The Falcons were definitely going to regress this season. The average 13-win team wins 9.5 games the following season. The Falcons played just 2 eventual playoff teams in 2012 and went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They had an unsustainable +13 turnover margin, which was powered by an unsustainable 64.3% fumble recovery rate. They also had significant off-season losses. They lost their best two defensive linemen, John Abraham and Vance Walker, and only replaced them with an aging Osi Umenyiora. They lost two offensive line starters and had just two players playing in their 2012 spot on the line. The switch from Michael Turner to Steven Jackson appeared to be an upgrade, but with Jackson heading into his 30s, it was tough to expect much.
However, the Falcons regressed in a way that no one saw coming. They went from 13 wins to 4 wins as injuries ravaged the team. Sean Weatherspoon, Sam Baker, Kroy Biermann, and Julio Jones all missed significant time with injury, while Roddy White was limited by lower body injuries all season. Steven Jackson also missed significant time with injury and struggled when he did play, showing his age. White and Jackson were a part of a group of 30+ veterans who disappointed on this team, including Asante Samuel, Stephen Nicholas, and Osi Umenyiora, all of whom were benched at one point or another.
Baker and Weatherspoon also struggled when they were in the lineup, hurting their linebacking corps and offensive line significantly. The former unit was forced to rely significantly on two undrafted rookies, Joplo Bartu and Paul Worillow, while the latter saw two 2nd year players, Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz, play among the worst in the league at their respective positions. Add in a disappointing year from safety Thomas DeCoud and you had a team that had little around the quarterback position.
It’s very hard for a team to win just 4 games with a strong quarterback and Matt Ryan is not to blame, as he completed 67.4% of his passes for 6.94 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, despite a lack of talent around him. However, the Falcons had ones of the worst defenses in the NFL, struggling in all facets and the only thing that worked on the offensive side was the passing game, as they were unable to pass protect or establish anything on the ground.
The good news is that things should turn around in 2014. Teams that see significant drops in win totals often rebound and wind up, on average, right in the middle of their strong season and their bad season. That would put the Falcons at 8 or 9 wins, which isn’t hard to imagine given their recent history of success. They should have significantly fewer injuries and they have plenty of cap space to build their roster. They also have the 6th overall pick in the draft to add a much needed cheap blue chip. Also, things that are usually kind to the Falcons were not in 2014. They went 3-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less and their turnover margin was -7 as they forced just 21 takeaways. Those things should turn around in 2014 and allow this team to compete for a playoff spot.
Maybe edge rusher is a better term here because Mike Nolan will want someone who is versatile enough to play in all schemes. The Falcons had just 32 sacks this season, which ranked tied for 3rd worst in the NFL, and they are Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked team in terms of pass rush. Osi Umenyiora was their big free agent pass rusher signing, but he was benched towards the end of the season and he’s unlikely to be brought back next season, owed 3.5 million dollars in his age 33 contract year. They need at least one, if not two new starters at defensive end/edge rusher. Jadeveon Clowney or Anthony Barr could be very intriguing at #6.
The Falcons top-3 defensive tackles are all free agents this off-season and the odds are against them bringing all 3 of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry back. Even if they do, Babineaux is heading into his age 33 season, while Jerry, a 2009 1st round pick, has been a complete bust and is barely a rotational caliber player at this point in his career. Corey Peters, meanwhile, played well this season, but was terrible in 2012 so he’s tough to trust.
The Falcons gave Sam Baker a 6 year, 41.1 million dollar deal last off-season after the 2008 1st rounder had a strong contract year. The first year of that deal went as bad as it possibly could have. Baker’s tendency to get injured returned and he played just 190 snaps. He was horrific on those 190 snaps, allowing a sack, 7 hits, and 12 hurries. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps than him and graded out worse than him on Pro Football Focus in either overall grade or pass blocking grade. Despite such limited snaps, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked offensive tackle overall.
He’ll be back next season because he still has guaranteed money left on his deal and cutting him would cost 9.2 million on the cap. However, they need help opposite him. Lamar Holmes, a 2012 3rd round pick, has been awful this far in his career. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked offensive tackle in 2013, allowing 10 sacks, 13 hits, and 53 hurries, while committing 12 penalties. He could still turn it around, but given that he was just a 3rd round pick, it’s looking unlikely. They can’t let him come into 2014 as the uncontested starting right tackle.
Tony Gonzalez is retiring, at least for now. The Falcons need a new tight end to replace him. Levine Toilolo, a 2013 4th round pick, was their 2nd string tight end last season, but he only played 198 snaps because the Falcons almost never use two-tight end sets, catching 11 passes for 55 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s a decent blocker and goal line weapon, but I don’t know if he’s a good enough receiver to be a #1 tight end. They should bring someone else into the mix.
Left guard Justin Blalock was their only good offensive lineman in 2013. They need help at right guard opposite him. Garrett Reynolds has been very inconsistent in his career and was benched last season for Joe Hawley, who took over at center, moving Peter Konz to right guard. Konz was horrible at right guard, just as he was at center. They need to bring in competition for Reynolds, as Hawley, a decent reserve, is a free agent this off-season.
Peter Konz has been a complete bust in 2 years since being a 2nd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked guard in 2012. In 2013, he started the season at center, his collegiate position, but struggled and moved back to right guard. Despite splitting time at the two positions, he was still both Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center and their 68th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. They need to bring in some competition for him.
The Falcons replaced Michael Turner with Steven Jackson, but Jackson didn’t prove to be much of an upgrade. Jackson fell off a cliff, rushing for a career low 543 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. He only played 12 games and had just 157 carries. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as he had 2396 carries going into his age 30 season in 2013. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. The Falcons can get out of his contract fairly easily and replace him, but even if they don’t, they need a running back for the future as Jackson is heading into his age 31 season.
The Falcons used 1st and 2nd round picks on cornerbacks in 2013 NFL Draft, taking Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but they might still need help at the position this off-season. Asante Samuel is expected to be a cap casualty, while Robert McClain is a free agent. If they don’t retain him, they’ll need to get someone to replace him.
Paul Worrilow took over as the starting middle linebacker as an undrafted rookie this season. He wasn’t terrible, but he did grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. The Falcons do seem to like him so he’ll probably be back as the starter next season, but it might not be a bad idea to get a cheap veteran backup just in case he continues to struggle.
Thomas DeCoud had an awful 2013 season in the 2nd year of his 5-year deal, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked safety. The Falcons can save a good amount on the cap and 11.2 million in cash over the next 3 seasons by cutting him. If they cut him, they’ll need to find some sort of replacement. Perhaps 2013 undrafted rookie Zeke Motta can be that guy and they might just keep DeCoud as a veteran presence in hopes that he turns it around with so many needs. That’s why it’s at the bottom on this list.
Key Free Agents
DT Jonathan Babineaux
Babineaux has played in 138 games for the Falcons, missing a combined 4 over the past 6 seasons, since being taken in the 2nd round in 2005 out of Iowa. Since Pro Football Focus’ first season in 2008, Babineaux has graded out above average in all 6 seasons, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in 2009 and grading out 13th as recently as 2011. Unfortunately, he’s going into his age 33 season this off-season so he’ll probably be looking at short-term deals, but he should still be able to get 3-5 million dollars per year.
DT Corey Peters
A 3rd round pick in 2010, Corey Peters has been a pretty inconsistent player thus far in his career, playing significant amounts of snaps in all 4 seasons and alternating between below average and above average seasons on Pro Football Focus. For example, in 2012, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle, but in 2013, he graded out 30th and significantly above average. He’ll get a decent amount of money on a 3 or 4 year deal going into the prime of his career. Of the Falcons’ 3 free agents at defensive tackle, Peters should be their #1 priority because of his combination of youth and talent.
CB Robert McClain
Robert McClain broke out as the nickel back in 2012 for the Falcons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked cornerback. He wasn’t nearly as good in 2013, grading out right around average, playing about half the snaps, but he still should be retained because he’s one of the few talented young players the Falcons have. He should get a bigger role in 2014.
DT Peria Jerry
Peria Jerry has been a complete bust as a 2009 1st round pick. 2010 was the only season he graded out above average and he did that on 213 snaps. 2013 was his worst season as he played a career high 678 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked defensive tackle. He’s looking at rotational work on a one year deal at best this off-season.
Cap Casualty Candidates
CB Asante Samuel
Asante Samuel is going into his age 33 season and he’s as good as gone after getting moved down to 4th string behind rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford late last season. Samuel is owed 4.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2014 in his contract year and the Falcons can save 4.5 million on the cap by letting him go.
DE Osi Umenyiora
Osi Umenyiora is another veteran who is as good as gone. Umenyiora was their big pass rush signing last off-season and though he led the team with 7 sacks, he still wasn’t as good as they needed him to be and they benched him down the stretch to evaluate younger players. The Falcons can save both 3.5 million in cash and cap space by letting him go, as he heads into his age 33 season.
RB Jason Snelling
Jason Snelling was arrested this season and the Falcons have generally displayed a no tolerance policy in the past in terms of players with off the field run ins. Given that, it’s pretty safe to assume that Snelling will be cut, saving 1.375 million in cash and cap space. He’s also going into his age 31 season in 2014 and had just 44 carries in an underwhelming backfield in 2013, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
OLB Stephen Nicholas
Stephen Nicholas has been jumped on the depth chart by two undrafted rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu and played just 132 snaps in 2013, the 3rd year of a 5 year deal. The Falcons can save a combined 7.5 million in cash in 2014 and 2015 and 2 million in cap space by cutting him this off-season, as he goes into his age 31 season.
OLB Kroy Biermann
Kroy Biermann missed most of last season with injury and has yet to establish himself as an impact edge rusher. The Falcons can save 3.05 million on the cap next season and in cash by cutting him, but they may keep him around because of how thin they are at edge rusher.
RB Steven Jackson
The Falcons replaced Michael Turner with Steven Jackson, but Jackson didn’t prove to be much of an upgrade. Jackson fell off a cliff, rushing for a career low 543 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. He only played 12 games and had just 157 carries. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as he had 2396 carries going into his age 30 season in 2013. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. The Falcons can get out of his contract fairly easily, saving about 1.8 million on next year’s cap in the process, if they choose.
S Thomas DeCoud
Thomas DeCoud had an awful 2013 season in the 2nd year of his 5-year deal, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked safety. The Falcons can save a 3 million on the cap and 11.2 million in cash over the next 3 seasons by cutting him. They also might just keep DeCoud as a veteran presence in hopes that he turns it around with so many needs.
TE Tony Gonzalez
This is just formality as Gonzalez is technically under contract for 2014 at the salary of 7 million. He’s expected to retire, however, so the Falcons won’t technically have to cut him to realize savings of 7 million in cash and cap space. Gonzalez will now sit and wait for the Hall of Fame to call, though he did leave the window open for him to return mid-season to a contender in 2014.