Sometimes change happens slowly and with such subtlety that it is difficult to notice it happening. Other times, change is swift and impossible to ignore.
The Falcons are experiencing the latter kind of change right now, and it feels like a seismic shift because it is. Especially since Dan Quinn got here, this team has been keen to develop and keep its own talent, sometimes taking that philosophy to irrational lengths. With Atlanta coming off of back-to-back 7-9 seasons and Rich McKay mixing in to the team’s offseason with greater prominence, though, the need for change on a tight budget means that preference for retaining homegrown players is fading.
In years past, the Falcons would never have let Austin Hooper go. They would’ve scrimped, scrounged, and wheeled about until they found the money, and they would’ve made Hooper a priority well before the start of free agency. Heck, they probably wouldn’t have let De’Vondre Campbell go, either, given that he’s a quality, homegrown starter. The Falcons have had to escape from plenty of their contracts over the years, but rarely have they shied away from bringing the players they believe in back in the first place. Now, though?
Safe to say the #Falcons are moving on from Austin Hooper based on his latest IG post.— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) February 26, 2020
Thanks for everything Hoop. pic.twitter.com/OdK5Dq1f4G
I don’t know if the new power structure with Rich McKay at the fore is a factor or not, but something has indisputably changed. Arthur Blank isn’t calling anyone a Falcon for life, the team took the unprecedented and frankly weird step of announcing they weren’t going to re-sign Vic Beasley, and they appear primed to let multiple homegrown starters walk in free agency. As you can see in the screenshot above from Hooper’s Instagram, he appears resigned to heading elsewhere in free agency, marking the first time in recent memory Atlanta let a player of his caliber that they drafted and developed go. Heck, they didn’t pick up Takk McKinley’s 5th year option, something they were quick to do with Jake Matthews, Vic Beasley and Keanu Neal.
What can we actually learn from this? We can no longer count on Atlanta simply re-signing their best free agents, not now that they’ve locked up building blocks like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Deion Jones. We can also sense that they have positions they’re not willing to spend big money on—tight end obviously being one of them—that they will need to address via the draft. You can almost count on their free agent dollars going not to an offense they’ve meticulously rebuilt and have had success re-stocking via the draft at key positions like wide receiver and running back, but to a defense that is comically thin along the line and in need of reinforcements pretty much everywhere. It’s not business as usual as we’ve come to view it, in other words.
That doesn’t need to be a bad thing, but the Falcons have exhausted any goodwill and trust in their methods after hideously bungling last year’s offseason signings and stumbling their way to two straight losing seasons. Thomas Dimitroff keeps suggesting, as he is wont to do, that there will have to be a meticulous and well-executed plan to get this team through its current cap crunch and the loss of extremely useful players like Hooper and Campbell. It’s this regime’s final chance to get the defense right, snap a few more gears into the offense, and prove they know exactly what they’re doing even when they’re making unpopular moves.
Whether they manage that balancing act or find themselves on the outs in 2021, it’s likely Atlanta’s team-building philosophy won’t ever be quite what it was the last few years.