Every year around this time, we raise the hue and cry for the biggest names in the free agent market, only to be disappointed when they don't wind up in Atlanta. The odd part is that the Falcons are unquestionably being smart by not blowing all their money on those big names, but they've still managed to fail in free agency repeatedly.
With the 2016 free agent period looming, it's worth looking at how Atlanta has traditionally done business under Thomas Dimitroff and company, why they're likely to continue to do so, and why big, sexy signings aren't the panacea we like to think they are.
The Falcons have always tried to find fits that they believe they can get for a reasonable enough price tag. That's why they end up with deeply unsexy but quality players like Brooks Reed, Jon Asamoah, and hell, Michael Turner. In this regard, they're emulating teams like the Packers, Patriots, and Seahawks, who scorn the biggest names on the market in favor of bargain hunting to fit a system. Those teams, of course, have been wildly successful at snatching up undervalued assets like Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Danny Amendola, and the like. The Falcons have not.
Where the Falcons fail, again and again, is in landing the right mid-tier free agents. Tyson Jackson came here after a breakout year and has been a solid but unspectacular piece, Ray Edwards was a smart-looking bargain signing that turned out to be a complete disaster, Dunta Robinson was a lot of dollars for a merely decent cornerback, and players like Jon Asamoah and Brooks Reed have been hampered by injury and (in Asamoah's case) a coaching change. Ever since Dimitroff landed Michael Turner in one of the best free agent coups in this team's history, he and the team have repeatedly failed to turn these usually reasonable, value-centric signings into quality players.
It's not, in other words, a failure of the philosophy. It's a failure of the scouting, development, and imagination.
Why it's more costly to land the big fish
There's a bit of cognitive dissonance going on with the fanbase, as there is in every fanbase, when we talk about free agency. Fans will bitterly lament (with reason, sometimes) that the Falcons pass on players like Ndamukong Suh, Elvis Dumervil, and so forth, but we also delight in mocking teams like the Dolphins, Eagles, and Bills who splurge on those stars and come away with very little to show for it.
The 2015 Eagles are an illustrative example of this. They spent big to land DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell, and pursued aggressive trades to land Kiko Alonso and Sam Bradford. Their prize for doing so was yet another disappointing year, one that got Chip Kelly fired. The Dolphins, meanwhile, spent big to land Suh, tight end Jordan Cameron, wide receiver Greg Jennings, and cornerback Brice McCain, and also wound up mired in another lousy year with coaching staff changes. Compare that to the Sehawks, who patiently waited for the market to settle before nabbing Bennett and Avril on team-friendly deals that have paid off hugely. Spending big in free agency is a great way to get your fanbase to stop grumbling, but it's not a great way to actually build a football team.
2016 will be more of the same
In short, then, Atlanta's philosophy is a sound enough one, and one they're not likely to stray from in 2016. They may throw us a curveball and pursue a big name or two, but they're more likely to land on 3-5 players who the team feels have a solid track record, may be undervalued due to injury or scheme fit elsewhere, or have their bargaining power weakened by a poor season or two. If Mario Williams is a free agent, he's a name to monitor because he certainly fits most of the criteria above, and he would be one of the bigger names Atlanta could go after.
Especially with Dan Quinn in-house, though, the team will continue to prioritize system fits and bargains along the Seattle Seahawks model, and I'm convinced they're right to do so. It's going to take them being smarter about who they go after, though.
Where they must do better is in identifying which free agents are worthy bargains, when it makes sense to stray a little bit from your asking price to land a guy you legitimately covet, as they repeatedly refused to do in 2014 and 2015. Frankly, it's about time they broke a very forgettable free agency streak.