As teams were making moves immediately from Black Monday to Thursday, the Atlanta Falcons remained silent. Dan Quinn stated at the final press conference that he would evaluate the entire coaching staff and roster. Nothing was mentioned about upper management. Reports about the beleaguered general manager being replaced have surfaced since mid-December. He wasn't replaced, however.
This is the second season that Dimitroff's job security was being publicly questioned. When any coach or general manager is on the hot seat for two consecutive seasons, it should be a telling sign about their performance. Dimitroff's poor draft history and minimal free agency success has led a once yearly-contending team into three consecutive disappointing seasons. Mike Smith was considered the root of Atlanta's problems based on his poor clock management and inability to outcoach above-average teams, and while those are valid critiques of Smith's coaching ability, labeling him as the main source of Atlanta's downfall is absurd.
Briefly remembering past drafts
Several analysts and commentators have mentioned Atlanta's lack of talent on both sides of the ball. From John Lynch to Brian Billick, it has been stated repeatedly that they need to start drafting better and signing quality free agents. Those statements are clearly directed toward the general manager.
No player remains on the roster from the 2012 draft. Only Julio Jones, William Moore, and Matt Bosher remain from drafts between 2009-2011. Infamous players such as Prince Shembo and Dezmen Southward didn't make it past one season. When general managers can't hit on players in the third or fourth round, it's difficult for teams to have long lasting success. Not re-signing quality mid-round picks like Corey Peters doesn't help, either, though Peters missed the season for Arizona. During last March and April, I evaluated every draft from 2008 to 2012. You can see how each pick turned out after three seasons, which is the proper time frame to evaluate most players.
Investing heavily on the wrong type of players
With only five available draft picks in 2016, free agency will be an essential period for this organization. They have approached the past two off-seasons with flawed methods. What started Dimitroff's downfall was the lack of strategy following the Falcons' abysmal 2013 season. While injuries certainly marred them, the offensive line was overwhelmed and defensive line was pushed around on a weekly basis, along with generating a marginal pass rush. They were given the dreaded soft label. There was no denial, as Mike Smith preached toughness every ten minutes on Hard Knocks. Upgrades were needed immediately.
Bolstering both lines with versatile players entering their prime should have been the main priority. The first day signings of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson wasn't going to fulfill that goal. After re-signing Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, adding multiple one-dimensional run stuffers didn't seem necessary. The lack of edge rushers was apparent on the roster. There wasn't any notion that we were aware of that the team should be signing Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, or Robert Ayers. Everyone believed that Atlanta was transitioning into a 3-4 scheme by aligning Babineaux, Soliai, and Jackson together. Mike Nolan always preferred using that scheme, which made the signings somewhat justifiable until reading the full details of both players' contracts.
Despite being one of Atlanta's top defensive players this season, Soliai was paid as a premier nose tackle. Nobody ever viewed him as a game-changer. He never took over games like Vince Wilfork or Jay Ratliff. Jackson was a notorious underachiever, who managed to play exceptionally well against the run during his contract year in 2013. Both players were added to provide "toughness," as the organization clearly took offense to being labeled as soft.
Completely mishandling the pass rush
The real offense was constructing their defense like it was 2004. They built their defense to stop power-rushing attacks. After consistently being torched by Drew Brees and several other quarterbacks, acquiring at least one dependable pass rusher would have been ideal.
If this team was going to run a 3-4 defense, how can any organization feel comfortable about going into the season with a 32-year old (rapidly declining) Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann as their main pass rushers? Biermann was coming back from a torn Achilles, which limited his impact. The only other options were Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga. Goodman was bulking up to 290 pounds, which removed him from the equation.
Not putting any emphasis on the pass rush proved to be detrimental. Atlanta only produced 22 sacks, which ranked as the second worst total in the league. A tough run defense never came to fruition, as they ranked 21st by allowing over 118 rushing yards a game. Usually, some type of turnaround occurs after guaranteeing a combined twenty-five million dollars for two defensive linemen. They only ended up being a part of the worst defense in the league. Instead of worrying about being perceived as soft, adapting to a pass-first league should have been the real priority. Wasting a dependable veteran like Babineaux on the edge for two consecutive seasons was pitiful. Biermann was forced to play 867 snaps, which shouldn't occur for a role player at best. Dimitroff needs to take responsibility for not acquiring one pass rusher on a defensive line that was riding on John Abraham's greatness for years.
2014 free agency put the franchise back for multiple seasons
There were some decent signings from 2014. For the first time since 2010, the Falcons had an actual starter at right guard, when the team acquired Jon Asamoah. He was one of the few bright spots on an offensive line that started three different centers and four different tackles. Devin Hester was outstanding in his contributions as a wide receiver, along with his excellence as a returner. Both players had major impacts in their first season. One year later, Asamoah isn't on the team and Hester will likely be released. Jackson will be on the cut list as well, along with potentially Soliai. Four major free-agent signings potentially released after two years? That's not how you rebuild following an embarrassing season, new head coach aside. Super Bowl contending teams aren't supposed to fall off this quickly, yet here are the Falcons slumbering into 2016.
Free agency isn't the blueprint towards becoming a perennial contender. We've seen Green Bay, New England, and Carolina develop primarily from the draft. That shouldn't discount the value of free agency. Denver and Seattle have benefited greatly from being aggressive in March. The brilliance of signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to short-term deals doesn't get enough recognition. They have formed a ferocious duo that torments opposing quarterbacks on a weekly basis. Seattle managed to re-sign this duo, although Bennett's outlook could get dicey.
While Dimitroff lost some control, he remains empowered in all free agent decisions, as far as we are aware. The concept of acquiring several players for depth purposes was smart. Not signing a veteran linebacker last off-season left Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu overmatched as starting linebackers. Given his extensive injury history, relying on Sean Weatherspoon as their leader at linebacker without any other veteran presence would have been foolish, and that made Justin Durant and Brooks Reed smart first-day signings. While neither player lived up to expectations, addressing the linebacker position was essential in their rebuilding design. Jacob Tamme, Adrian Clayborn, and O'Brien Schofield provided decent options at positions that were sorely lacking in 2014 (tight end, edge rusher).
Inability to land an impact player and Dimitroff's questionable thought process continued into 2015
Not acquiring a true difference-maker ultimately doomed Atlanta. On a defense sorely lacking playmakers, you can't rely on the draft for immediate success. Dan Quinn will take some responsibility based on having final control of the roster. Dimitroff still falls at the forefront by not luring in a player like Derrick Morgan.
Despite being offered a five-year deal, the former first round pick opted to re-sign with Tennessee, meaning the Falcons couldn't rebuild a perenially rebuilding organization.When circumstances couldn't get grimmer, they reportedly offered backup tight end Lance Kendricks a lucrative contract. The official offer was never reported, but Kendricks ended up taking a slightly reduced offer at four years, $18.5 million to remain with St. Louis. They were prepared to spend heavily on a tight end that never caught more than 42 passes nor eclipsed over 550 receiving yards in a season. Following a disappointing 6-10 season, there needs to be more than just "decent signings."
You have to question Dimitroff's thought process with these signings. Pernell McPhee, Jabaal Sheard, and Brandon Graham were highly rated free agents entering their prime. Instead of trying to sign any of these particular pass rushers; they were interested in oft-injured Brian Orakpo. A rebuilding defense shouldn't break the bank on a 30-year old edge rusher that has endured multiple season-ending injuries. Eventually, they backed off signing Orakpo and ended up making a far lesser deal for another injury-prone pass rusher in Clayborn.
The past two off-seasons have left everyone wanting more. Dimitroff's shoddy resume goes beyond the damaging off-seasons. While signing Ray Edwards initially seemed like a perfect move, the well-acclaimed model ended up being a product of Minnesota's outstanding defensive line. It took four off-seasons to properly replace Harvey Dahl, as Garrett Reynolds was consistently bullied at right guard. Signing Umenyiora over Dwight Freeney was another head-shaking move. Does releasing Abraham for cap reasons also count as a poor decision? When a player carries your pass-rush for six seasons and produces eleven-and-half sacks for another team at 35 years old, it should absolutely be considered as a horrible decision.
Things can only improve going into 2016
You could harp on Dimitroff's free agent mistakes for days, but with Quinn having more control, personnel errors should be reduced. He stated that both lines will be improved, which is a must.
Middle linebacker, guard, and strong safety would be the best options to address at the draft. They desperately need to get younger and better at those respective positions. Free agency won't provide many quality guards, safeties or middle linebackers either. Paul Worrilow isn't a starting caliber middle linebacker; while Andy Levitre led the team in penalties and struggled in pass protection. William Moore will likely be another cap casualty as well.
With a much difficult schedule next season featuring several west coast trips, this offseason will be extremely important. A new stadium is looming in 2017 and owner Arthur Blank clearly wants them to become a contender. While Dimitroff hasn't proven capable of putting a playoff-caliber team on the field over the past two seasons, he has two wise colleagues in Quinn and Scott Pioli to oversee moves. Quinn has been open about his positive relationship with Dimitroff. That won't matter if another January goes by without the Falcons preparing for a big game. Matt Ryan isn't getting younger, while Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman are ready to be productive for several years to come. It's time to continue building stars on defense, solidarity on offensive line, and developing new playmakers for Ryan, and reversing bad free agent trends.