FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons have made a huge splash in the NFL free agency market this offseason, much of it in re-signing their own players, but having said that, they continue to face big questions on their roster at cornerback, on the offensive line and in terms of reaching a contract extension with quarterback Matt Ryan as the NFL Draft awaits one week from Thursday.
Asked what the status is of a possible extension for Ryan, who remains under contract for 2012, general manager Thomas Dimitroff at first said that he had no update. But then he reconsidered. With Baltimore’s Joe Flacco having received a six-year, $120.6 million, the way for Ryan’s deal seemingly has been paved.
And yet the two sides have not reached an agreement.
“That wasn’t really nice of me,” Dimitroff said. “Seriously, the situation is as we mentioned: both parties were in a very comfortable situation and we’re focused on the draft. Again, after the draft we’ll continue to discuss and I’m sure both parties, Matt as well as the Falcons, are feeling good, making sure that this gets done at the right time.
“There’s no time frame on it right now and I don’t want to keep you hanging on it but I feel confident things will get taken care of when the time is proper.”
When it comes to the draft, the Falcons, some of whose players have declared this season will be one of “Super Bowl or bust,” reportedly are looking to trade up to take a cornerback. They face a glaring need. For salary cap reasons, they cut Dunta Robinson, who started on three playoff teams for them. They allowed Brent Grimes, who started 43 games for them between 2008 and 2012 for them and earned a Pro-Bowl berth, to depart via free agency, signing with Miami. Even Chris Owens, who provided depth and started 11 games for them between 2009 and 2012, signed with Cleveland.
They are left with starter Asante Samuel and Robert McClain, who started at the nickel corner last season, and Dominique Franks, who has never started a game and proved more effective last year at safety.
Dimitroff discussed his philosophy on trading at length – he has made big deals on draft day, most notably for wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011 – but specifically tried to dismiss the idea he was trying to move up to take a corner.
“With that said, I have no specifics at all,” he said. “We just want to make sure we do what’s the right thing for this organization.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledged his team’s need at that position.
He has 11 picks and selects 30th overall in the first round, a spot he said he likes in a draft in which he said there is “not necessarily a ‘wow’ factor” at the top. (He said he thought teams slated to pick in the top 10 that want to move down might have trouble finding a buyer.)
“I think any time you lose starters and talented football players — and we made some very difficult decisions this year — we knew we were going to have to,” he said. “My focus has been on that a lot sooner than, obviously, making that decision recently. Corner positions are always coveted in this league. We are always trying to find the ideal athlete, the person who can move well, the person who can jump, make plays on the ball. That’s not easy to find. We’re always in the hunt to develop our depth at the corner position.”
Then, whether or not engaging in the sort of disinformation for which the NFL Draft is notorious, he talked about the team’s need for a tight end with the knowledge that Tony Gonzalez almost certainly will retire after the coming season.
“But there are other positions like that as well,” Dimitroff said. “It’s not like we’re going into the draft just looking at — definitely not just looking at corner or tight end or what other positions have been projected we’re going to be interested in,” he said. “Again, there are some very good defensive players in this draft and we’re confident that we can continue to build.”
The Falcons also made something of a surprise move in recent weeks, cutting right tackle Tyson Clabo, who started 101 games for the Falcons starting in 2006 and earning a Pro-Bowl berth in 2010.
That leaves them tremendously inexperienced at that key position.
“Obviously, we made a change and it was a difficult move again,” Dimitroff said. “It was one of the difficult moves we made. Tyson Clabo was a very important part to this football team. Like the other difficult moves we made, this is one we felt we needed for the long-term future and signing of players, the fiscal elements to building this roster. They’re not easy.
“Again, we have, some young guys we’re excited about growing. We have some guys who been around two, three, four years. Mike Johnson is back, Lamar Holmes is there to compete. We have other offensive linemen we think can step up and work really hard. I think there’s going to be a really, really fired up competitive push to win that right tackle job. Look we have 11 picks in this draft that would also play into the future at the right side.”
Dimitroff said he is going into the draft with 11 picks but might not come out with that many. The Falcons also need to improve at defensive end and linebacker.
“Defensively, I think this is a good defensive draft with a lot of numbers on the defensive front,” he said. “I think there are some good corners and safeties in this group. I think there are some very good offensive linemen in this draft as well. This is a good solid depth draft.”
To get the Falcons back to where they were last year — and beyond — he will need to find the right ones.