A couple of seasons ago, the Falcons used a catchphrase, “All Gas, No Brakes,” to pump up its defense to play with as much spunk and aggressiveness as possible.
While it’s good to use brakes when actually driving a car (highly recommended, even), it’s a decent mantra for a hungry pass rusher or speedy corner. Since it’s the Falcons defense we’re talking about, we’ll say the results were predictably mixed, but the slogan could also be applied to the way the team approached its 2020 offseason.
Rather than henpeck the bargain bin options to pad its needing roster, the team hopped in the car and slammed down the gas on the freeway. It was a level of aggression the team had not shown since the 2016 season, when vital signings in Alex Mack and Mohamed Sanu helped spark an offensive revival that went to historic heights (cough, along with Kyle Shanahan’s scheming, cough).
Mack changed the world for Matt Ryan, and Sanu gave him a really nice foil for Julio Jones. The team’s ballyhooed 2016 draft class certainly helped, but rather than sitting still in March, the team made some wise investments earlier that paid off in dividends.
It’s not to say the Falcons are pitch perfect when they push the chips in on free agents; the disastrous 2013 and 2014 free agency cycles, in which the Falcons sunk money into aging veterans and overpaid run defenders. Those decisions, in part, ended the Mike Smith era and, with a few bad extensions, put the team’s salary cap in a difficult place.
The 2020 offseason for the Falcons has been, shall we say, divisive, with some of the biggest moves of GM Thomas Dimitroff’s career coming within just a week’s time.
You know what they are by now. The team added one of the biggest defensive free agents of the Dimitroff era in pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., traded second and fifth-round draft picks to the Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst and, yes, sent the city of Athens into a quarantined celebration by bringing back Athens’ favorite son, star running back Todd Gurley.
This all came at a time when the Falcons were strapped for cash in the cap department and weren’t expected to even buy a new pair of shoes within free agency’s time frame.
The moves are all risks, don’t fool yourself. Fowler struggled out of the gate in the league and didn’t have the kind of season folks thought he would until last season with Aaron Donald and the Rams. Gurley was an MVP candidate until an arthritic knee slowed him to close the 2018 season. Hurst fell behind on the depth chart in Baltimore after being a first round pick in 2018.
But they also come with sky-high potential. Fowler’s double-digit sack season could indicate a player finally living up to his potential, headed to a player-friendly environment and a coach who he’s close with. Gurley, with the right load management and blocking, could at least get back to most of the player he was when at his best, if not have games where he is that unstoppable force. Hurst might just have needed a fresh start to emerge as a true top tight end in the league.
The Fowler move is most encouraging, even if because it’s the first time since Ray Edwards that Dimitroff has had the courage to spend a ton on a starting edge rusher in free agency.
They’re all risks, and unlike 2013 and 2014, they’re incredibly smart ones, even if they don’t completely pan out. But how wonderful the Falcons are taking risks, especially since the team’s front office and coaching staff are heading into the prove-it of prove-it seasons.
The Falcons have been unbearably boring since Super Bowl 51, and even if these moves don’t work out, they’ll, at the very least, be interesting and worth watching every week. From a certain point of view, they have the potential to be pretty darn fun and effective.
Arthur Blank gave Dimitroff and Dan Quinn all the possibility in the world to right the ship this offseason, and they’ve honored that trust with three gigantic roster-shaping decisions.
The fun shouldn’t stop there.
Going into the 2020 draft, the Falcons need to keep pushing, keep trying to find ways to be aggressive and, quite frankly, enjoyable, with who they select.
With a potentially offensive-heavy first 10-15 picks, the chance to land an elite defensive prospect, like a Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons, Javon Kinlaw or even Jeff Okudah, with could be the cost of a 2020 second or third-round pick, or even one in 2021, via a trade-up.
Now, draft strategy is draft strategy, and boring in April might be very fun in September (see Keanu Neal, Chris Lindstrom, coming to your living room, hopefully, fall 2020). And, in past years, some of the team’s questionable drafts have yielded great results, and the ones we’ve been excited about (see 2017) haven’t quite paid off.
But sometimes, you just know when a player has a really good chance to be really great. If the Falcons feel a really great player is within striking range, they should push the button and move up the board.
To be fair aggression isn’t always advised, but the team feels like its been in a state of shock ever since dropping its Super Bowl chance. To be perfectly honest with you, being aggressive this past March is one of the first times in recent memory the Falcons have operated with any sort of moxie. Even if the punches don’t all land, I’m glad they’re swinging again.
Keep swinging, Falcons. To hit your shot, you’ve got to take some. If a seemingly boring draft yields positive results, I’ll yield to your judgment. But something tells me aggression might be the best way for this team to get back into the playoffs and for this era of the Falcons to see another Sunday.