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Falcons free agency rewinds: All was quiet on the 2017 front

The Falcons made a couple of crucial signings, but a largely quiet offseason didn’t deliver all the improvements the team needed.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Final Record: 10-6, lost to Eagles in Divisional Round

Key Signings: DT Jack Crawford, FB Derrick Coleman

Key Losses: DT Tyson Jackson

Background

The Falcons went through an unnamed, undiscussed tragedy in February 2017 that would have made it simple for them to try and keep the team together. They were a Super Bowl team, the rationale went, and their chief weaknesses did not necessarily require major changes to overcome.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, things didn’t quite work out that way. The team tried to pile up cheap free agents on the offensive line, as they always do, and they even invested a fourth rounder in guard with Sean Harlow. Cornelius Edison didn’t stick, Hugh Thornton and Trevor Robinson retired, and Harlow was in mothballs all throughout 2017, meaning the team wound up rolling with Andy Levitre and Wes Schweitzer at guard. That plus a consistently anemic offense and middling year one returns from their 2017 draft class in general doomed them.

They were still a pretty good football team in 2017, at least, and they did it with virtually no major changes in free agency. That’s a path this team is likely to have to follow again heading into the 2019 season, except this time they’re feeling a little more urgency after a bad season, and they’ve already been linked to two new guards.

Free agency 2017

The Falcons struck early and got out, a pattern they’re likely to follow again this year. They signed defensive tackle Jack Crawford away from the Dallas Cowboys, cut ties with Tyson Jackson, and re-upped with Levine Toilolo and Courtney Upshaw. Nearly two weeks later, they added Derrick Coleman and Soma Vainuku to compete at fullback and picked up former Colt Hugh Thornton.

Out of those signings, only Crawford would wind up mattering much, and an injury robbed him of most of his 2017 season in the first place. Derrick Coleman was a Pro Bowl special teamer for an otherwise putrid special teams unit under Keith Armstrong, but a so-so fullback for a team that didn’t use one all that often. Vainuku would wind up cut in favor of Coleman and Thornton, who looked like the kind of savvy buy-low candidate the Falcons were used to picking up and turning into a decent player, wound up retiring from football in May. Crawford would at least go on to be a mighty useful player in 2018, but the Falcons basically did nothing in free agency in 2017 that mattered.

The final big move of the offseason, as it turns out, was the team trading a fifth rounder for Ty Sambrailo, which doesn’t fall under the free agency purview per se but wound up mattering a lot to the Falcons two years later.

What we learned

The Falcons were big believers in the talent on hand, and in retrospect the coaching changes they made were probably as limiting as their lack of a killer draft or strong free agency class. But the Falcons were virtually silent in free agency, choosing a frugal approach designed to give them useful depth options with the upside to start, which only sort of worked out.

That’s an offseason worth looking at again because the Falcons are likely to repeat it in 2019, with a little more urgency to get things right. It would not surprise any of us if their entire FA class of note wound up being James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, and a couple of solid defensive linemen, even after they’ve stirred up a bit more cap space. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that those kinds of quiet offseasons rarely yield critical players, and the kind of core investments the Falcons are making are the ones that make or break the offseason.