Well, it’s the offseason, and we’re a little more than a month away from the start of free agency.
So, in short, unless you’re a draft nerd, there’s really just not that much to talk about when it comes to the Atlanta Falcons. Like, seriously, there’s not a lot.
But, there’s no “-ation” like “speculation,” so we here at The Falcoholic are trying to imagine different scenarios where different players come to Atlanta through different means. Some posturize different free agents, others different draft picks.
But, what about a trade?
This series will kick off what can be best described as a “what if” of trade scenarios involving the Dirty Birds. The team hasn’t made a trade of serious ramification since they acquired Andy Levitre from the Titans in 2015, but they’ve been known to wheel and deal before (remember how Tony Gonzalez got here way back when).
So, we’re going to draw up a few reasonable trades for you involving guys that could land in the red and black, starting with the most obvious target, and a trade that actually might happen.
PLAYER: Seattle Seahawks DE Michael Bennett
Why Michael Bennett?
Well, it’s stacking blocks when thinking about why Michael Bennett would land in Atlanta.
Block one: In January, Bennett told reporters he didn’t expect to be back in Seattle for 2018.
”Just seems like it’s a young man’s game. I can see them going younger, with younger players,” Bennett said to the Tacoma News Tribune last month. “That’s part of the game.”
The news isn’t all that surprising – the Seahawks purged their coaching staff this season with an eye to the future, and they may do the same with some of their older, high-contract players on defense – Bennett included.
The big-name pass rusher operates a dual space – he’s coming off a fine 8.5 sack season and provides more than enough pressures and run stops to qualify him as one of the better players in the league at the position. But, he’s also set to cost Seattle $8.39 million on the cap this season and will turn 33 this November. He also missed five games in 2016 with injury.
The Seahawks also have Frank Clark waiting in the wings to take over a starting spot on the team’s defensive line and have never hurt for finding top-flight pass rushing talent in the draft or free agency. With Cliff Avril’s health in the air, the Seahawks could see their once-league best pass rushing tandem gone by the time the 2018 season rolls around (though Avril has stated he intends to return to play if he can – making a Bennett loss easier to manage).
The second block comes in with connections – Benentt has been vocal of his love for Dan Quinn, and vise versa.
“He’s a players coach,” Bennett conveyed about Quinn to the Seattle Times. “He understands how to put people in the right position to be a great player. I think when you can do that, Pete [Carroll] does a great job of that, you can put people in the position where they can be great, they can do great things on the field for you. You see young guys, guys out there that were okay players, now I see them out there in Atlanta and they are out there balling. He embodies a hardnosed type of coach, and he expects a lot, but at the same time he has that relationship with his players where players can come and talk to him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Mike and I go way back to actually 2009, when he came out of (Texas) A&M,” Quinn said in the same story. “I can talk all day about him, what he meant to me as a coach, and it’s because of guys like Mike that I have this fantastic opportunity here. My respect for Mike and some of his teammates is so strong. The biggest thing for me, it goes to show that when you want to work at a level that other people are unwilling to go to, you can take your game to really high heights. Mike had come out of A&M with this really quick get off and could really penetrate and was disruptive, he was tough as hell. Over the course of time, his game kept evolving and kept getting better and better and for those of you that see how quick his hands are and how hard he works, what you don’t see is all the work that goes in behind the scenes when he’s out in Hawaii and putting on all the training that he goes through. The lesson I gained from it, is there’s another spot a player can go to when you’re trying to really go for it. I though Mike embodied that for me as much as anybody I’ve been around.”
So, yeah, these guys like each other, a lot. Bennett would also serve an immediate need for the Falcons – the defensive line may reshape itself a bit this offseason. Free agents DT Dontari Poe and DE Adrian Clayborn are no locks to return, and rotational pieces DE Brooks Reed and DE Derrick Shelby will see their contracts balloon to $5.44 million and $5.75 million on the 2018 cap, respectively.
The team is also moving LB Vic Beasley back to playing as a full-time pass rusher after experimenting a bit with the player at linebacker this past season. Rotational DL men Courtney Upshaw and Ahtyba Rubin are also set to hit free agency.
So, right now, Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Jack Crawford are the only defensive linemen that are locks to return.
A player like Bennett would immediately fill a role with the Falcons – he plays both from off the edge and as an interior rusher and would need no learning curve to acclimate to Quinn’s defense. The Falcons will know how to use him, and it’s fair to say Bennett’s addition would set the Falcons’ growing pass rush on another level in terms of league quality.
The third block is a random one, one that most folks don’t remember. When Quinn first took over in Atlanta, a little rumor popped up from Dallas reporter Clarence Hill three years ago.
Per multiple sources, Michael Bennett is seeking a trade to Atlanta and a new contract.— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) March 17, 2015
The report was short-lived, and obviously, did not come true. But, the dots connect. Hill’s not the type of reporter to just spout out what he hears without it having substantial weight, and it may indicate where Bennett would want to go if he were to get away from Seattle – whether as a preferred trade destination or his first stop on a free agency tour.
If Bennett truly is to leave Seattle, Atlanta has to be the first place he’d want to go, right? His relationship to Quinn could be the bridge to give Atlanta one of its best groups of pass rushers in team history.
Why not Bennett?
A few things could hold up this type of trade (or signing, if that’s where this ultimately ends up) – money and role.
Bennett will likely still want to be paid his current contract in a trade – again, he’s set to make over $8 million this season, which would, for a team like Atlanta, all but send guys like Poe and Clayborn elsewhere, and see the team nab a defensive tackle early in the draft. The Falcons also have contracts coming up for Beasley and Jarrett (and other, younger defensive standouts like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and De’Vondre Campbell), which could make them leery to invest that much top dollar at the position. The money being given to Reed and Shelby signals against this – as an investment in Benentt would produce more than either of those contracts. But, if one of those guys were cut, and in an acquisition with Bennett, you’d very likely see one of those guys leave, one way or the other, the Falcons would have to find economical ways to shore up the depth at edge.
The other factor at play would be Bennett’s role. He’s not quite old enough to not be a starter and should play at a higher level for at least the next three seasons. If he wants the starting role on the defensive line, it could get tricky with McKinley also factoring in there. McKinley came on strong at the end of the season, and as of now, could very well be one of the team’s starter at the position going forward. Now, knowing how Atlanta rotates their defensive linemen, starter is a bit of a relative term. Bennett and McKinley could easily coexist the same way he and Clayborn did down the stretch.
Clayborn, who had a career-best year as a Falcon this season, could also make the team way to bring Bennett in if they feel he would be a cheaper alternative and want to give more reps to McKinley.
There’s also the youth movement to consider – the Falcons like young guys, their guys, guys they can develop, and Dwight Freeney really only stands as a 30+ veteran the team has brought in to play a major role on defense. Though, Bennett’s still playing at a high level, and could get the team to eschew this mentality for his services.
And, with any situation like this, you wonder if Atlanta would even be interested. With Benentt and Quinn’s connection as it is, you would think this is an easy marriage to officiate, but then again, things change behind the scenes.
As obvious as the connections are, there are factors at play that could make Quinn and company give this one thought.
What would a trade look like?
The easy idea would be Atlanta swaps out its second-round pick for Bennett in a clean trade. But, would Atlanta want to invest a second rounder in a 32-year-old pass rusher, even if he is still one of the better rushers in the league?
A trade I’ve considered would be Atlanta shipping their third-round pick to Seattle, along with either Reed or Shelby. That way, Seattle retains a veteran at the position (though, an obvious downgrade), and nab an additional third rounder for their own youth movement. Atlanta would clear some cap space for Bennett’s arrival in this scenario, and only give up a third to sweeten the deal.
Reed feels more likely than Shelby, since he could give Seattle more as an overall pass rusher. Shelby isn’t as prolific in rushing, but he did well against the run in 2017 for Atlanta. Reed and a third would be the best-case scenario in a Bennett acquisition, as it would see the Falcons upgrade the position and only take on about $3 million in new money. Keep in mind that Atlanta could also sign Bennett to a new deal once he arrived, lessening his 2018 cap even further.
The only other spot the team could deal from would be the offensive line – Seattle needs help there badly, and some wonder if starting LG Andy Levitre could be a cap casualty. What if he’s part of a trade, and the Falcons and Seahawks basically swap contracts? In this scenario, Atlanta could even get away with only sending a fourth rounder along with Levitre to acquire Bennett. This feels far less likely, though.
As of now, a clean Benentt-for-second, or Bennett for a third and one of Atlanta’s depth rushers, feel like the best trade scenarios available.
Odds of this happening: 50%
If the Seahawks want to unload Bennett this offseason, Atlanta is an obvious player, whether it be via trade or courting him as a free agent. Part of me is a little curious about Seattle actually letting him go, particularly with Avril’s health up in the air, and their window still open to compete in the NFC. But, with the 49ers and Rams ascending, their division is getting all the tougher to win. So, maybe a revamp is coming for the Hawks, and Bennett isn’t in their future plans.
Other teams would be interested in Bennett in a trade situation, and Seattle may get better offers from other front offices. It’s not likely Bennett would be dealt for a first rounder, but after watching the Eagles’ front four help slow down Tom Brady, defensive linemen will be en vouge this offseason, and Bennett would be a crown jewel of the players available (along with fellow Seahawk Sheldon Richardson, who is hitting free agency).
The best-case scenario for Atlanta would be Seattle releasing Bennett clean, and Atlanta signing him to a new deal. But, Seattle knows what it has in Bennett, and if they feel he would end up with the Falcons anyway, they may try to play hardball and see what they could recoup in the move.
This is the most likely trade Atlanta could make this offseason, and it feels like it could legitimately happen if that’s what Seattle wants to do with Bennett. It’s just a matter of seeing if that’s really where things are headed between Bennett and the Seahawks, and if a trade is the way Seattle will decide to handle his contract, compared to an outright release.
It’d be a blockbuster moment for Atlanta – a win-now move, a sign that they’re here to stay for a while in the NFC, and another scary face added to the burgeoning defense. It would also see guys like Poe and Clayborn likely head elsewhere.
Now, we wait to see if the stars really do align for Bennett to come to the Falcons.