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Getting Ready For Falcons Roster Turnover

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A bit of roster churning is a perfectly normal part of an NFL offseason.  Heavy turnover is far more likely when teams change coaches and schemes.

There are two reasons for caution, however.  One is that the front office likely put a lot of draft or cap resources into acquiring players for the previous regime.  If those players are no longer "system fits" under the new scheme, those draft picks end up going to waste.

Both Thomas Dimitroff and his predecessor Rich McKay have seen this happen.  As the 2009 season was nearing its end, Dimitroff felt strongly that the team had a successful draft that year.  But by the time those players reached the end of their rookie contracts, we had a new defensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach.  Chris Owens, Lawrence Sidbury, Garrett Reynolds, Spencer Adkins, and Vance Walker were not retained.  Had Peria Jerry not opted to retire, he would have likely been cut this past season as well.

Likewise, McKay had drafted players such as Michael Boley and Demorrio Williams for the scheme of then-DC Ed Donatell.  Both were retained in Mike Zimmer's defense in 2007, with Boley becoming a breakout star that season.  But they weren't wanted for Mike Smith's system, in spite of having Brian VanGorder (who was the team's LB coach in 2007) as the new DC.  Williams was allowed to leave in free agency in 2008, with Boley following suit a year later.

It's obviously a Good Thing to make sure the coaches have the players that fit their systems.  The problems come when you have these changes too often.  We changed staffs in 2004, 2007, 2008, coordinators and offensive line coaches in 2012, both line coaches in 2014, and full staff again in 2015.

When you churn the roster that frequently, it's inevitable that many of your free agent signings and draft picks become sideways moves rather than real, long term improvements to the roster.  It's why this coaching hire is critical - far more important than who does what within the front office.  We don't want to go through this yet again in 2017.

The second danger is that you can only do so much in any given offseason.  You have a limited number of draft picks and a limited amount of cap space.

We saw the effects of that in 2013.  Our opening day roster in 2012 had included Brent Grimes, John Abraham, Michael Turner, Todd McClure, Tyson Clabo, Ray Edwards, Dunta Robinson, Michael Palmer, Vance Walker, Will Svitek, Mike Peterson, Chris Hope, Luke McCown, Chris Owens, Lawrence Sidbury -  and others, but I'll stop there.  Edwards was released in midseason in 2012.  The others were all gone before minicamp in 2013.

Sure, some of these players (McClure and Peterson, for example) were quickly coming to the point of likely retirement.  But you still need to plan to replace them all -  and if you're in "Superbowl or bust" mode, as the Falcons believed themselves to be that offseason, then you need to find equal or better replacements for anyone you choose to cast aside.

That didn't happen.  Atlanta signed Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson to replace Abraham and Turner - and then announced that any remaining cap space would be "for emergency purposes only".  That means that by design, they went into the summer depending on drafted and undrafted rookies to fill in all of the remaining gaps.

When the youth movement on the offensive line didn't pan out, the epic collapse became inevitable.  Quality depth wasn't available to replace injured players.  At times, the defense had as many as seven rookies on the field.  That's the "or bust" side of Superbowl or bust.

One odd twist that would normally hurt but that may surprisingly help alleviate the problem this year:  nearly a fourth of the 2014 roster was playing on one-year contracts.  The result is that we have a boatload of outgoing free agents - but also a boatload of available cap space.

If our new coaching staff decides that players like Bear Pascoe, Eric Weems, Javier Arenas, T.J. Yates, Jonathan Scott or Charles Godfrey aren't right for the new schemes, there's no real harm done -  nearly all of them are expendable, and the cap space will be there to sign equivalent free agents that the new coaches feel are better system fits.

And if the next coaching staff decides to hang on to some of the guys signed as rent-a-players last year (perhaps Dwight Lowery, Gabe Carimi, Josh Wilson, and our own Corey Peters, for example), then we'll have experienced players to fill those depth roles along with our emerging prospects and incoming free agents and draft picks.

The quick turnaround can be done, as long as the team's braintrust decides not to go too far too fast.  Fortunately, Thomas Dimitroff has been through this already -  and he did it extremely well the first time around.

In 2008, long time GM Ernie Accorsi advised Dimitroff not to try to do too much too quickly when he got to Atlanta.  Dimitroff listened.

Instead of gutting the offense, he kept linemen Todd Weiner, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, Quinn Ojinnaka and Ben Wilkerson, receivers Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Laurent Robinson and Brian Finneran, backup quarterbacks Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley, fullback Ovie Mughelli and running backs Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling.

The only offensive starters released in the initial purge were tight end Alge Crumpler and running back Warrick Dunn. (Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich was also released, but even Joey Harrington was resigned and given a chance to compete.)

That's a manageable amount of roster turnover, as the team had the key replacements (Michael Turner and Ben Hartsock) even before the draft.

With so little pure churning and with both offensive starters already replaced, Dimitroff was able to use draft picks to improve the offense (Matt Ryan) and add depth (Harry Douglas and Sam Baker, who ended up missing most of 2008 with a back injury) rather than wasting picks simply plugging holes.

Like the 2008 team, our 2015 roster includes a whole lot of young, emerging players.  If our new coaching staff and front office can find a way to build around these players rather than replacing them, much of our cap space and our draft can then go into true roster building.

In particular, if the team's revised braintrust can add a few key pieces and finishing touches, our defense may be the surprise of the NFL this fall.