The Falcons have areas they’re going to have to address this free agency. Before we discuss outside guys, let’s look at the three big names internally up for extensions -- Adrian Clayborn, Dontari Poe, Taylor Gabriel. Let’s say Poe and Gabriel get away (one for the money, two for the Garoppolo), and the team re-signs Clayborn. Of other in-house FAs, K Matt Bryant, DT Ahtyba Rubin, LB LaRoy Reynolds and CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson would be ideal candidates to return. Of new faces, I’m big on the team adding a red zone threat, so let’s say Cincy TE Tyler Eifert gets loose from the Bengals. He’s a big-bodied TE with red zone production, and if not for his injury history, would be a top-paid player at the position. With Austin Hooper in tow, the team can afford to gamble on a one-year prove-it deal with Eifert, and rotate he and Hooper around as co-TE1s. Matt Ryan would love having a big TE like Eifert to use in the end zone. Nabbing a fullback would also be nice, and Saints FB Zach Line (PFF’s third-best FB in 2017) is going to be available. He would fill a major need, and make our worst enemy weaker. I’m all in on that scenario. Of new defensive players, consider the status of Seahawks DE Michael Bennett. It’s been tossed about here and there that Seattle may part ways with him one way or the other this offseason, and particularly if he’s released, Atlanta need to make a big push for him. The Falcons would likely be his preferred destination with Dan Quinn his old coach in SEA, and it’d be the kind of statement move that would put this defense up a notch in the league, and the rest of the NFC on notice. I think a trade feels more likely, but if he’s a FA, Atlanta needs to get him. They probably add one or two other new depth guys I could even begin to guess -- like a random linebacker and a veteran offensive lineman. If all of this falls through, Atlanta could focus on adding to the DT, WR and OL spots in the draft.
I’ll keep it simple and go with a basic philosophy rather than specific names. Thomas Dimitroff openly describes himself as a “pure needs-based guy” when it comes to the draft. I prefer a modified version of the BPA approach. One key element of that approach (and one which the TV analysts never bother to mention) is to use free agency to plug the holes so that you aren’t painted into a corner and forced to use your first and/or second round picks at specific positions.
(It’s also important to understand the difference between wanting an upgrade and needing to fill a hole. You might want a better player than the one you have, but if the current guy is remotely competent, it’s not a hole. For example, right guard was a question mark last offseason with Chris Chester’s departure. But it was not a true hole as we had Schweitzer in the pipeline and Garland for competition. By comparison, we didn’t have candidates on the roster when we first lost Justin Blalock. That was a true hole.)
So, my wish list for free agency is for our braintrust to plug holes (including any created by their own cap moves) well enough to head into the draft with all of us having absolutely no clue what they will do with their top three picks.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This Falcons team is largely not broken, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, so I think the team’s first priority in free agency should be to retain key players. As Cory mentioned above, Adrian Clayborn, Ahtyba Rubin, LaRoy Reynolds, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson should all be back at reasonable prices, and ideally you’d see Dontari Poe return as well, especially if the Falcons aren’t targeting a defensive tackle in the first round or two of the draft. If Steve Sarkisian can do a better job getting Taylor Gabriel involved in the offense, let’s make that happen, too.
From there, it’s about addressing minor holes, especially if you do scoop up Poe or my preferred target Sheldon Richardson. I’d like to see Atlanta consider a veteran cornerback option to compete with Brian Poole at the nickel and give the team four quality corners--T.J. Carrie from Oakland/Las Vegas and E.J. Gaines from Buffalo spring to mind as potential quality additions--and look at a free agent fullback with more blocking acumen than Derrick Coleman.
As usual, the Falcons should and likely will do their best work in the draft. This free agency period should be about keeping the band together and improving within the narrow confines of the salary cap.
I’ve been through a few scenarios so far in how the offseason can play out, and I keep ending up at the Falcons needing to snatch up a guard and tight end. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they didn’t, knowing the young guys should continue to develop. It’s still mighty risky to hope Wes Schweitzer and Austin Hooper become above average at their position, especially with the age of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. My dream offseason is signing Andrew Norwell, easily one of the best young guards in the league. Give Schweitzer and even Sean Harlow one more year to develop, and the best of the two replaces Andre Levitre in 2019. Hooper is still full of potential, but Atlanta has no one behind him. The offense lost their versatility last year, and two tight end threats could help bring it back. Who is young, available, athletic, (presumably) cheap, and has a history with Steve Sarkisian? Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Those two signings should take up a reasonable amount of cap space, but the Falcons could still toss a one-year deal at whatever wide receiver is still looking for a team deep in free agency. The Falcons should replace Taylor Gabriel with speed and size, so give me whoever is left from the damaged group of Josh Gordon, Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Terrelle Pryor to act as the WR2/WR3.