Fixing the Falcons: Roster moves team could make this offseason

Falcons running back Steven Jackson, 31, missed nearly five full games after signing a lucrative free agent deal this past offseason.

The start of NFL free agency is a little more than two months away, but rest assured the Atlanta Falcons’ front office and coaching staff are already studying film, evaluating players and getting ready to re-tool the roster.

On Monday, owner Arthur Blank said he does not like the word "splash" when it comes to the free agent market, although he did acknowledge the successful acquisition of some veteran players since general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008 — namely Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez. While Blank might say that he does not like the word, the Falcons certainly have made splashes, especially when the team signed cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $57-million contract with $25.5 million in guaranteed money in 2010.

While the Falcons might not award the biggest contract or sign the hottest name, Dimitroff sounded more willing to spend on the offensive line –for the right fit — for the first time as the Falcons’ GM, as the team looks to overhaul its most troublesome unit. Here are steps the Falcons could take at some of the trouble spots on their roster. Free agency starts on March 11.

When healthy, Sam Baker has shown he is capable of being a left tackle on a championship-caliber team. The problem is that Baker has encountered so much trouble staying healthy.

Baker has started 61 of a potential 96 games since he turned pro. With that in mind, it seems too risky to plan that Baker will start for 16 games at left tackle next season. The Falcons should move him to the right side with Lamar Holmes as his backup, which is a better strategy than they had this season. Baker’s cap hit is scheduled to be $6 million next season, so the Falcons might want to renegotiate his deal, if possible. They should then use the sixth overall pick on a left tackle. After awarding quarterback Matt Ryan a $120-million contract last July, the Falcons need to protect their most valuable asset. They have to consider themselves lucky that Ryan finished the 2013 season, sacked and hit as much as he was, relatively healthy and did not suffer a serious injury.

At left guard, Justin Blalock is the team’s most reliable offensive lineman. The Falcons’ most difficult evaluation is at center. They can’t replace everyone. They were happy with the job that Joe Hawley did for most of the second half of the season, his premature snap that resulted in a costly fumble in the season finale notwithstanding. If they go with Hawley, they might need to sign a viable veteran backup in case all does not go as planned.

At right guard, the Falcons should look to the free-agent market. With the retirement of Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons could put to use some of the $7 million in cap savings. Guards are cheaper than tackles. The Falcons need to part ways with Garrett Reynolds, who has started 23 games the last three seasons at right guard, and start from scratch with 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz, allowing him to work his way up the depth chart with a new offensive line coach. They also will have a tough decision to make with 2010 third-round pick Mike Johnson, who has had trouble staying healthy. Might be time to cut Johnson or relegate him to deep on the depth chart, as well.

Will the Falcons look to better protect Matt Ryan’s blindside through the draft or free agency this offseason?

Another tough evaluation will be that of Steven Jackson. As in the situation with Baker, can the Falcons afford to have an older player (he’s 31) at that position? By missing almost five full games with a hamstring injury, his absence hurt the Falcons immeasurably early on when their games still carried meaning. Jackson looks as if he could still be effective behind a better offensive line, though. He’s scheduled to make $4.16 million next season. Is he worth that? Plenty of teams have found cheap, effective options at running back, from Bobby Rainey (Tampa Bay) to Alfred Morris (Washington). Maybe it’s time for the Falcons to skimp on high-priced skill position talent — don’t they have enough in Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White? — and spend on the lines and defense.

One other note: Jason Snelling might have worn out his welcome after seven seasons following an arrest for marijuana possession and his request to be inactive for the following game.

The best player on the line was tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who is 32. Dimitroff said he would like to re-sign him and he should. Corey Peters (torn Achilles’) and Peria Jerry each are worth bringing back. The problem is the defensive ends. The Falcons are scheduled to pay Osi Umenyiora, who might go into the season as a designated pass rusher, $4.75 million. That’s a steep price, especially for someone who totaled 7.5 sacks last season. Maybe the Falcons can negotiate Umenyiora, an Atlanta resident who signed here in part because he lives here, down because they need as much of a pass rush as possible.

The trio of 2012 and ’13 fourth- and fifth-round picks playing on the left side have not exactly made a huge impact — all four sacks from the group of Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga belong to Massaquoi. It would be good to use the Falcons’ high second-round pick on an impact defensive end or outside linebacker, one who can rush the passer.

That last idea is important in light of the next consideration: whether to commit fully to the 3-4, especially with coordinator Mike Nolan having received a two-year extension. Kroy Biermann (torn Achilles), who can flex in and out of a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end, will return. Babineaux has shown he is capable of playing a 3-4 end, too. If the Falcons could somehow acquire Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware — he’s due nearly $13 million after totaling only six sacks on an awful defense and could be a cap casualty — the Falcons could have a formidable linebacking corps of Biermann, Paul Worrilow, Sean Weatherspoon and Ware. Nolan could work wonders with that group.

By firing respected line coach Ray Hamilton, the Falcons signaled they need more of a pass rush. Maybe going to the 3-4 can do it. Some will want the Falcons to sign Carolina end Greg Hardy. That is likely a bank-breaking deal and the kind of splash that the Falcons cannot afford, particularly with so much money committed to Ryan.

With a cap hit of $6 million next season, 33-year-old cornerback Asante Samuel, who lost his starting job late in the season, is as good as gone. Look for Robert Alford to become the full-time starter next season opposite Desmond Trufant. The Falcons could upgrade at nickelback over Robert McClain, who is still worth keeping on the roster, especially for his punt returning role and also as an insurance to bolster depth — the lack of which proved a critical issue in ‘13.

The big move here would be to part ways with safety Thomas DeCoud, who played in the Pro Bowl last season.

DeCoud, who is scheduled to make $4.8 million next season, fell off from nine passes defended last season to two in 2013 and from six interceptions to none. Perhaps with the savings of that $11 million from DeCoud and Samuel, the Falcons could find a way to land disgruntled Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, though he will be expensive. Byrd, a second-team Associated Press All-Pro who will be a free agent, earned $6.9 million last season. The Falcons need a safety who can tackle reliably and cover to prevent the explosive plays that killed them last season.

In the last five games, safety William Moore played like the play-maker and Pro-Bowl player he was for most of ’12: he had four passes defended, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He sounds committed to returning next season with focus and to evolve into more of a leader. He’s the kind of player the Falcons can build their defense around and he sounds as if he has learned the lessons of the 4-12 season during which he admitted to playing outside of the defensive scheme too often.

If the Falcons intend to get back to the playoffs, as Blank demands, they will need to hit on a lot more evaluations than they have the past few seasons. It’s not an easy task. But taking a different approach — namely free agency on the offensive line, perhaps moving to the 3-4 — and using a steely eye on their own draft picks when it comes to cutting them or awarding them starting positions should help in that cause.