After going through a four-player series of which players to re-sign, it’s time to focus on the actual free agents. With over 32 million in salary cap space, the Atlanta Falcons are ready to spend. They hope to have their priorities straight, which means signing an average nose tackle and below average 3-4 defensive end to a ridiculous amount of money shouldn’t be in the agenda.
The focus will be on five positions that are defensive end, running back, tight end, wide receiver, and cornerback. Those are positions that need to be addressed at some point this off-season. I’ll break it down through my dream signing and mid-tier option, which will come out to ten players that I’d like to see signed. If Atlanta manages to sign two of those players, my reaction will be reminiscent of this. With not many quality options at inside linebacker and left guard in free agency, I’m not going to expound on those limited positions. It’s time to start at defensive end, where Thomas Dimitroff will hopefully sign a speed rusher and not a Ray Edwards clone.
Dream signing: The free agent list showcases a plethora of young pass rushers that are wanting to become starters. Out of the productive pass rushers that want to get paid like a starter, Brandon Graham stands out the most. He was originally the player that many fans wanted in the 2010 draft, but Philadelphia crushed those dreams by taking him with the 13th pick. If you exclude Jerry Hughes, who looks to be re-signing with Buffalo, Graham possesses the quickest first step out of the free agent class.
Some may be concerned about Graham’s low sack total and wanting 20 million guaranteed. In this league, you have to take risks and Graham looks to be the most versatile pass rusher. Pernell McPhee doesn’t have much experience playing at the end spot of a 4-3 defense, while Brian Orakpo’s injury history scares me away. Pro Football Focus does an excellent job in breaking down Graham’s productivity over the past four seasons. It also helps that his most promising seasons come from playing in the 4-3 defense.
Mid-tier quality: Jabaal Sheard won’t exactly be paid as a mid-level free agent. If you look at the free agent list, it’s hard to see whom the Falcons can bring in as a second pass rusher that would be considered as mid-tier quality. Unless John Abraham is willing to come back for nostalgia purposes (shame on you, if you would decline that option), Atlanta needs to invest in a legitimate top-tier pass rusher in free agency.
Similar to Graham, Sheard is much more effective in a 4-3 scheme. He combined for 15.5 sacks in his first two seasons, which came from playing with his hands in the dirt. As an outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, Sheard looked uncomfortable and too big at 264 pounds to be effective. What sets him apart from Graham is his excellence against the run. Sheard has played on first and second down consistently unlike Graham. After being hampered by a foot injury and having the lowest sack total of his career, his contract will be a notch below the likes of McPhee and Graham. That makes the versatile pass rusher from Cleveland somewhat of a bargain.
Dream signing: The fear of signing a player that has suffered from multiple concussions is understandable. Concussions have ended several careers early, even with the recent new rules implemented. That’s the only baggage that Jordan Cameron brings to the table. Besides the concussion concern, you’re looking at a top five tight end with no weaknesses. His athleticism is well documented from being a former basketball player. What tends to go unnoticed revolves around his route running. NFL scouts have raved about his route running, particularly when asked to run a seam route. It’s nearly impossible to score seven touchdowns in Cleveland’s offense as a receiver or tight end. In Cameron’s monster 2013 season, he managed to do so with either a seam route or crossing pattern in the red zone.
Atlanta's red zone issues in key situations such as the loss to Pittsburgh were problematic last season. His ability to makes catches in traffic is showcased in this video. If the front office can sign him to either a two-year deal or not offer a significant amount of guaranteed money, then the risk is minimal. Cameron will make defenses pay consistently, when they leave the middle of the field open in game planning for Julio Jones. You include Cameron’s ties with Kyle Shanahan and this is a no-brainer move. Out of all the free agents on the list, this is the first player on my wish list. It realistically makes too much sense, as long as he doesn’t command a ridiculous amount of guaranteed money or a five-year deal.
Mid-tier quality: Another player that seemed like an ideal fit was Niles Paul. His speed and athleticism would create matchup nightmares in Atlanta’s offense. Unfortunately, it was announced on Friday that he re-signed with the Redskins. Virgil Green is expected to have plenty of suitors. He seems to be far more effective as a blocker than someone that can consistently move the chains. That leaves Jermaine Gresham as the only logical mid-tier tight end left. It has been a disappointing career for Gresham, after being one of the more highly touted tight ends in recent years.
His blocking has been exceptional for many years. The mental issues in the receiving aspect has hindered his growth. It has been reported that his fumbles and penalties have become tiresome. In just five seasons, Gresham has dropped a staggering 22 passes, despite never having more than 64 receptions in a season. Paul Dehner noted that Gresham’s inability to play through injures has frustrated the organization as well. A change of scenery is imminent, but is he worth the investment based on these concerns? With the draft class lacking in top-tier tight end prospects, Atlanta may be forced into this move if Cameron goes elsewhere. They simply can’t go into next season with Levine Toilolo as the default starter.
Dream signing: Mark Ingram has re-signed with New Orleans following his most productive season. That leaves me with another power back that can be considered as a low-risk and high-reward option. Stevan Ridley has always been a streaky player. After a career season in 2012 in rushing over 1200 yards, his status in New England became in limbo. A few fumbles led to him being put in Bill Belichick’s proverbial doghouse.
Besides his fumbling woes (seven fumbles combined in 2012-2013), what’s there not to like about Ridley? He’s been one of the better power backs over the past few seasons. His speed and vision have always been undervalued as well. Similar to Ingram, he does tend to fall under the label of being a rhythm running back. It takes time for him to run at his hardest through games. It’ll be interesting to see how he can adjust towards being a role player. Ridley does expect to be signed for a one-year "prove it" deal, which makes him worth the risk. This would be one of my top priority signings. The reward in this deal could be remarkably substantial for the improvement of the running game. Ridley has spoken openly about testing the market, which puts the ball in Atlanta's court.
Mid-tier quality: With Ryan Matthews having a well-documented history of injuries and overall disappointing play, I’d fade on him. Roy Helu would be the most logical second option. His experience in playing under Kyle Shanahan’s offense and averaging 4.8 yards per carry is enticing. Once again, age is a major factor in this decision with Helu being just 26 years old.
While he doesn’t appear to be the prototypical power back, Helu has displayed a healthy dose of power and athleticism throughout his career. The former Nebraska star has become one of the best third down backs in the NFL. While the last thing Atlanta needs is another running back that needs to be involved in the passing game, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Helu doesn’t have much tear on his body and could see Atlanta as a better place for opportunity. This move seems more realistic than Ridley based on Shanahan’s ties with Helu. He still doesn't provide anywhere near the type of upside as Ridley does.
Dream signing: There are some signings that can be truly classified as dream signings. From a talent and likelihood perspective, Torrey Smith falls under both realms. The underrated receiver from Baltimore will be a coveted free agent on the market. While his overall stats from 2014 weren’t all that impressive, that is more on a slight of Joe Flacco’s play. Flacco became obsessive in throwing to Steve Smith early in the season. Eventually, defenses started picking up on that and Flacco started to get Torrey more involved.
Smith has proven to be an absolute burner with his ability to make any cornerback look bad on a go route or draw a key pass interference. There were numerous occasions when Smith drew a huge pass interference that put Baltimore in the red zone. He’s also developed into becoming a better blocker and evolving from being mainly a deep threat. His eleven touchdowns in 2014 showed his ability to make catches in traffic. It’s highly unlikely that Thomas Dimitroff will break the bank on a receiver. We can dream though.
Mid-tier quality: The drop from star receivers to mediocre receivers is quite remarkable in this year’s free agent class. Besides Michael Crabtree, there aren’t many young receivers that would be a good fit in Atlanta. Eddie Royal and Cecil Shorts don’t intrigue me at all. Kenny Britt is likely going to stay in St. Louis, although his upside is fairly limited. The one receiver that seems to be an unfinished product is Denarius Moore.
The 26-year old receiver has shown flashes of greatness, particularly in the 2012 season. Moore impressed in Oakland’s 23-20 loss to Atlanta from 2012 by beating Asante Samuel on a go route and made Mike Peterson look silly in the open field. Moore has the speed and capability to be an absolute game breaker. Many of his highlights come from deep throws, but he’s shown a knack of making tough catches over the middle. You have to take everything with a grain of salt when players don’t develop in Oakland. A change of scenery is needed after failing to develop into their number one receiver. A one-year "prove it" deal would be an excellent move by Thomas Dimitroff. There is no other mid to low-level receiver with greater upside than Moore.
Dream signing: Similar to Smith, this can be classified under an absolute dream signing. The chances of Atlanta spending heavily on a corner are highly unlikely. I’m not in favor of it either, so take this for what it’s worth. Chris Culliver has always been a versatile player. He played nickel corner in 2012 for San Francisco and picked off Matt Ryan in the NFC Championship game. At six feet tall, his size makes him an ideal fit for Dan Quinn’s scheme.
According to Walter Football, Culliver allowed just a 50.7 completion percentage. Some teams may be drawn off by his torn ACL in 2013 and being arrested last off-season. His long arms and ability to be around the ball should overcome those concerns. It’s likely that he’ll be paid close to seven million a year, according to Yahoo Sports. This move is highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened in Atlanta. Culliver is arguably the best cornerback remaining, as many of the top cornerbacks have been re-signed already.
Mid-tier quality: Instead of overpaying for Maxwell, Atlanta should focus their intentions on another former Seattle cornerback in Walter Thurmond. Why Atlanta would spend serious money on a cornerback, after investing in two cornerbacks from the 2013 draft is beyond me. They need to allow Robert Alford at least one more year to prove his worth as a starter. He’s shown tremendous upside on the outside, despite his tendency to bite on double moves and occasionally hold too much.
Thurmond has struggles with injuries over the course of his career. As good as he played in 2013, the safety help of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor bailed him out on a few occasions. His over-aggressiveness can come back to haunt him. What sets him apart from other nickel corners is his ability to tackle. Ryan Disdier explained some of his finer moments in the two games he played for the New York Giants in 2014. His ability to play in man coverage is something teams will always clamor for in a nickel corner. Thurmond is another player that may be on a one-year "prove it" deal, considering his injury history. He seems to be a logical fit in reuniting with Quinn that wouldn’t cost much. Vaughn McClure of ESPN has recently mentioned Thurmond as a possible signing in one of his latest pieces.