In less than three weeks, the free agency spectacle begins on March 9. Teams will look to upgrade their rosters immediately. With the Falcons only having five draft picks, free agency is going to be a bigger priority than usual. That will also include making decisions on re-signing key role players. Unlike last year, there are far fewer free agents that can be considered as significant contributors. Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, Osi Umenyiora, Robert McClain, Josh Wilson, and Jacquizz Rodgers played major roles during their respective tenures in Atlanta.
Thomas Dimitroff won’t be dealing with the same amount of talent. The upcoming free agency list features several role players that aren’t considered major commodities. Some players are coming off one-year "prove it" deals that went relatively well, but didn’t completely cement their place in Dan Quinn’s plans. Over the next three weeks, four impending free agents will be broken down closely. This was done last year by breaking down players such as Umenyiora.
O’Brien Schofield is the first player on our list, and he's a versatile player that can be used as an edge rusher and strong-side linebacker. Although past injures limited him, Quinn used him extensively. Schofield embraced playing under a one-year deal to prove his worth. Was his performance good enough to justify another contract in Atlanta?
Motives behind re-signing him
Schofield will be 29 years old going into the 2016 season. His market value won’t be very high, given his age and past injuries. That should make it more realistic for Atlanta to re-sign him for depth purposes. Any team would appreciate a player that provides versatility and leadership. Schofield proved that by playing a significant role during Atlanta’s rollercoaster season.
During the early part of the season, Schofield was utilized in the nickel package as an edge rusher. His rapport with Jonathan Babineaux was evident immediately. They caused havoc by executing stunts and utilizing their speed to dismantle rushing attacks. Similar to practically everything Falcons-related, the positive start eventually dwindled as the losing streak transpired.
Most people viewed Schofield as a rotational edge rusher. They didn’t expect him to be a solid run defender. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Badger had fourteen stops and consistently produced positive run stopping grades. His explosive first step caught offensive tackles and tight ends by surprise. That blistering speed blindsided Frank Gore into a rare fumble. He beat Brent Celek repeatedly, which played a significant role in halting Philadelphia’s highly touted rushing attack.
The last attribute may not hold substantial value, but it’s still important to have this particular component on a team lacking leaders. Schofield was a vocal leader that players respected across the locker room. Alongside Julio Jones and Roddy White, he was a major figure behind the players-only meeting. That speaks volumes on Schofield’s commitment. A well-respected role player that can fill in at two positions deserves plenty of consideration..
Motives towards letting him go
Despite having moderate success in the preseason as an edge rusher, that didn’t translate into a 16-game period. Schofield started strong with two sacks, eight hits and ten hurries during the first eight games. His play deteriorated with zero sacks, four hits, and four hurries during the final eight games. Vic Beasley’s move to the left side coincided with his decline. There is no denying that Schofield was overmatched against opposing left tackles. He was eventually replaced by Brooks Reed in their nickel packages.
After playing 15 to 20 snaps per game in Seattle, his playing time increased considerably at 30 to 40 snaps. That seems to have affected him going up against far bigger tackles. At 242 pounds, he can get pushed around due to his lack of pass rushing moves. If Schofield’s first step didn’t work, that essentially left him as a non-factor. His inability to play starter-like snaps will deteriorate his value. The coaching staff couldn’t depend on him as a full-time edge rusher in their nickel packages.
Although Schofield is touted as a two-position player, his play as a strong-side linebacker was underwhelming. Range was an issue during coverage situations. He was either a step behind or penalized on various passing plays. On running plays, his inability to get off blocks became apparent, especially against the Vikings. He wasn’t able to use his speed advantage against tackles. Quicker full backs or tight ends would take him out of plays. With Brooks Reed remaining on the roster, that should allow Schofield to focus primarily on pass rushing and special teams duties.
Dan Quinn has proven to be unpredictable with his personnel decisions. Releasing Jonathan Massaquoi and Justin Durant were unexpected moves. While they have prior experience working together, Schofield’s age and limitations make him expendable. The coaching staff could choose to get younger once again. Based on Schofield’s steady decline last season, it wouldn’t be an outrageous decision to not re-sign him.
This would be a low-risk move for both sides. Schofield could generate some interest, but he won’t command a hefty price. Most would suspect that Quinn would like to keep him around. He always spoke highly of Schofield during interviews and press conferences. Versatility is something that will always be appreciated, especially on a defense that appears to be lacking in several departments.
A two-year contract would be ideal for this situation. Past knee injuries would make me hesitant about signing him to a long-term deal, but he did enough to justify more than another one-year deal. If the coaching staff manages his snaps, productivity could increase for an entire season. It would be wise to rotate Schofield on pass-rushing and special teams packages. The veteran has a high football IQ and provides much-needed leadership for a team looking to take the next step.