With several veterans being released and immense pressure on the front office, it wasn't surprising to see a more aggressive free agency approach from the Atlanta Falcons. Any team that starts 5-0, yet doesn't make the playoffs, clearly needs to make significant adjustments. Overspending on one-dimensional players (Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson) and making ten mid-level to low-key signings (2015 free agency) isn't going to cut it.
Holes needed to be addressed and certain positions were upgraded. Besides the lack of support opposite Julio Jones, nothing hampered them more than they're below average interior line. Andy Levitre was fairly mediocre, while Chris Chester managed to play above expectations and both may have played better alongside an NFL-caliber starting center. Regardless of Mike Person's inability to run block or snap the ball consistently, the interior line as a unit played a substantial role in the offense's decline.
Landing (hopefully) long-term solutions
Opposing defenses were routinely hitting Matt Ryan on A-gap blitzes. Person's inability to recognize blitzes (as shown here against Minnesota) and his botching several snaps cost Atlanta nearly multiple games, which made center a major priority. Although putting all your chips on a 30-year old player is a tricky proposition, Alex Mack gives them much-needed solidarity. This high-profile addition should give Ryan more confidence going forward to make proper reads and not worry about chasing after poor snaps like a fifth grader in pee-wee football.
It's difficult to be overly optimistic about Mohamed Sanu. Cincinnati primarily used him as a slot receiver last season. Justin Hardy appeared to be the ideal replacement for Harry Douglas, but Sanu's "exceptional" hands and ability to beat one-on-one coverage stood out to Dan Quinn. That led to Thomas Dimitroff infamously stating that Sanu has "separation ability that we are proud of," as only the quirky general manager can phrase it.
After recording 14 drops on 104 targets in 2014 and facing the overall backlash toward his contract, Sanu will need to be productive immediately. He will be given at least one year to prove his worth as a starter. By signing him and Mack, the front office can focus predominantly on defense going into the draft. Right guard needs to be addressed, while tight end could use a youth injection. Those aren't pressing needs, especially with several veteran guards still searching for employment.
Upgrades at defensive end
Unlike last year, the Falcons don't need to be worried about drafting a running back or wide receiver, unless they somehow trade for a late pick and want to take a flier on a potential deep threat. Defense will be the main focus, which hopefully means adding much-needed speed for a rebuilding defense.
The effects of poor drafting and an abysmal 2014 free agency class hindered their pass rush. Atlanta only used four defensive ends during the majority of the season. A base package using Tyson Jackson and Kroy Biermann as defensive ends put them at a major disadvantage on passing plays. O'Brien Schofield wasn't effective as a pass rusher playing 30-35 snaps a game. They eventually moved Adrian Clayborn to the edge, but it remained obvious that another defensive end or two were desperately needed.
Enter Derrick Shelby, who was on my ten-player free agent wish list. On a limited free agency list of pass rushers and defensive ends, the versatile lineman stood out after his strong play replacing an injured Cameron Wake last season. He should supplant Jackson in their base defense, along with possibly being utilized beside Jonathan Babineaux within the Falcons' nickel package. As my colleague Charles McDonald wrote in an excellent piece, Shelby possesses a strong bull rush and plays the run extremely well.
Although injuries and inconsistent play have plagued him, Clayborn's violent hands and overall tenacity makes him an asset. Quinn stated that Clayborn will be mainly featuring on the edge for this upcoming season. It would be wise for him to lose ten pounds in the new role. A slightly leaner frame will help him overcome his lack of athleticism and use a quicker first step to beat above average tackles. Nevertheless, the former Hawkeye is a solid rotational player that is entering the prime of his career.
Linebacker corps has somehow gotten worse
What makes this free agency period slightly disappointing is the front office's inability to acquire a consistent three-down linebacker. Quinn's defense in Seattle had one of their best linebacker duos in Bobby Wagner and K.J Wright, while the Falcons have been tortured enough from enduring Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis on a yearly basis. With Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman linked to Atlanta, it seemed realistic that either player would fill a massive void for Atlanta in free agency.
John Fox ended up signing both players for excellent deals that ended Chicago's extensive stretch of poor linebacker play following the exodus of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Meanwhile in Atlanta, there aren't any three-down linebackers on the roster that inspire confidence. This has been a prolonged issue that needs to be resolved for this defense to make significant strides.
It would be remarkable if Sean Weatherspoon can rediscover his play (and health) from 2011-2012, but that seems highly unlikely, especially with his injury history. How can any team start a player that hasn't played more than 300 snaps since 2013? Weatherspoon provides versatility and speed, but simply can't be trusted. It doesn't make any logical sense to replace Justin Durant with an even more unreliable player. Based on his past interviews and contract, Weatherspoon doesn't seem likely to enter training camp as the starting weak-side linebacker.
The linebacker options remain limited, especially with New Orleans signing Nate Stupar, who was the only linebacker that played above expectations last season. Phillip Wheeler can play multiple positions and was effective at blitzing. Unfortunately, his inability to handle coverage responsibilities was one of the main reasons why Miami released him after two seasons.
Within a group of uninspiring and below average linebackers, Stupar and Durant were the most productive. Neither player is on the roster, while the only current replacement is Weatherspoon. There have been some rumblings about possibly moving Brooks Reed inside. Although the high-priced signing doesn't seem fast enough to handle such demanding responsibilities, could it be any worse than trotting out Paul Worrilow for the third consecutive season as a starter?
Questioning their motives
Everyone knows about the "fast and physical" motto by now. The first part remains as an enormous concern going into the draft. Signing Courtney Upshaw was a puzzling move, although it was a team-friendly deal. He may end up actually lining up at defensive end, due to weighing around 270 pounds. A younger and stronger replacement for Kroy Biermann could end up being a fine move.
With only five draft picks and the linebacker class being fairly weak, it's very troubling that Atlanta doesn't have any reliable linebackers that can play in their nickel package. Quinn said that his defense would play in their nickel package 60 percent of the game. If that is truly the case, why didn't they push harder to acquire Trevathan or Freeman? Was signing Sanu really a bigger priority? These are common questions for an oft-frustrated fanbase.
If you look at most of last year's playoff teams, they had excellent linebacker duos. Seattle and Carolina were already mentioned above. The Super Bowl champions had Trevathan paired with Brandon Marshall. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks played a huge role in Minnesota's success. New England traded Chandler Jones, so they can pay Jamie Collins and (or) Dont'a Hightower, according to Gregg Rosenthal. Nobody will ever forget about Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman in San Francisco, not after 2012.
A strong pass rush will always be essential for every successful defense. That shouldn't undervalue the necessity to have all-around linebackers that have speed and instincts to make plays across the field. Look at perennial-playoff teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh that haven't played to their full potential. Poor linebacker play (along with unfortunate injuries) has stifled them in recent years.
When Quinn took over the head coaching reins, everyone knew this would be a long process. One-year resurgences don't happen often, unless Michael Turner is running over everyone and John Abraham can't be contained. As we head towards the 2016 draft, there are still several limited players on the roster that may end up being starters. Are players like Worrilow and Kemal Ishmael going to play starter-like snaps, when they shouldn't be more than backups?
Strong safety is another major hole, but the front office can't be criticized for not acquiring a replacement. George Iloka was the only true long-term solution on the market. Drafting a strong safety in the second or third round seems like a realistic move. Allow Quinn to develop a player like Keanu Neal or Darian Thompson and continue to build towards the future. They didn't need to invest four years and $26 million for Eric Weddle, who is slowly entering the downside of his career.
Despite the overwhelming concerns at linebacker, this was Atlanta's most productive free agency period in years. Respected outlets and writers such as Pro Football Focus and Chris Wesselling praised their efforts. Besides the controversial Sanu signing, they used their money wisely and made some quality investments. Low-risk one-year deals for Weatherspoon and Upshaw could end up paying off like Adrian Clayborn did last year.
Every team is going to have questions about their personnel, but not every problem can be solved in free agency. Teams like Philadelphia and (probably) the New York Giants will learn that the hard way. Everyone knows the draft is how championship teams are built. With only five available draft picks, the Falcons are handicapped. It will be difficult to get help at middle linebacker, weak side linebacker, defensive end, strong safety, and right guard. Tight end is a position to monitor, as well.
Heading into free agency, signing a weak side or middle linebacker was far more important than a number two wide receiver. Quinn and Dimitroff ended up thinking differently, which has left an unsettling and unsettled situation at linebacker. Even if the team selects Darron Lee or Leonard Floyd, that still leaves a gaping hole beside them. On a team still lacking a true pass rush and reliable safeties; you can't have slow linebackers trying to track down running backs and cover tight ends. Opposing quarterbacks torched them by consistently throwing towards the middle of the field. They didn't bother targeting Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford, when a tight end or running back was three steps behind a linebacker or safety. At the moment, nothing suggests that will be changing, and it has left me unsatisfied with free agency.