Recently I posted on here that the Falcons needed to seriously revamp their offensive and defensive lines this off-season. There are numerous targets in free agency, and just as many options in the draft. As has been duly noted by Jamie Kelly in his post about the Julio Jones draft day trade, we are missing a lot of draft picks as a result. It makes it more critical to spend money in free agency, or to really hit on the players who we do draft.
Today I’m going to spend my time focusing on how to fix the offensive line. Everyone who watched this Atlanta Falcons team noticed this offensive line did not resemble the 2010 line that was a finalist for the 2011 Madden Most Valuable Protector Award. Big holes appeared at Right Guard with the departure of Harvey Dahl, and Left Tackle with Sam Baker being exposed as unfit to play. In my article about a week ago, I was highly critical of the recent Falcons draft process and the lack of high draft picks that were used on offensive and defensive linemen. After much further research, I think we might be better prepared at one position than I previously thought. The other position, I believe will be addressed in free agency.
I looked back at the Falcons draft history over the past four years, and noticed there were several draft picks used on the offensive line. The 2007 draft produced 2nd round pick left guard Justin Blalock, who has been a tremendous success story. 2008 was thin, as Sam Baker was taken, and has been a huge bust since we traded up to draft him. 2009 produced Garrett Reynolds who played Tackle at North Carolina, but has been transitioned to play guard for this Falcons team. He has not performed tremendously, but there is still the possibility that he can be successful.
The interesting part comes in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Picks were invested in players who has a great shot at winning a starting position at right guard, and keeping it for a considerable amount of time. Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley were drafted in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively in 2010. I still believe that with a full off-season and another year to bulk up and get with the first team offense, Hawley can replace McClure at center for the future. Mike Johnson was a starter on a national championship team at Alabama, so there is no doubt he can compete with elite competition. However, he was concussed last year and didn’t see the playing field. He can definitely contend for a starting job and will certainly be a good serviceable backup if he does not win the starting job.
2011 produced Andrew Jackson, a guard from Fresno State, who people were very high on after the draft. An article published by the Official Falcons Website (not known as unbiased, but reputable) said that several respected sources have called him a “steal” in that draft. He possesses great size and strength, and could be an ideal fit for the future if all the other pieces that have been drafted don’t pan out. He could be a number one option going into training camp. Who knows? The point of all this discussion is that there are four very good options of players who could play the right guard position given a full off-season, OTA’s and training camp.
Given all of these options, I don’t think the guard position needs to be addressed in free agency, as numerous picks have been invested in the position. It would be great to get Carl Nicks as it would not only benefit us, but would detract from the Saints protection. That would be ideal, but the huge cap number that Nicks would doubtless demand is probably not responsible given the number of players who could end up playing RG that are prospects.
So with significant cap room available for the 2012 season (I estimate around $24 million) who should the Falcon invest in from a free agent standpoint? Besides a pass rushing defensive end, assuming one is available, I think left tackle needs to be addressed. While Will Svitek did a good job filling in while the Falcons were in a pinch, he is clearly not a long term option, as he gave up way too much pressure over the course of the season. Another LT needs to be added, and a really good one will not be available when Atlanta is on the board in round 2.
So who are some of the free agent options? According to a source I personally respect very much, walterfootball.com, there a many to be had, but not a whole lot who would fit the profile that the Falcons want to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside. The target I think would be the biggest benefit for the Falcons is Demetrius Bell, a LT from Buffalo, who will be a free agent in March. He has an injury risk, as he missed nine games last season, but when he played his impact was apparent. He was a major part in the Bills early season success, but when he went down with a shoulder injury, the Bill’s pass protection went downhill fast. According to reports, is very good in pass protection, and even better against the run. He is tremendously talented, and if he had no injury issues, he would demand huge money. Given the injury history, his value across the league will be diminished. Regardless of injuries, the Falcons should target him to start at LT. If he is injured, we have a well known commodity in Svitek to back him up. I would value him at about $4 million against the cap in this market, and that is well within our price range. The injury risk will always lurk, but even with his injury risks he is worth everything he will demand in the FA market. When free agency opens, it would be wise for the Falcons to go after Bell. Keeping Matt Ryan upright is a necessity.