Saturday, February 02, 2008

Roster Evaluation: Atlanta Falcons

Unfortunately for the Falcons their best quarterback in 2007, Chris Redman, is a free agent. They should make an effort to re-sign him because it doesn't look like there's going to be a better option in free agency. Joey Harrington is due $2.5 million and will likely be cut. Byron Leftwich is due the same salary plus a $1.15 million option bonus. He was just plain awful and without a doubt should be let go.
 Whether or not the Falcons bring back Redman, they have to bring some decent competition for the job. Rex Grossman, Daunte Culpepper, and Josh McCown are the big names in free agency, and Atlanta should stay away from them all. Better competition for the starting job would be Quinn Gray, Shaun Hill, or even Bill Volek. Todd Collins would have been a nice option if they had pursued Al Saunders for head coach or offensive coordinator.
 There's not a quaterback in this draft I would take with a top-five pick. The Falcons should sit tight and see if Brian Brohm falls to the second round. If not, Josh Johnson out of San Diego, could be had with a mid-round pick. While Johnson is still a bit raw, he has the skills to someday be Michael Vick 2.0: a dynamic playmaker and a smarter, better passer than Vick was.

Running Back
Warrick Dunn has been one of my favorite players to watch over the years, but it's time for the Falcons to say goodbye to him. Jerious Norwood didn't get nearly enough touches last year, and while Norwood isn't a twenty-carries-a-game feature back, there are plenty of options in free agency or the draft to team him with a productive backfield mate.
 As a second day pick, South Carolina's Cory Body would be an excellent complement to Norwood, as would Georgia back Thomas Brown.
 Fullback Ovie Mughelli went from being an all-pro for Baltimore in 2006 to seeing limited action for Atlanta last season. New Head Coach Mike Smith needs to make better use of Mughelli's skills, especially given the highly questionable quality of the offensive line.

Wide Receiver
2005 first-rounder Roddy White finally started to reach the potential he showed that made him a high draft pick, which is especially good because 2004 first-rounder Michael Jenkins continues to underwhelm. Joe Horn was another in a long line of disappointing free agent signings and he's not likely to be back.
 There's not a heck of a lot in free agency that can help the Falcons at this point. Bernard Berrian is at the head of the class, but he doesn't seem like the right fit for the Falcons at this time. New GM Thomas Dimitroff comes over from New England and he may want to try to capture some of that Patriots magic by signing Jabar Gaffney.
 The draft is deep at the wide receiver position and there is sure to be a top-rated WR on the board when the Falcons pick in the second round. California's Lavelle Hawkins, Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett, or Florida's Andre Caldwell should be there and any of them would be a solid addition to the Falcon offense.

Tight End
Alge Crumpler was always a little overrated, and now that he's battling knee problems that look like they might be a chronic issue, he could very well be done. 2007 fourth-rounder Martrez Milner is a decent blocking back who finished the season on IR and should be an asset in two tight end sets.
 The Falcons should shy away from the big name tight ends in free agency. Dallas Clark excels partly because of the system he's in and L.J. Smith has never quite attained the level expected of him—he seems like the kind of signing the Falcons have made in recent years only to regret it a year or two later. I do like Ben Troupe, if he can be signed cheaply—maybe even on a one or two year contract with incentives—because he's still only 25 and has that upside.
 With all of Atlanta's needs they probably don't want to go for a tight end too early. Michigan State's Kellen Davis in round three would be a nice pickup, though it might be two or three seasons before he pays dividends. Kentucky's Jacob Tamme is a mid-to-late round guy who could be a nice complement to Milner.

Offensive Line
Devastated by injuries (the Falcons started four different left tackles last season), the offensive line was one of the worst in the league. The unit ranked dead last in Football Outsider's Adjusted Line Yards metric, and finished in the bottom third of the leauge (23rd) in FO's Adjusted Sac Rate.
 Atlanta will have to replace starting left tackle Wayne Gandy who is coming off a torn ACL at age 37. Undersized tackle Todd Weiner is 32 and also coming off of a knee injury, but he can play either side and should be able to hold down one of the starting jobs. Undrafted rookie Renardo Foster, who was brought along from Louisville by Bobby Petrino, started two games in place of Gandy before suffering his own torn ACL; he will have to battle for one of the backup spots. 2006 fifth-rounder Quinn Ojinnaka will have to show great improvement to stick with the team.
 If the Falcons are going to make a splash in free agency this should be the spot. Stacy Andrews could be brought in to play right tackle, which would allow Weiner to man the left side until his replacement can be developed. If that's the case, a sleeper such as Northern Iowa's Brandon Keith would be a nice late-round selection, or they could look at a potentially undervalued prospect like Virginia Tech's Duane Brown.
 Right guard Kynan Forney was largely ineffective last season following a 2006 campaign cut short by a shoulder injury. Forney is due to make $3 million in 2008, the last year of a five-year deal, making it almost certain he'll have to try to regain his old form on a different team. That leaves Tyson Clabo, who filled in at right tackle last season, with the inside track for the right guard spot.
 Left guard Justin Blalock, Atlanta's second round pick last year, will have to show improvement to hold down his starting job; although with so many other holes to be filled, the job could be his by default.
 Veteran center Todd McClure seems likely to return as the starter, with 2007 sixth-rounder Doug Datish, who spent the entire season on injured reserve, as his backup. The Falcons would be wise to select late in the draft a lineman such as Georgia's Fernando Velasco who could help out at guard or center.

Defensive Line
The often injured John Abraham started all sixteen games for only the second time in his eight-year career, recording 10 of Atlanta's 25 sacks. 2007 first-rounder Jamaal Anderson was a major disappointment, failing to deliver a single sack. Having just turned 22, Anderson obviously still has upside; a year in an NFL strength and conditioning program should go a long way toward improving his game, as long as he has the drive. While their starters at end are set, the Falcons should look to add depth late in the draft.
 The inside positions are less settled. Former All-Pro tackle, Rod Coleman got off to a slow start due to an off-season injury and finished the season on IR with a torn tricep. Coleman will turn 32 this summer and could be a cap casualty as the Falcons look to rebuild the line. Sixth-rounder Trey Lewis was a pleasant surprise as a space eater inside and could be a solid two-down player. 2005 third-rounder Jonathan Babineaux has been inconsistent, but might be better off subbing in for Lewis on passing downs. That would help, too, because there's currently no quality depth inside at all.
 With their first round pick the Falcons should have a shot at either Sedrick Ellis or Glenn Dorsey, and they should definitely select the one still on the board.

Strongside linebacker Michael Boley is one of the most underrated defenders in the league and played at an All-Pro level last season. Weakside backer Demorrio Williams is a free agent and seems unlikely to return with 2007 fourth-rounder Stephen Nicholas showing promise. The big question is Keith Brooking who played out of position in the middle. If Atlanta wants to contend for a division title, they can't afford to do that again. The 32-year-old Brooking is scheduled to make $5 million next year and is almost certainly a cap cut.
 Atlanta has no need to spend in free agency for a linebacker. They should address the middle spot by selecting either Oklahoma's Curtis Lofton or Tennessee's Jerod Mayo in the second round, or Georgia Tech's Phillip Wheeler in the third.

Defensive Backs
As underrated as Boley is, DeAngelo Hall is at least that much overrated. He's not bad, but he's far from great, and no where near being the shutdown corner he has sometimes been portrayed as. Second-rounder Chris Houston flashed his abilities at times, but was largely inconsistent. As long as he continues to improve, the other starting job is his to lose. Sixth-rounder David Irons also has to make strides in his game if he's to challenge Lewis Sanders as the nickel back.
 Strong safety Lawyer Milloy has been good for veteran leadership the past couple of seasons, but that's about it. While his base salary of $1.7 million isn't prohibitive, I see little reason for a rebuilding team sorely in need of cap space to bring him back. Free safety Chris Crocker is a free agent and the Falcons would be better served by taking some of the dollars freed up by their cap cuts and making a play for Gibril Wilson, Ken Hamlin, or Eugene Wilson. 2006 second-rounder Jimmy Williams appears to be a bust, but will be kept around to see if the new coaching staff can finally get something out of him. Sixth-rounder Darren Stone is the backup strong safety and could be given a chance to start if Milloy's cut. And as with most teams in a position similar to the Falcons, I like Yeremiah Bell as a value signing/short-term solution at strong safety.

Morten Anderson will turn 48 this summer. He's my favorite all-time kicker, but I can't imagine he's going to reach his goal of kicking in the NFL when he's 50. Last season had to be the end of the road for him. Rather than invest in a big name free-agent kicker like Seattle's Josh Brown, the Falcons should use a late draft pick—perhaps on Georgia's Brandon Coutu if he's on the board—or bring in a mix of undrafted free agents and street free agents to contend for the job.

Michael Koenen is among the top punters in the league, though you might not recognize it by looking at net average alone, where he ranked a respectable ninth in the league. Koenen led the NFL with 31 fair catches: 12 better than second placers Kansas City's Dustin Colquitt and San Diego's Mike Scifres. Koenen also landed 30 punts inside the 20 (tied for fourth) against only 5 touchbacks. As a bonus, Koenen is solid at kickoffs (eighth in touchback percent, tenth in average yards) and the 25-year-old should be a Falcon for many years to come.

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