Free agency is less than two days away. The "legal tampering" period has already commenced, with teams ready to sign average players to absurd contracts. With the Falcons already linked to several key free agents, this should be far more eventful than last season. The biggest signing (on paper) should be known more for his talent rather than glowing blond hair, for once.
My wish list focuses on middle linebacker, wide receiver, defensive end, strong safety, and right guard. Those are the five needs that can be addressed in free agency. Alex Mack is currently linked to Atlanta, but there are no other available centers that would be an impact starter. This list is consisted of ten players (two per position) that are considered as a dream or quality signing.
The list can only improve following last year’s debacle. None of the ten players on my list were signed last year. We have to assume that the front office realizes that quality is more important than quantity, however. One or two star signings will be needed to push this team further as a playoff contender. Here are my ten selections for this year’s free agency wish list.
Dream Signing: When a player is rated in the top ten of Pro Football Focus and NFL.com free agency rankings, he personifies the term dream signing. Vaughn McClure recently reported that Atlanta has expressed interest in Danny Trevathan. Competition will be heavy to secure the stellar three-down linebacker’s signature. Very few teams have two three-down linebackers that consistently play at a high level. The Falcons haven’t had one since Sean Weatherspoon managed to play more than eight games.
Trevathan is very active in the running game, as he rarely misses tackles and sheds blocks routinely. His true asset comes from a coverage standpoint. Exceptional instincts and range elevated him into becoming a premier linebacker. According to Pro Football Focus, only Luke Kuechly and Derrick Johnson were better inside linebackers in coverage. Running step for step with Coby Fleener to break up a thirty-yard throw is a prime example of his versatility. He would be the biggest signing that Atlanta could make this off-season. After years of underwhelming in free agency, they would make a huge statement by signing an outstanding player that fills a massive need.
Mid Tier Quality: If John Fox and the Bears manage to sign Trevathan, Rolando McClain would be a risk worth taking. His overall talent surpasses the injury prone and maturity concerns. When Sean Lee went down with a season-ending injury in 2014, McClain took control and ended up becoming Dallas’ best defensive player. He is coming off a down year, although the entire Dallas roster essentially underwhelmed.
The former top ten pick can be a difference maker against the run. He is rarely out of position and delivers vicious hits. It makes you wonder how a player of his caliber actually retired two years ago. While he is fairly inconsistent in coverage, McClain isn’t a liability like the last half dozen Falcon middle linebackers. A lack of consistency and never playing 16 games are noteworthy concerns. Some will also immediately point out that signing a former Cowboy linebacker didn’t exactly pan out last year. Regardless of his past faults, McClain showed that he could excel as a three-down linebacker and make timely plays.
Dream Signing: Although the electrifying playmaker has only one productive season, Travis Benjamin is arguably the second most coveted wide receiver behind Marvin Jones. His blistering speed and ability to stretch the field would be a perfect complement to Julio Jones. There is no secret that Atlanta desperately needs a deep threat within their receiver corps. By running crossing patterns and exploiting one-on-one coverage, he would be an integral piece towards making Atlanta’s offense explosive again. Kyle Shanahan’s constant usage of bootleg designs is one example that will make Benjamin such a valuable weapon.
Benjamin has a proven track record of returning kicks as well. With Devin Hester likely being released, they would have their immediate replacement. It’s always dangerous to use your second wide receiver as a primary returner. When a returner has three touchdowns in four seasons and can blow past tacklers with ease, they need to be utilized in that regard. Benjamin is entering his prime at 26 years old. If they want to return to their explosive ways, there is no better receiver on the market than Benjamin. His knack of making big plays with a dysfunctional quarterback situation deserves credence. It would be fascinating to see him exploit one-on-one matchups, while defenses face the insurmountable task of attempting to contain Jones.
Mid-Tier Quality: Similar to Leonard Hankerson, Brian Quick’s career has been derailed by serious injuries and poor quarterback play. He showed flashes of quality between 2012 and 2014. Bryan Fontaine of Pro Football Focus wrote an in-depth piece about him being a potential breakout candidate in 2013. While that never came to fruition, Quick can’t be at fault for the Rams’ inability to solve their quarterback conundrum.
At six foot four, the former second round pick possesses the size that teams crave for wide receivers. Quick moves well for a player of his size and makes plays in traffic. Nobody knows why St. Louis didn’t insert him more often. In 2014, Quick caught 25 passes in seven games. That is a pretty impressive achievement for any wide receiver playing under that horrid offense. A one-year "prove it" deal would be a sensible move. Despite Hankerson ending up as a complete disappointment, Quick has displayed more promise in four seasons. He doesn’t drop many passes or commit unnecessary penalties. On a list of limited options in free agency, he stands out as the lone mid-tier wide receiver with legitimate upside.
Defensive End/Edge Rusher
Dream Signing: Under some circumstances, age isn’t detracting when deciding on a free agent. Tamba Hali falls in that category based on his longevity and consistency at generating pressure. With Atlanta not taking part in the Mario Williams sweepstakes (at least not yet), Hali could be a more realistic option. He is a quality edge rusher that can still beat tackles with a speed rush at 32 years old. On a young defense, they could use another leader that isn’t showing any major signs of declining.
Hali would be an excellent compliment to Vic Beasley in their sub-nickel defense. Opposing offenses will have to decide on whom to double-team or use a tight end to chip at the line of scrimmage. According to Pro Football Focus, Hali generated 72 pressures last season. Atlanta hasn’t received that type of production since John Abraham was carrying their pass rush on a weekly basis. He is coming off knee surgery, which is always concerning for a player over 30 years old. There aren’t many blue chip or promising edge rushers on the market. Transitioning from a 3-4 to 4-3 shouldn’t be a challenging task. He would most likely adopt a situational role to provide production for their languishing pass rush.
Mid-Tier Quality: Nick Perry and William Hayes were options, but they are likely going to be overpaid. Some can make the argument that Hayes deserves it based on outplaying Chris Long over the past two seasons. Does paying five or six million per year for a more run-stopping defensive end, who will be 31 years old in May, sound logical? If they want to invest in a defensive end over 30 years old, Hali or Williams are the only realistic options. Derrick Shelby isn’t a great pass rusher, yet filled in admirably for Cameron Wake.
Miami used him in several different facets similar to how Atlanta used Adrian Clayborn. Shelby played inside on some downs, although primarily lined up on the edge. He isn’t going to single-handily solve Atlanta’s pass rushing woes. This is a player that can replace Tyson Jackson by playing the run well and generating some type of pass rush. When quarterbacks dropped back against Atlanta’s base defense, they always felt cozy in the pocket. There wasn’t any danger about getting sacked within four seconds. Shelby provides some craftiness, as he used a swift swim move to sack Mark Sanchez. Another pass rusher will need to be added in the draft, if Shelby was their lone signing at defensive end. That shouldn’t discount his value as a quality piece to Atlanta’s never ending front seven rebuilding project.
Dream Signing: When it comes to a free agent’s sweepstakes, George Iloka may have the most suitors. Several teams have expressed interest in the dynamic safety. At six-foot-four and 225 pounds, he can match up against tight ends. The Falcons could have used him against the likes of Greg Olsen and Benjamin Watson. It has become a yearly tradition that tight ends find openings against Atlanta’s slow linebackers and overmatched safeties. While Reggie Nelson is known as Cincinnati’s premier cover safety, Iloka wasn’t a slouch either.
According to Pro Football Focus, Iloka allowed a measly passer rating of 18.4 when targeted in coverage. He can play both free and strong safety, which provides much-needed versatility for an inexperienced safety group. Iloka’s ferocious hitting style will make fans slowly forget about William Moore. His ability to instantly close down running backs is remarkable, as shown here against Indianapolis. This secondary desperately needs a healthy enforcer. He has only missed four games over the past three seasons. The 25-year old safety is the complete package. Besides Trevathan, Iloka would be the biggest addition to their rebuilding defense.
Mid-Tier Quality: It seems fitting that one former Seahawk makes the list. Atlanta was linked with Walter Thurmond III last year, before Philadelphia offered him a more lucrative one-year deal. He performed far above expectations and finds himself as one of the better available safeties. This is the second consecutive year that Thurmond III is on my list. Based on his inability to stay healthy on a yearly basis, he won’t be able to command a contract quite like Iloka or Reggie Nelson. If the front office decides to spend elsewhere, Thurmond III would be a welcoming addition.
The adjustment period towards playing safety didn’t take long. Thurmond III quickly showed off his instincts by telegraphing an errant pass from Matt Ryan. His past experiences as a slot corner allowed the Eagles to get very creative. From covering tight ends to blindsiding quarterbacks on blitzes, they found a lone bright spot in their whirlwind of acquisitions. It’s highly unlikely that Quinn would ask Thurmond III to handle slot duties, as Jalen Collins is expected to make strides and Robert Alford continues to evolve into a dependable cornerback. Although injuries are a major concern, Thurmond III managed to play 16 games for the first time in his career. Some are likely to be turned off by the idea of depending on another injury-prone safety. Talent exceeds those concerns, when you watch him fly across the field. As long as he isn’t demanding an expensive four-year deal, this could end up being one of the bigger value signings in free agency.
Dream Signing: Out of all the dream signings, Brandon Brooks is the biggest long shot. Many analysts expect the enormous right guard to command six million annually. With the Falcons possibly replacing Chris Chester, Brooks would be the biggest upgrade. His experience within a zone-blocking scheme and taking out linebackers at the second level makes him a perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Despite being listed at 335 pounds, Brooks is surprisingly agile and excels at pulling blocks, which is essential for this offense.
With Evan Mathis and Richie Incognito in there thirties, Brooks has emerged as the next hot property at guard behind Kelechi Osemele. His brute strength coincides well with his ability to consistently make key blocks at the second level. Watch him demolish Winston Guy on this particular block. A right side of Brooks and Ryan Schraeder would give Atlanta stability for years to come. This move is highly unlikely, but if Atlanta wanted to invest in a top-tier guard, Brooks needs to be their top choice.
Mid-Tier Quality: After receiving major interest in 2014, Geoff Schwartz is back on the market and won’t command a hefty price. Severe ankle and toe injuries have derailed him over the past two seasons. He has only played 13 out of 32 games. When he manages to stay on the field, the athletic guard is a difference maker as a run blocker. Kansas City’s zone blocking scheme brought the best out of him. At 340 pounds, Schwartz moves exceptionally well and can push lineman laterally to open holes. Robert Mays of Sports Illustrated wrote an excellent piece involving him two years ago.
Can Schwartz still move following two season ending injuries? There is no risk behind signing him to a one-year "prove it" deal. If Schwartz can stay healthy, he can start for the next two or three seasons. This would be another ideal fit for Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. Obviously, they would need to add some depth behind Schwartz. The Giants were forced to start overmatched guards such as John Jerry last season. Atlanta will need to be prepared, as they can’t afford to make another last-minute trade in September for a mediocre guard.