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Ranking the Falcons’ 17 Unrestricted Free Agents

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We’ve got the Falcons’ free agents covered from A to Worrilow

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
Falcons’ Free Agents Galore
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of free agency looming next week on Thursday, March 9th, the Falcons have a relatively large number of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who may potentially depart. Normally, it would be concerning when a successful NFL team is entering an offseason with 17 unrestricted free agents. But fortunately, few (if any) of the Falcons’ UFAs are players the Falcons must re-sign, as most are role players or players who are past their prime. Only 4 of the 17 players were arguable “starters” in 2016 - Patrick DiMarco, Chris Chester, Jacob Tamme, and Levine Toilolo - and none aside from DiMarco would be assured a starting role if re-signed.

Indeed, some recent Falcons free agency preview articles have been more focused on the possibilities of extending Desmond Trufant, Devonta Freeman, and Matt Ryan rather than potential re-signings among the Falcons’ current crop of UFAs.

So, the Falcons could conceivably bypass many (or nearly all) of their UFAs and target upgrades to the roster via outside free agents and the draft.

Nonetheless, what follows is a tiered ranking to provide an overview of the Falcons’ potential re-sign options:

Tier A: It Would Be Great to Have These Guys Back

1. Patrick DiMarco

Ever since an ugly drop against the Panthers in the 2014 season finale, DiMarco has turned himself into a Pro Bowl-caliber fullback, propelling the rushing success of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking offense the last 2 seasons. Of course, no team wants to pay fullbacks much money these days, especially because they’re not highly utilized. Indeed, DiMarco only played 31% of the Falcons’ offensive snaps in 2016. So long as the Falcons don’t have to enter into a bidding war against Kyle Shanahan to retain DiMarco’s services, it sure would be nice to see him back in red and black for another year.

2. Dwight Freeney

To the extent Freeney could be retained with a contract approaching the veteran minimum, he would be great to have back as the spin move doctor of the defensive line. Expectations should be kept in check given that he’ll be 37 next season and he didn’t register a sack between week 6 and the NFC Championship Game. But he showed during the Super Bowl that he still has plenty of pass rush ability, and his presence rubbed off well on the Falcons’ young linemen last season, particularly Vic Beasley. It sounds like he’s ready to give it a go for at least one more season.

3. Chris Chester

Similar to Freeney, Chester would be nice to retain if he could return for an amount not far in excess of the veteran minimum. He’s done a solid job at right guard the last 2 seasons and would provide insurance in case neither Ben Garland nor Wes Schweitzer nor any other guard steps up in training camp to seize the right guard spot. On the flip-side, one could argue that even if he were re-signed, Chester would need a strong camp in order to survive final cuts. The grizzle guard is now 34 years old.

4. Kemal Ishmael

Ishmael has made a habit of stepping up with some big plays when called upon over the last few years. Even though the Falcons have Keanu Neal locked in at strong safety, Ishmael can be deployed as a third safety or undersized linebacker, and has certainly had his moments in those roles. The Falcons could certainly use him for safety depth, given that they only have Sherrod Neasman returning at backup safety. It will be interesting to see what kind of market develops for Ishmael’s services, especially as he’s coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. If a market doesn’t materialize, maybe the Falcons could retain him with a short-term deal.

Tier B: It Would Be Nice to Have These Guys Back, But Their Loss Would Be Very Survivable

5. Jacob Tamme

Tamme had good production and rapport with Matt Ryan before he was lost for the year at midseason. I don’t want to hate on the guy, but bringing him back would likely mean he’d just be stealing snaps from Austin Hooper. Because of that, and the fact that he’ll be 32 next season (and conceivably may retire), I think it’s unlikely he’ll re-sign in Atlanta, even though I suspect he could still contribute positively if called upon.

6. Levine Toilolo

Sticking with the tight end theme, Toilolo emerged this season as an underrated cog in the Falcons’ offense. It’s likely that Toilolo’s agent is busy circulating this glowing Geoff Schwartz piece explaining how Toilolo helped make the Falcons’ offense tick in 2016. Well, unless Toilolo’s agent realizes that Toilolo’s name does not even appear once in Schwartz’s entire 1,600 word post. Go figure. Anyway, Toilolo has matured into a much more well-rounded tight end from his 2014 days when he was thrust into the Tony Gonzalez successor slash fill-in right tackle role and had about as many drops as catches. A future at TE2 behind Austin Hooper could be nice for Toilolo, but we’ll have to see how the market for him shakes out, including whether Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco) or Dirk Koetter (Tampa Bay) show interest.

7. Aldrick Robinson

He was one of 3 Falcons WRs to play approximately 30% of the Falcons’ offensive snaps, along with Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy. Given that he’d slot in as a WR4 or WR5, he’d only be brought back for the veteran minimum or close to it. But he made some plays when called upon in 2016 and Matt Ryan showed considerable faith in him. He’s another player who Kyle Shanahan may show some interest in luring to San Francisco.

8. Courtney Upshaw

Upshaw had a mostly nondescript season for the Falcons in 2016, so the fact that he’s at the midpoint of this list serves as an illustration of how replaceable this class of free agents is. That being said, he stepped up with a few strong moments during the Falcons’ playoff run after Adrian Clayborn got hurt and could certainly contribute at the bottom of the Falcons’ defensive line rotation after playing about 30% of defensive snaps last season. With Clayborn and Derrick Shelby returning, however, the defensive line depth chart may shape up to be crowded for him in 2017. If he’d accept another modest veteran contract, he warrants consideration for a re-sign, especially given his improvement over the course of the year.

9. Tom Compton

The best argument for re-signing Compton is that the Falcons currently have no depth behind Jake Matthews and Ryan Schrader at offensive tackle. Compton was forced into action during the Super Bowl and acquitted himself adequately, notwithstanding the fact that the team’s performance went to hell while he was in the game. That being said, one would think the Falcons will try to find a somewhat younger option (Compton will be 28 next season) with somewhat higher upside to serve as their 3rd tackle. Compton is another player who might reunite with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

Tier C: Players Who Have A Bit To Offer But Are Unlikely To Return

10. Matt Schaub

The Falcons literally have no other QB signed for 2017 aside from Matt Ryan, so they’ll have to resolve their backup QB situation one way or another. Schaub’s experience and ability to be a pseudo-second QB coach was a huge asset for 2016. Since Ryan has stayed unbelievably healthy over the years, hopefully the backup QB won’t see any game action (knock on wood), so Schaub’s role in Atlanta would continue to be scout team work and Matt Ryan prep. All that being said, it seems fairly likely that Schaub will find a better opportunity for himself by reconnecting with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

11. LaRoy Reynolds

Whether Reynolds returns comes down to how much the team values his special teams contributions, because he offers little at linebacker and was an afterthought defensively by the end of the season. He’s a player who is only worth a look at a minimum-level deal.

12. Jonathan Babineaux

It hurts to put Babineaux so low on this list, but his time with the Falcons appears to be nearing an end. He did manage to play 38% of the Falcons’ defensive snaps last year, but his skills are clearly diminished. We’ll always have some great memories of Babs from his prime.

Tier D: It Was Nice Having You on the Falcons’ 2016 Roster, Fellas

13. Sean Weatherspoon

As great a personality and leader Spoon is, he’ll be 29 and coming off a ruptured Achilles. And he’s only played in 25 games over the last 4 seasons. With some amazing rehabbing, perhaps Spoon could be brought back under a veteran minimum deal, but that seems a lot like sentimentalism coloring perspective.

14. Paul Worrilow

He showed plenty of promise early in his career, but he’s basically an adequate special teams player and a flawed sub defender at this stage in his career. He maximized his abilities to make it this far, but may struggle to make an NFL roster in 2017. That being said, the Falcons have been loyal to him in the past, so it may be a bit premature to write him off entirely.

15. Eric Weems

Like Babineaux, this seems way too low for Weems after all he’s done for the franchise. But he’ll be 32 next season and the team was already exploring replacing him as returner last year. It seems more likely than not that we’ve seen the last of Weems as a pro.

16. Philip Wheeler

The Falcons don’t have much returning linebacker depth with Wheeler, Reynolds, Weatherspoon, and Worrilow all set to be free agents. That leaves only untested Josh Keyes and Tyler Starr behind Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell. So you could maybe try to convince yourself that the Falcons would briefly think about bringing Wheeler back. But he’s 32, and the Falcons will almost certainly try to bring in younger players with more upside here.

17. Dashon Goldson

He was on and off the Falcons’ roster in 2016 and will be 33 in September, so it’s fair to assume retirement will be beckoning. Then again, I thought there was no chance the Falcons would re-sign Charles Godfrey 2 years ago and they did just that. In other words, when it comes to free agency, you can never quite rule anything out.

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Some additional Falcons free agent notes worth mentioning:

CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson is listed by some sources as a Falcons unrestricted free agent, including in Allen Strk’s must-read Falcons free agency preview, but friend of the site Aaron Freeman says that Blidi is technically a restricted free agent:

Not that anyone out there was losing any sleep over Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

As many Falcons fans know by now, the Falcons’ other restricted free agent is Taylor Gabriel.

In addition, the Falcons’ exclusive rights free agents (meaning they’ll be back in 2017 so long as the Falcons want to keep them) are Ricardo Allen, Ben Garland, Akeem King, and Tyler Starr. Again, credit to Aaron Freeman for his expertise regarding NFL accrued season rules to figure all of this stuff out.

Disagree with any of these UFA tiers or rankings? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.