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A Falcons free agency wish list addressing the biggest needs

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Which players should the Falcons pursue in free agency? There are plenty of intriguing options at defensive tackle and guard, which are two massive needs going into the off-season. Other positions such as tight end and defensive end should be considered as well.

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As the legal tampering period began yesterday, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t mentioned as a potential suitor for many players. That is a drastic contrast from last year’s escapades. Unlike the past three years, this should be a relatively quiet free agency period for them. Championship-caliber teams are more worried about re-signing their own players rather than making mega splashes.

For the past two off-seasons, I’ve created a free agency wish list targeting Atlanta’s five biggest needs. Out of all my picks, Derrick Shelby is the lone signee from last year’s list. It was difficult to list five positional needs this year. The new regime has built an outstanding team in a mere two seasons. How they continue building both lines will be crucial in the future. That is the main focus, along with a few other positions that can be upgraded along the way.

Defensive Tackle

Dream signing: After overpaying Paul Soliai in 2014, it will be interesting to see how the front office approaches the defensive tackle situation. Many things have changed since Soliai and Tyson Jackson were given massive contracts. Dan Quinn was given final say over the 53-man roster amongst other changes. They desperate need a mammoth force to pair with Grady Jarrett on the interior line.

Jonathan Hankins would be an excellent fit. My colleague Charles McDonald wrote an excellent breakdown about the rising star. Hankins is a younger, more versatile defensive tackle compared to the other available big names. His ability to excel as a one-tech would allow Jarrett to shift back into his preferred three-tech role.

The Falcons’ historic offense greatly helped an undersized front seven. Scoring on nearly every drive and taking commanding leads forced opposing offenses into abandoning the run. They aren’t going to replicate their incredible production again. The defense will face elite offensive lines such as Dallas and Green Bay. Someone will need to effectively take on double teams. Hankins is capable of being that enforcer. Watch him take on the Cowboys’ ferocious offensive line. If the Falcons are willing to make one major investment in free agency, Hankins is the number one choice.

Mid-level success: Terrell McClain gets the slight nod over Stacy McGee. Both players are inconsistent, but McClain is coming off the better season and offers more on a snap-to-snap basis. The former third round pick nearly crashed out the league following unsuccessful stints at Carolina, New England, and Houston. On a defense desperate for above average players, he took his golden opportunity and never looked back in Dallas.

McClain’s initial burst can catch offensive lines off guard. Philadelphia found out the hard way, as McClain blew up Wendell Smallwood to force a game-changing turnover. He possesses good agility for a defensive tackle of his stature. Rod Marinelli will always receive well-deserved credit for being a defensive mastermind. It still takes a group players to produce for an entire defense to overachieve like Dallas did in 2016.

There are concerns about McClain’s durability. He only played 16 games once in his six-year career. Signing him could be a two-year option based on his age (turning 29 in July) and upside. The Falcons were mentioned as a possible suitor. With the defensive tackle free agency pool featuring big names and aging veterans, McClain is one of the rare notable outsiders. After proving to be a capable starter last season, he would be a solid addition to an improving defensive line.

Edge Rusher

Dream signing: As every available top-tier edge rusher received the franchise tag last week, a once appealing free agency group became grim. Nick Perry is the only standout pass rusher left on the market. The former first round pick finally converted flashes of greatness into a terrific overall season. Despite being considered as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he possesses the ability to excel in any scheme. Perry isn’t a one-dimensional speed rusher. He can play the run at a high level. According to Pro Football Focus, Perry led all 3-4 outside linebackers as a run defender.

Injuries have hindered his development into becoming a consistent difference-maker. Perry hasn’t played a full season in his entire career. That doesn’t make him a fragile player. Breaking your foot and your hand are unavoidable freak injuries. Those moments didn’t keep him down. Look no further than Perry playing with a bulky cast during Green Bay’s dramatic resurgence last season. He produced four sacks in the last five regular season games. Toughness isn’t a question. The front office’s willingness to spend premium money on a pass rusher is the yearly mystery.

Every yearly off-season wish list will include pass rusher near the top. Although the draft is filled with promising edge rushers, Perry is an instant upgrade. The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote an excellent piece about his breakout season. This isn’t a one-year wonder. Perry is the type of power rusher that the Falcons desperately need. Combine the pass-rushing proficiency with his ability to win at the point of the attack as a run defender; Perry is going to be a major coup for whoever signs him.

Mid-level success: The free agency pool is filled with aging pass rushers. DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers, Lorenzo Alexander, Trent Cole, Chris Long, and Mario Williams are the most notable names. It’s hard to visualize them signing an older pass rusher. If they want to make that commitment, Dwight Freeney is one phone call away. Signing any of those older players wouldn’t make much sense. As good as Ware and Peppers are, they are nearing retirement at this stage of their respective careers.

The alternative is signing another edge rusher in their prime. Alex Okafor is the next best option, as Perry and Jabaal Sheard are going to be expensive. After recording eight sacks in 2014, his breakout season didn’t translate into sustainable production. Arizona traded for Chandler Jones, which made Okafor a rotational player.

They did utilize him in some exotic packages featuring Jones and Markus Golden. Quinn is known for using three pure pass rushers at the same time. Freeney, Vic Beasley, and Adrian Clayborn found some success together as a trio. Okafor’s versatility makes him an intriguing option. They could use more size and athleticism off the edge. Signing him would make even more sense, if they decide to cut Brooks Reed, who is owed slightly over four million in 2017.

Right Guard

Dream signing: Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported the Falcons are interested in spending premium money on a top guard. That is pretty surprising, considering what they have done in the past year and will need to do in the future. The front office made Alex Mack the highest paid center in the league. Ryan Schraeder earned a well-deserved payday. Don’t forget about Andy Levitre’s current contract, along with Jake Matthews likely receiving a new deal in the near future. They have invested significant money into building one of the better offensive lines in the league. If they decide to follow Oakland’s route on building a powerhouse, Ronald Leary would be an ideal fit.

The underrated guard is a notch below Kevin Zeitler and T.J. Lang. That makes him slightly more affordable. They could use some nastiness up front. Leary would be a massive upgrade over Chris Chester, particularly as a pass blocker. According to Pro Football Focus, no guard allowed more sacks than Chester in 2016. Leary is a difference maker in the running game, while remaining composed in pass protection.

Signing him would give them multiple options. They could allow Wes Schweitzer to learn under him for one season, before Leary moves back to his preferred left guard position and he is ready to start in the NFL. They could also release Levtire to put Leary in his natural spot, which starts the revamping process a season earlier than expected. Barring a drastic pay deduction, Levitre won’t be a Falcon in 2018.

Mid-level success: A one-year “prove it deal” would be perfect in this scenario. Add more competition and see what the new signing can offer. There are two intriguing players out there, yet neither player offers the most promising outlook. Stefen Wisniewski’s versatility doesn’t receive enough recognition. The natural center is capable of playing guard at a fairly high level. He did an outstanding job against Grady Jarrett in Philadelphia’s convincing win over Atlanta last season.

Wisniewski is mostly known for playing center. Between many teams needing an upgrade at center and the coaching staff wanting to find stability at right guard, this connection seems highly unlikely. They would prefer to make a low risk, high reward signing or draft pick. Wisniewski doesn’t add much upside as a guard.

Former top ten pick Jonathan Cooper could fit that description. The oft-injured guard will command some interest as a once highly regard prospect. Bleacher Report’s Ethan Young evaluated him in his free agency preview. Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t been shy about offering one-year deals to injury prone players. Clayborn, O’Brien Schofield, and Sean Weatherspoon are prime examples. It’s difficult to make a clear pick here. Wisniewski would be my preferred choice based on consistency, but Cooper is a more reasonable fit.

Tight End

Editor’s Note: Jack Doyle was re-signed by the Colts yesterday, after Allen submitted his piece. I left his comments in here so you can understand why he wanted Doyle, and the type of tight end he’d like to see land in Atlanta.

Dream signing: With Martellus Bennett likely out of their price range, Jack Doyle is the best remaining tight end on the market. The underrated playmaker ended up becoming one of Indianapolis’ few bright spots. They utilized him in a variety of ways. Playing him as an in-line tight end and fullback gave a predictable offense more diversity. Doyle’s emergence was unexpected following Dwayne Allen’s massive payday last off-season. They needed him to be productive in an injury-plagued offense.

Doyle’s durability and reliability will make him a commodity. According to Pro Football Focus, he only dropped three passes on 82 targets last season. Combine those positive traits with his elusiveness and any quarterback could instantly build a strong rapport with him. Doyle doesn’t possess freakish speed, but he knows how to create separation.

This move is highly unlikely, as the Falcons are trying to re-sign Levine Toilolo. Doyle is the most talented, affordable option on the market. Everyone knows how much Matt Ryan appreciates throwing to tight ends. Whether the front office feels comfortable spending decent money on a partially crowded position will be decided.

Mid-level success: If the Falcons prefer adding a blocking tight end rather than pure pass catcher, Dion Sims would be a solid fit. The backup tight end is considered as one of the better blockers in the league. According to Bleacher Report’s Mark Schofield, Sims’ versatility as a run blocker makes him a fascinating free agent. His blocking capabilities would be useful in a zone-blocking scheme.

Sims is a serviceable pass catcher as well. By showing reliable hands and solid route running ability, Ryan Tannehill started targeting him on a weekly basis. He made plays in the red zone as well. Scoring four touchdowns from 26 catches in a run-first offense deserves acknowledgment.

As a career backup, Sims won’t command a hefty price. The former fourth round pick would be an upgrade over Levine Toilolo as the number two tight end. They could use another above-average blocker, who can be a factor in the passing game without relying on well-designed plays and coverage breakdowns.

Linebacker

Strongside linebacker: Dimitroff has recently talked about re-signing Kemal Ishmael. The underrated backup filled in at weakside linebacker and strong safety last season. Ishmael was one of their unsung heroes, especially with De’Vondre Campbell missing five games. Defenses line up in their nickel package between 60 and 70 percent of the time. Weakside linebacker is one of the most important positions in Quinn’s defense. Re-signing Ishmael would give them two capable players at a crucial spot.

Adding another linebacker to play on the strongside and contribute on special teams would be beneficial. Michael Morgan played under Quinn for two seasons. Seattle and Atlanta share a common bond, when it comes to valuing athletes. Morgan fits their athletic preferences as a strong side linebacker. To help their run defense woes, they could use an upgrade over Philip Wheeler. Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar mentioned the Falcons as a possible fit. Morgan’s past experience with Quinn and ability to play special teams are two encouraging assets to help boost a young linebacker group.

Top backup: With Quinn undecided on Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux not being re-signed, the young defense needs more veterans. A more experienced linebacker would benefit them. Sean Weatherspoon, LaRoy Reynolds, Paul Worrilow, and Wheeler are all free agents. This entire linebacker group is expendable based on their inability to stay healthy or ineffectiveness.

They could use a true backup behind Deion Jones. Michael Wilhoite has plenty of experience. At 30 years old, there aren’t going to be many starting opportunities for him. Quinn needs another linebacker to pair with Jones on goal line situations. Offenses found success pounding the ball into the end zone without much resistance. That played a significant role in the defense being ranked last in red zone scoring percentage. Adding more support in the front seven is crucial for their progression. Wihoite possess strong instincts, size, and starting experience.