By D. Orlando Ledbetter
After dealing with the heartbreak of falling 10 yards short of Super Bowl XLVII, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith joined most of the team’s scouts last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
That was a fitting move because the offseason’s focus will be on re-shuffling the roster and trying to add some teeth to the defense in a salary cap-strapped environment.
“The fact that we won in the playoffs is important for the growth of this football team,” Dimitroff said. “It’s great for the fan base, Mr. (Arthur) Blank and everyone else involved. But, though sounding cliche, it’s not our goal to stop at just winning a playoff game.”
The Falcons, who have been to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, believe they are close to winning a title.
“This is a competitive football team and a very competitive and intelligent coaching staff,” Dimitroff said.
After the 2011 season, the focus was on retooling the coaching staff. The Falcons, happy with the talent on hand, added new coordinators in Mike Nolan (defense) and Dirk Koetter (offense) to replace Brian VanGorder and Mike Mularkey.
In order to re-tool a roster with the expected retirement of Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and the need to improve the defense, the Falcons can’t rely on re-shuffling the coaching ranks again. An infusion of talent is needed.
“We need more playmakers across the board,” Smith said.The Falcons will consider upgrades and/or open competitions
at all defensive spots in order to improve from being ranked 24th overall in the NFL.
After a brief break around the Super Bowl, the Falcons must address their list of 21 free agents — left tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore and cornerback Brent Grimes head the list — and then they must consider whether they need to sign any players when free agency commences March 12.
What happens in free agency will dictate which direction they’ll go in the draft, which is set for April 25-27. The first round will be held April 25, followed by the second and third rounds April 26 and rounds 4-7 on April 27.
The Falcons will have a first-round pick this year after sending their No. 1 in 2012 to Cleveland as part of the Julio Jones trade. As a matter of fact, they’ll have their full slate of seven picks and could add at least one compensatory pick, and possibly two. They lost linebacker Curtis Lofton, wide receiver Eric Weems, cornerback Kelvin Hayden and safety James Sanders as free agents last offseason.
Here’s a look at the five pressing questions that the Falcons face this offseason:
1. Who’s going to replace Gonzalez? The Falcons have to deal with the reality that the game’s greatest tight end is set to retire. The Falcons could elect to go with Chase Coffman as a pass-catching tight end. A prospective unrestricted free agent, Coffman had a spectacular 16-yard catch against Seattle and could possibly salvage his career.
“Chase is a very good receiving tight end, and he continues to grow and learn as he receives very good coaching under Chris Scelfo,” Dimitroff said. “If Chase can … stay healthy, I think Chase has a very nice chance of being a quality football player in this league.”
The Falcons could also draft Stanford tight end Zach Ertz or Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round.
Michael Palmer is a restricted free agent. Tommy Gallarda and Adam Nissley finished the season on injured reserve. Andrew Szczerba was on the practice squad and recently was re-signed to reserve/futures contract.
2. What to do with Michael Turner? He has served the franchise well over five seasons. Without him, the Falcons would not have been able to turnaround their fortunes so quickly.
He has been extremely durable in making 72 of 75 starts, rushing for 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns, but he showed signs of slippage last season with a career-low 3.6 yards average per carry.
The Falcons must determine if there is anything left in the tank or if there just weren’t any holes for Turner to run through.
Either way, in the new offensive system, $5.5 million is a bit much for a 10-to-15 carry oer game back. Perhaps, they renegotiate and tell Turner he’s the red-zone, touchdown back or they select his replacement in the third round of the draft.
Super Bowl-bound Baltimore found someone to share some of the load by taking Ray Rice in the third round of the 2012 draft. They picked Temple running back Bernard Pierce (84th overall), and he averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie.
Bruising Turner clones in the draft include Michigan State’s LeVeon Bell (6-foot-2, 238 pounds) and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (5-11, 210). Both are projected to go in the second to fourth rounds, pre-combine.
3. Are the Falcons set at linebacker? Stephen Nicholas led the team with 116 tackles. Akeem Dent finished his first season as a starter in the team’s base defense.
Nicholas has $10 million in base salary left on a five-year contract he signed after the 2011 season.
Smith and cornerback Dunta Robinson were seen “consulting” with Nicholas during the NFC title game, when it was clear the Falcons had trouble covering tight end Vernon Davis.
Nicholas has been strong against the run, but a liability in coverage. In a passing league, that was one of the reasons why Lofton was not re-signed last season.
It’s not a matter of whether the Falcons will add a linebacker, but how many.
4. Does Grimes still fit in the secondary? Grimes was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, but the emergence of Robert McClain solidified the depth at the position.
The Falcons must determine Grimes’ health status and then his market value. The team has a lot of money tied up at the position and may not be able to match if Grimes gets a lucrative offer in free agency.
Both safeties — Thomas DeCoud and Moore — went to the Pro Bowl.
5. Is the Peter Konz era ready to start at center? The offensive line was the emphasis last season, as the Falcons shifted to adding some beef to the unit.
Konz will shift to center if Todd McClure retires or isn’t re-signed. Third-round draft Lamar Holmes (6-6, 323) was brought along slowly last season, and Phillipkeith Manley (6-5, 309) looks like a mauler.
The Falcons need to improve their short-yardage attack, continue to protect quarterback Matt Ryan and get outside on their screen assignments.
The heavy screen-and-draw attack can take a team only so far. There were times this season when they needed to dominate the line of scrimmage and were unsuccessful.