least decent options for the Falcons up front. I just wouldn't want to count on that. Expect the Falcons to target an outside linebacker or defensive end in free agency, and there's a strong possibility they use their first or second round pick on whichever position they don't fill before May.
#5: Tight End
In-house options: Levine Toilolo
You could make a convincing case that tackle or even running back deserves to go here, but the lack of depth at the position leads me to list it as number five. You'll probably move it up if you think Toilolo doesn't have a shot to start.
Going from a lock for the Hall of Fame to Levine Toilolo is daunting enough, but the Falcons have very little behind him that would inspire confidence. They need to add a veteran free agent to push Toilolo or a draft pick that can be a contributor right off the bat, or they're an injury away from catastrophe here.
#6: Left Tackle
#7: Right Tackle
#8: Running Back
#9: Wide Receiver
#10: Backup QB