Thomas Dimtroff has been the general manager of this franchise for the past 4 years, and under his leadership the Falcons franchise has improved drastically. From never having a winning record in back to back seasons, to four consecutive winning seasons and three playoff berths, this is a team that looks very little like the team that lost twelve games in 2007. Under head coach Mike Smith and young star QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons have been 43-21 in the regular season.
Years and years of running the ball effectively and playing good defense has been the order of the day for years in this city, and for the first three years of the Dimitroff-Smith-Ryan era, it has remained the moniker of the team. Having a very good offensive line means that the skill positions need to be addressed, and the bend-don’t-break defense should keep rocking along.
But troubling signs have sprung up as a reasult of the past two post-seasons, and last year. The offensive line has become more of a sieve of a line in both phases of the game, and the defensive line is nearly unable to get any pressure in the passing game. How could this team be built any differently? Follow the jump and I’ll discuss in greater detail.
I believe that games are won and lost in the trenches. As much as execution on the perimeter of the field is important, none of that can happen if you are not winning the line of scrimmage. Look at the teams that are winning. They are winning the line of scrimmage in one of both phases of the game. The New York Giants don’t have a great o-line, but their defensive line is out of this world at getting after the passer. The 49ers defensive front is exceptional at stopping the run, and we saw them pressure Drew Brees to the extent that he was limited in possessions and turned the ball over a couple times. The Saints do a great job of protecting Drew Brees, allowing him to hit open receivers down the field easily without fearing for being obliterated by opposing defenses (except against the 49ers, thank goodness).
Now, look at the most crucial pieces of these lines. Chris Canty was signed from Dallas, but Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul were all young draft picks, and have all been huge successes. For San Francisco, Justin Smith is the only major piece who was not drafted. Aldon Smith, the great rookie pass rusher, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Brown were all drafted by the 49ers. The Saints drafted both Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans as guards, and they are two of the best, if not the best guards in the NFL. These lines are strong not because they signed a bunch of free agents, like the Eagles, but because they were drafted this way.
This is not to say that these teams are absolute geniuses, because there is a certain amount of luck involved in the draft process. Who would have thought that a 4th-round pick would turn into one of the premier guards in the NFL? If they knew it, they would have drafted him far higher. But here is the point. These franchises have done very little in the way of trading draft picks in the past. They have tried to pick up as many draft picks as possible, hoarded them, drafted multiple players at positions they need, and if one pans out as great, it can be a decided success. I am not saying that sometimes it is not okay to trade up in the draft to get a player you truly need sometimes, but it sure helps to have as many picks as possible.
So that brings us full circle back to our Atlanta Falcons. There have been a great manyexcellent picks by the management of this team. The first one would definately be Matt Ryan. Without him, it is very doubtful the Falcons would be as successful as they are, or have been the past few years. Most of the 2008 draft has been tremendous and very useful pieces of the puzzle. But lately draft picks have been sacrificed to trade up (4 picks for Julio Jones), or traded away (a 2nd round pick for Tony Gonzalez). Tony has been instrumental in the development of Matt Ryan, and Jones will be great for years. But when all of your picks are tied up in skill position players or drafted players who don’t fully pan out, it becomes difficult to win.
This hit home during the 2011 season. As players perform well and then age, they demand bigger contracts. They could give a home team discount, or they could leave for more money. Harvey Dahl was a casualty of this situation. His outstanding play warranted a large contract, but with three free-agents along that line being up for free agency in the offseason, one needed to be let go. As much as it pains, sometimes it is necessary. But it is just as necessary to have a backup plan. At right guard, the Falcons had no backup plan, and suffered all season long. A similar situation with missing on draft picks showed up at left tackle. Sam Baker was a huge whiff, and once he got injured, it opened the door for Will Svitek to step in. He played well, but by the end of the season it has become obvious that he is not the answer. It seems that it would behoove the Falcons to have drafted to have solid depth at these positions. Unless Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, or Joe Hawley really step up, guard will continue to be a position in question, along with left tackle.
Defense is a situation in reverse. Two years ago, John Abraham was younger, we had an inkling of a pass-rush, and the secondary was miserable. The Falcons went out and signed the best corner on the market to a massive contract. The signing of Dunta Robinson will go down in history as one of the worst free agency moves in the history of this franchise, and the amount of money tied up in him is affecting other parts of the defense. Were he being paid the salary he deserves (at least couple million a year less) perhaps the Falcons could afford to go out into free agency and sign a truly great defense end to step in for the immenint loss of John Abraham. Lacking good drafted corners necessitates signing great corners, and that costs too much money.
The other free agency signing that isn’t looking great is Ray Edwards. He is coming off of a knee surgery, so it may be a tad too early to call him a free agency dud, but its beginning to look that way. It seems he benefitted from one on one matchups that he got in Minnesota, and is not the same player now that he is in a Falcons uniform. Atlanta did not spare much expense with him either, and he is pretty well locked into this team for the next five years.
The moral of the story? Draft your team. Sometimes it is good to trade up. Julio Jones is great, and I am so happy to have him on our team. He will be nothing but an asset. Tony Gonzalez is great despite him nearing the end of his career. John Abraham was a great signing several years ago. But wouldn’t it be great to have a young, not overpaid, defense end to play for this team? Wouldn’t it be great to have a very serivicable right guard who didn’t fold under pressure? Wouldn’t it be nice to not have all your money tied up in a few players so that if you wanted to sign someone truly good, you could? Players that you sign as free agents cost alot of money. If they play well, the next time they need a contract, they will demand even more money. A balance needs to be struck, and the Falcons need to do a better job in player analysis and the draft if this team is to succeed in the long haul. Signing a big name like Carl Nicks looks like the only option for this offensive line at the moment, and thats not a good thing.