The Falcons are a team that is on the cusp of being a team to reckon with, a team that will challenge opponents in the playoffs and who can compete for a Super Bowl. The problem is this is also a team with a series of holes that need to be fixed sooner rather than later. Some are higher priorities than others, but all (or a majority of them) must be addressed for the Falcons to be taken seriously.
The position that is the most precarious situation is Left Tackle, which the Falcons would like to see manned by Sam Baker. Most Falcons fans are already familiar with the situation, but Baker was serviceable for his first three years in the league (he was drafted in the 1st round in 2008) but was never really an elite talent. His lack of elite prowess was highlighted last season when he suffered a pre-season injury, struggled blocking Ryan’s blindside, cost us several times in crucial parts of games or allowed costly turnovers, and was just overall a liability at the position. Things did not get better when, in the middle of the season, Baker played at Right Guard. When he was there all he did was give up consistent pressure and allow Ryan to take a safety against the Carolina Panthers. Absolutely unacceptable. Will Svitek was ok in relief of Baker, but still he is not a long term option at the LT position
The only reason that the Falcons have not already jettisoned Baker is because he was hurt for almost all of 2011. He may not have been a Pro-Bowler while starting at LT from 2008-10, but he certainly got the job done and didn’t give up an obscene amount of pressures, hits, or sacks. His 2011 season was dismal, but the Falcons are counting on him to be serviceable again in 2012. I think that could happen if he is healthy. He has all the incentive to keep his job, try to get a new contract with the Falcons, and help this team win. A bounce back year from Baker wouldn’t be an All-Pro performance, but that’s not necessarily what we will get from him, nor what we expect. We just don’t want Ryan killed in the pocket.
Here is where next year’s draft comes in.
What if Baker performs well? The Falcons re-sign him to a 2-3 year team-friendly contract, and they are able to address other positions in the 2013 Draft. If Baker holds up and earns his starting job at LT back, the Falcons could address a dire need in an elite-level or near elite level pass rusher in the 1st round, a TE replacement for Tony Gonzalez (nobody could totally replace all that Gonzalez brings to the team, but you get the general idea) in the 2nd round, and then perhaps the best player available round by round from there on out. The Falcons could upgrade a couple positions, improve depth, and replace older or retiring players. It is the ideal situation.
What if Baker continues to be a sieve at LT? The Falcons let him walk after this season, and must focus on how best to acquire a quality LT for that position. Svitek is a very capable backup, but he really isn’t a guy I have confidence protecting Ryan every week for the next 8-10 years. Every once in a while maybe, but not routinely. So the Falcons would need to invest a 1st or 2nd round pick in a solid LT (or spend a heck of a lot on one in Free Agency), and then move their other positional priorities down. Drafting a pass-rushing defensive end? It still may be the biggest priority, but I feel it is a tossup when compared to a good/great LT. The TE that we need so desperately to replace Tony Gonzalez? I wouldn’t even be able to think about drafting one until the 3rd round.
As you can see, the situation becomes a lot more complicated if Baker doesn’t perform well. He may not ever make a Pro-Bowl, but that isn’t what the Falcons are asking from him; they need him to be healthy and do a reasonably good job of not getting our QB killed. If he doesn’t do well, you can just add Left Tackle to the laundry list of positions Thomas Dimitroff will have to patch up at the season’s end.