Final Record: 7-9
Key Signings: CB/ST Justin Bethel, G Brandon Fusco, DT Terrell McClain, K Giorgio Tavecchio
Key Losses: DT Dontari Poe, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel
The Falcons have made only a handful of splashes in free agency in recent years, and only a couple of those have actually worked out. That means a quiet offseason in free agency is hardly a harbinger of doom.
For 2018, however, it was. The injuries that piled up and derailed the season were not something that could be easily foreseen, but the team’s laissez-faire approach to the team in the offseason was the product of a level of belief that in hindsight seems unbelievable.
Let’s back up a moment and remember where the Falcons were heading into 2018. They had just gone through an anemic 2017 that nonetheless saw them make it to the Divisional Round. The defense has tightened up toward the end of the year, most memorably against the Eagles, and many of the offense’s leading problems seemed related to Steve Sarkisian breaking into the role. The Falcons figured adding Calvin Ridley and a solid veteran guard in Fusco, plus more experience for Sark, would be enough to get the team whipped into championship shape.
Naysayers were concerned about the team’s lack of depth, uneven defensive talent, and Sark’s ability to get more out of the offense, concerns that were validated and then some when the games were actually played. The team’s lack of imagination for what could possibly go wrong ended up being damning, and their belief in Sark led directly to the clean out of coordinators we saw this winter.
But disaster aside, what did the team actually do in free agency?
Free agency 2018
The Falcons started things off by releasing Derrick Shelby, a move the fanbase largely welcomed…and that they then reversed when they couldn’t seem to find quality defensive line depth later on in the offseason. Shelby would go on to barely play and get hurt again, and now appears to be gone for good.
They followed that by signing Justin Bethel, the kind of move that clued us in to how the rest of this free agency period would go. Bethel was a luxury signing for a team that thought it was set everywhere but on special teams, but he would prove to be an invaluable piece of a genuinely improved unit. He did not play on defense, however, and would be a luxury signing if he returns again in 2019.
Fusco was the offseason’s true big signing, intended as he was to stabilize right guard after Wes Schweitzer had an iffy time there in 2017. He came into the role with a mostly strong history of guard play and figured to be a stopgap starter for a couple of seasons while Atlanta re-invested in the position, but he barely had a chance to round into that in 2018, playing a handful of decent games and then landing on injured reserve. If healthy he figures to be penciled in as a starter at right guard in 2019, but through little fault of his own, the signing didn’t really work out in his first year.
Then there was the Ron Parker drama. The team signed him, a move Falcons fans pretty widely lauded, but ended up cutting ties with him well before the season started and trading for Jordan Richards instead. Richards probably got beat up by the fans for his play more than he deserved, especially once he got comfortable, but that move was meant to address special teams and ended up looking pretty bad when injuries piled up at safety and Richards was pressed into action.
Along the way, the Falcons lost three players and only managed to effectively replace two of them. Dontari Poe went to Carolina, where he was ho-hum, and Adrian Clayborn went to New England, where he got a Super Bowl ring. Our biggest mistake here at The Falcoholic was putting so much trust in the team to elevate the players they already had on the line, and the Falcons’ biggest mistake was…well, doing the same. Vic Beasley cratered, Takk McKinley had an uneven season, Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat were solid but couldn’t quite make up for the loss of Poe, and the team’s depth at defensive end was comically nonexistent.
What we can learn
The Falcons must never again treat the team as though it is a finished product. Their mistake heading into 2018 was to assume that their team was so solid that they only needed a couple of small immediate upgrades to contend, and while unexpected injuries played a major role in the story of 2018, so did the team’s lack of cash (which went to Jake Matthews and Matt Ryan extensions) and unwillingness to consider what might happen if key players at DE, CB, and a handful of other positions didn’t step up as anticipated.
This may well be a quiet free agency period yet again, but the team doesn’t use their limited funds to bring in useful players at positions where their depth was exposed, then they haven’t learned nearly enough from an utter fiasco of a year.