Falcons face tough free agency questions

March 12, 2013

NFL free agency begins at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and with it come questions for the Falcons that are almost too numerous to count.

For starters, the Falcons cleared $16 million in cap room on March 1 by releasing veterans John Abraham, Dunta Robinson and Michael Turner, with general manager Thomas Dimitroff saying the team’s priority was to re-sign its own players.

Hours before that deadline, the Falcons had only re-signed one player of consequence, Pro-Bowl safety William Moore, whose contract will eat up about $6 million of that cap space this season.

As yet unsigned are left tackle Sam Baker and cornerback Brent Grimes. There also remains the lingering question as to whether tight end Tony Gonzalez will return.

The Falcons already have holes to fill at defensive end and running back but also could use an upgrade at linebacker and possibly defensive tackle. Depending on what happens with their own players, they also could have major holes to fill at left tackle, cornerback and tight end.

It’s significant to note that last year Dimitroff did not make a major move in free agency – generally upsetting fans in the process – but later traded for cornerback Asante Samuel, who was instrumental in the team’s success in going to the NFC Championship Game.

With that in mind, here is a look at three Falcons’ players who could become free agents and four more who could be attractive targets for them on the open market. 

Baker plays the most demanding position on the offensive line in terms of protecting the quarterback on pass plays, as he faces the top pass-rushers on the field coming from the quarterback’s blind side. 

According to Stats LLC in 2012, Baker allowed only 3.5 sacks, which was by far the lowest of his career, a rate of about twice as few compared to any of his other four seasons. Since the Falcons took him in the first round in 2008 out of USC, he has played on four playoff teams, starting 58 of the 67 games in which he has played. He has battled injuries throughout his career but after a procedure on his back in 2011 sidelined him for most of the second half of the season, he has been in some of the best health of his career and, as a result, played at his best. 

In Tom Condon, Baker has perhaps the premier agent in all of football, which means that striking a deal with the Falcons could be tricky – and left tackles almost always seem to be in demand. The market for Baker was likely set last month when the New York Giants re-signed Will Beatty to a five-year deal worth $38.75 million with $19 million guaranteed, an average cap hit of $7.75 million. Baker and Beatty, a second-round pick in 2009, are both the same age, 28 (Baker’s birthday is in May). Like Baker, Beatty has not made the Pro Bowl either, although Beatty seems to enjoy more of a reputation as a rising star than Baker. 

If the Falcons cannot re-sign Baker, they might have to go with a patchwork: Will Svitek, who started 10 games at left tackle in 2011, or second-year player Lamar Holmes, who might not be ready. Svitek is coming off a torn triceps that caused him to miss all of 2012. Another possibility is the free-agent market or a draft pick, but those seem unlikely to find the right answer. 

The Falcons paid the cornerback $10 million last season after tagging him as their franchise player. That came after they paid him about $2.6 million in 2011 when he came off a Pro Bowl appearance. Grimes played only one game before tearing his Achilles’ tendon in 2012. He will be 30 in July, which is not young for a smaller player who relies on his athleticism and will be coming off a major injury. 

Just noting the difference in Grimes’ salaries the previous two seasons, it would not be a surprise if he and the Falcons have wildly different ideas as to what his compensation should be. That could make him difficult to re-sign, although the market is flooded with cornerbacks. If the Falcons do not retain Grimes, they almost certainly will have to go to the market to find a right cornerback, especially since they cut Robinson, whom they signed to a large contract in 2010. 

According to ratings by FOXSports.com’s Peter Schrager, Miami cornerback Sean Smith is the No. 10 free agent on the market (Grimes is No. 13), Philadelphia’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is No. 15, Pittsburgh’s Keenan Lewis No. 28, Atlanta native Adam Jones (formerly known as Pacman) of Cincinnati is No. 34, Arizona’s Greg Toler is No. 35, St. Louis’ Bradley Fletcher is No. 37 and Baltimore’s Cary Williams is No. 48. Others who have been cut are former Falcon DeAngelo Hall and former Jacksonville Jaguar Aaron Ross.

In nine seasons the running back has averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 2,395 attempts. Where he might be an excellent fit for the Falcons, though, is that he has caught 407 passes for 3,324 yards, especially since the Falcons have become a pass-first team. Jackson has been durable, missing only 13 games. Despite all of that wear-and-tear, he has not shown signs of slowing down, as his yards-per-carry and receiving yards-per-catch were higher last season than in 2010. He has not played in the postseason since his rookie season of 2004 and he could want to be on a team like the Falcons, much like Gonzalez did in 2009. 

“But it’s more at this point of my career, (I) want to be a part of something, chasing a Lombardi Trophy,” he told SiriusXM NFL Radio recently. 

The defensive end, who will be 32 in November, is the youngest of those available on the market who might be in the Falcons’ price range (Michael Bennett of Tampa Bay and Cliff Avril of Detroit could be too pricey, much as Charles Johnson was in 2011 when the Falcons settled for Ray Edwards, the biggest miss of Dimitroff’s tenure). If the Falcons cut Abraham in part because of his age (he’ll soon be 35), then Umenyiora might be a better bet than Dwight Freeney, who is 21 months older. 

Both Umenyiora and Freeney have trended down in recent seasons: Freeney went from 13.5 sacks in 2009 to 10 in ’10, 8.5 in ’11 and five last season. Umenyiora has gone from 11.5 sacks in ’10 to nine in ’11 and six last season, when he only started four games despite being healthy – which raises questions in itself. Freeney is 6-1, 268 while Umenyiora is 6-3, 255, which is almost exactly the same size as Abraham and could fit more into the Falcons’ scheme.  

The linebacker from Columbus, Ga., and out of Georgia Tech is rated higher by Schrager than both of Baltimore’s Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbee, the University of Georgia product. Outside linebackers who play in a 3-4 tend to get big paydays because of the number of sacks they can rack up, like Kruger’s nine. 

Wheeler played in a 4-3 for Oakland last season and totaled three sacks with 109 tackles and two forced fumbles. He is fast and if he can help to cover the tight end – a major weakness for the Falcons that showed itself in the playoffs – he could be an upgrade over Stephen Nicholas, who might have worn out his welcome with the franchise. Once again, the trick could be getting him under the cap..