It’s that time of the year again. As numerous teams are being linked to players, the first week of free agency can be strenuous for even the most diehard free agency watcher. Some teams will bolster their roster and create some optimism heading into the draft. Other teams end up losing key players, which leads to them receiving additional pressure going into April.
The Falcons don’t necessarily fall into either category. For the second consecutive off-season, they aren’t expected to be aggressive. Thomas Dimitroff recently stated that the roster doesn’t have “any real holes.” That doesn’t mean they can’t find upgrades at certain positions. After falling short in the Michael Bennett sweepstakes, Dan Quinn and company will look to make a few moves.
Here are five positions that could be addressed in free agency. The free agency wish list started in 2015. It developed into a yearly tradition after connecting Derrick Shelby with the Falcons in 2016. Despite not having any success last year, it’s time to take another crack at selecting ten potential signings.
Dream Signing: No position should be prioritized more than guard this off-season. Andy Levitre took a pay cut to return as the starting left guard. This is the last year on his deal, which makes him unlikely to return in 2019. A poor first season raises major questions about Wes Schweitzer’s ability. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that he should remain as the default starter at right guard. Whether it’s drafting a guard to compete with him or making a huge splash in free agency, talent is needed. Quinn specified that during his press conference at the NFL combine. The positional need and potential value makes Justin Pugh this year’s number one dream signing.
With the Giants expected to sign Andrew Norwell, it makes Pugh the top offensive lineman on the market. His remarkable versatility to play guard and tackle will garner plenty of interest. There is no denying he is far better lining up inside than attempting to block speed rushers outside. Pugh is more comfortable as a guard based on his best years coming after his positional switch from tackle. His durability will be questioned, as he only played 19 games over the past two seasons. A season-ending back injury will make some teams cautious.
If the Falcons want to get aggressive and build a surefire top-tier offensive line, Pugh can take them there. Inserting him between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder would give Philadelphia’s outstanding trio competition as the best right side in the league.
Mid Level Intrigue: As good as Pugh is, it would be very surprising to see the Falcons spend premium money on a guard. They are going to be focused on Jake Matthews’ new deal. The most likely scenario will come down to signing a capable starter or drafting a highly regarded prospect to compete with Schweitzer. If they prefer experience, Josh Kline wouldn’t cost considerable money.
The veteran guard carved out a solid career in Tennessee. His skillset is best suited for a zone-blocking scheme. That should make the team interested in Kline, who is experienced in blocking for a productive running back duo. What should be most appealing about Kline involves his pass blocking efficiency. Pro Football Focus highlighted Kline’s success in their free agency preview for the Falcons. The sight of Matt Ryan being chased out of the pocket repeatedly during the playoffs won’t be forgotten in Quinn’s mind. It’s essential for them to acquire someone that will push Schweitzer. Kline’s resume makes him a suitable candidate.
Dream Signing: It’s hard to classify any defensive tackle on the market as a “dream signing”. Sheldon Richardson is the biggest free agent available, but he will be commanding a massive deal. If the Falcons can’t re-sign Dontari Poe, how can they pursue Richardson? The scheme fit wouldn’t be ideal alongside Grady Jarrett either. They need to pursue a true run-stuffing tackle that can handle double teams. Bennie Logan appears to be the best fit as a prototypical one-tech.
Similar to Poe and Johnathan Hankins, Logan struggled to land a long-term deal. Accepting a one year “prove it” deal didn’t quite work out for him. He didn’t look comfortable as a nose tackle in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense. That knocked his value down, which could make him more affordable. Logan doesn’t offer the same versatility as Poe. It became evident that he is more effective as a two-down player in Kansas City. That shouldn’t be an issue for the Falcons, especially with Quinn’s preference of rotating across the defensive line. Logan is only a few years removed from being one of the top run-stopping tackles in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Eagle recorded 42 run stops in 2015. Putting him into Poe’s role without using him in nickel packages could work wonders for the front seven against the run.
Mid Level Intrigue: If a previous free agency strategy worked, why not attempt to use it again? Signing another defensive tackle to a one-year “prove it” deal could be effective for the Falcons. It puts less pressure on the likely incoming rookie defensive tackle. While allowing him to develop slowly, the new signing can rejuvenate his career on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Pursuing someone like Star Lotulelei would fit the bill as a potential one-year solution.
The once rising star has dramatically fallen off in recent seasons. Look no further than his dipping run stoppage percentage per Pro Football Focus. Suffering from major foot and shoulder injuries played some part in his decline. It could also be from Carolina’s over reliance on him. Kansas City was blamed for giving Poe too many snaps, which led to the two-time Pro Bowler not being the disruptive force that he was in 2013-2014. Lotulelei moves extremely well for a player of his size. Unlike Logan, he can generate interior pressure, which is something the defensive line desperately needs to take the next step. A change of scenery and less snaps might be the recipe for Lotulelei to regain his status as a nightmare matchup.
Dream Signing: With Levine Toilolo being recently released, it leaves the Falcons short at tight end. They know the position could use another player. The new addition will need to be a solid run blocker in replacing the mammoth tight end. There is a possibility that the front office may aggressively pursue a pass catching tight end in the process. The Falcons met with top prospect Hayden Hurst during the NFL combine week. Although Austin Hooper made some memorable plays, the lack of consistency and late-season plunge in production can’t be ignored. Signing a big, powerhouse tight end like Austin Seferian-Jenkins may be considered.
The resurgent tight end is coming off the best season of his career. Despite playing in a talent-deprived offense, Seferian-Jenkins managed to make an impact on the Jets. He made several contested catches to keep drives alive. It didn’t take long for him to earn Josh McCown’s trust, which is astonishing for a player that endured serious health problems in 2016. His ability to make plays in the red zone (when the league isn’t wrongly taking them away from him) could be incredibly useful for the Falcons. They must improve in the red zone after finishing 23rd in conversion rate. While signing Seferian-Jenkins would represent being slightly over aggressive, it would increase their chances of getting back to their high-scoring ways.
Mid Level Intrigue: It would be harsh to replace Hooper after one season as a full-time starter. Young promising players are expected to take a significant leap in their third season. That doesn’t mean they should completely ignore the position. Releasing Toilolo opens up an opportunity to sign a true blocking tight end. Steve Sarkisian uses two tight end sets quite often. With Eric Saubert coming into the league as a pure pass catcher, they will need to sign or draft a capable blocker.
In surprising fashion, there are plenty of available options. Quinn knows Luke Willson well from his time in Seattle. According to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Atlanta has been linked with Ed Dickson. Both tight ends are solid blockers that can contribute in the passing game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them pursue both players. That being said, Virgil Green should be the main target based on his blocking capabilities. Per Pro Football Focus, Green finished in the top 15 as a blocker in multiple seasons. His six-foot-five, 255-pound frame is somewhat comparable to Toilolo. They could use a reliable blocker to take some pressure off Hooper, who struggled as a run blocker for most of the season.
Dream Signing: As Taylor Gabriel confirmed he wouldn’t be re-signing with the Falcons; it makes adding a new wide receiver a bigger priority. They clearly need an explosive threat, who can stretch defenses vertically. That will give possession receivers like Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy more space to operate underneath. The front office hasn’t been shy about taking chances and signing players to one-year deals. It makes the possibility of signing John Brown more realistic.
Brown is only two seasons removed from gaining over 1,000 yards. Not many free agents can claim that on their resume. Unfortunately, the dynamic playmaker’s rise to stardom has been ravaged by numerous injuries. There was genuine concern about his future after being diagnosed as a carrier of sickle-cell trait. Regardless of his injury history, teams must recognize what he offers as a receiver. Brown is a slick route runner that can create separation against press coverage. Although Gabriel can be crafty, opposing cornerbacks would easily disrupt him at the line of scrimmage. Brown is physical and nifty enough to overcome any doubts about his size. If he can stay on the field, Brown will produce big plays.
Mid Level Intrigue: Since the Falcons are focused on signing a speedy deep threat, their options are limited. There is no point in signing wide receivers like Jordan Matthews or Eric Decker. They need someone that can add another dimension to their aerial attack. Bruce Ellington is one of the few exceptions from a crowded group of tall, possession wide receivers. The former two-sport athlete found some success in Houston following three injury-plagued seasons in San Francisco.
Similar to Brown, Ellington’s development has been stunted by countless injuries. He missed the entire 2016 season with a hamstring injury. The same injury occurred in 2017, which ended his season in Week 14. For all his setbacks, Ellington offers plenty of excitement. His acceleration off the line of scrimmage can give cornerbacks all sorts of fits. That allows him to excel in the shot. It also makes him a potential option in the return game, as Ellington returned kicks for two seasons in San Francisco. At 26 years old, teams will take a chance on him. What is the downside of signing the multi-dimensional weapon to a one-year “prove it” deal?
Potential Signings: It would look silly to use the “dream signing” label in this situation. Even though it’s clear the fullback position still holds value, they can only play a certain amount of snaps. That is why fullback is placed last on the list. There is no reason to re-sign Derrick Coleman after seeing how much he struggled as a lead blocker. As previously mentioned above, the offense needs to drastically improve in the red zone. How they progress will consist of converting short-yardage opportunities on the ground.
The coaching staff lost confidence in Coleman, which led to him being rarely featured in the red zone. With Poe likely headed elsewhere; they won’t have the luxury of using the multi-dimensional giant. It would be wise to sign a fullback to solidify a once stable position. Anthony Sherman is regarded as one of the most consistent blocking fullbacks. He played an integral part in Jamaal Charles’ success. Like Coleman, Sherman is capable of contributing on special teams. He can also be utilized as a receiver, which fits perfectly with Sarkisian’s knack for using fullbacks out wide and sprinting right.
If Sherman wants “Patrick DiMarco money,” Zach Line is a decent backup plan. Snatching a starter from your bitter rival can translate into positive results. Whoever they decide to acquire would be an instant upgrade over Coleman.