The overriding factor in every decision a general manager makes is the salary cap.
The cap isn't just about profit and loss. It also serves as the league's best tool for maintaining a competitive balance, by forcing teams to focus on asset allocation.
Think of it this way: you're the GM of a brand new expansion team, and you're allowed to try to sign any players you want from any team. You have the ability to sign Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady as your three quarterbacks. Is that a good idea?
The answer would be a definite NO. You'd have at least $40 million in cap space (and probably over $50 million) tied up at the quarterback position, and only one of them could play at any time. You'd only have $70 to $80 million left to spend on the other 50 players on your roster. Good luck getting a defense, receivers, and blockers with that low of a budget.
That's where asset allocation comes in. You can't have everything. You have a limited supply of magic cookies, and you have to figure out where to use them.
So what does this have to do with the Falcons and the offensive backfield?
Over the offseason, our braintrust had to make a lot of key decisions about the team's cap dollars. And one of the biggest decisions was whether to stay with the power running game. Starting RB Michael Turner and starting FB Ovie Mughelli carry some hefty salary cap costs. Do we stay with our Pro Bowl backfield for one more year, or clear the roster and free up cap dollars to use elsewhere (such as at left tackle)?
My take: the team publicly stated its commitment to Turner for this season. Let's take them at their word and assume Turner stays.
In cap terms, it makes sense. Turner's signing bonus counts $2.5 million per season against the cap. He's signed through 2013. If the team trades or releases him before June, they would have to count both the 2012 and 2013 portions of that bonus against this year's cap. They'd lose Turner and still face a $5 million cap cost. If they keep him, they'd pay his $5 million salary and count the 2012 portion of his bonus. The cap cost would be $7.5 million.
Keeping the team's offensive workhorse would only cost an extra $2.5 million of cap space. Might as well have him stick around.
It's not as obvious with Mughelli, as the team would free up $3 million by dropping him. Other fullbacks would be much cheaper. But Atlanta's offensive production last season really dropped off the shelf after Mughelli went on IR. The coaching staff knows how important he is to their power attack. So if they're going to keep Turner, they could quite easily opt to keep Ovie for one more year as well.
It's a different story next year though - Mughelli will be a free agent, and moving Turner next year would free $5 million of cap space. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them both gone from the picture in 2013. But for now, it looks like they're still going to be our starters in the offensive backfield.
Another item to consider: we've heard that the team wanted Dirk Koetter at OC largely because of his thorough knowledge of the vertical passing attack.
Well, you can't work a strong vertical attack when you're playing a "22" package (two RBs and two TEs, with only one wide receiver on the field), as the Falcons often did in 2010-2011. To get vertical, you're almost forced to go with more single-back formations. And that means less of Turner, Ovie, or both.
Turner hasn't been much of a receiving threat out of the backfield. He could pass block, but the team has stressed for a couple of years now that they really need to balance the load a bit more. They *want* to get him off the field more frequently if they can.
Mughelli might be interesting as the lone back. He can be effective catching passes out of the backfield, and he's the best blocker we have among our runners. He'd certainly love a few more opportunities to carry the ball. If he stays, he might see action as the lone back.
Jason Snelling would be ideal in a single back set, which may have been one reason why the team put a priority on resigning him. He can run inside, catch passes, lead block, and pass protect. He's not a speedster, but he's otherwise perfect for a team wanting to implement a four vertical attack.
Jacquizz Rodgers has demonstrated that he's quite willing to throw his body against an incoming blitzer, but the results have often been painful (yet hilarious) to watch. Hopefully Koetter would take an alternate approach and use him as the hot man for the outlet pass instead of making him a kamikaze pilot. With his speed, he's a weapon - and that can be just as effective as blocking. If a blitzer runs past him after the quarterback, a screen or hot pass would have Rodgers off to the races.
The other big question is whether we keep four total runners on the roster (as we did for the entire 2008 season) or go with five (as we have most of the time since then).
The obvious follow-up is if Koetter wants five, do we have the fifth man already in house or do we need to find him in the draft? The in-house candidates:
Antone Smith has held the #5 spot for the last two seasons. In two seasons on the roster, he has a grand total of ONE rushing attempt - for negative three yards. He also has zero pass receptions, making him pretty much a waste of a roster spot. The coaching staff opted to keep him in 2010 because of his speed. But he was a disaster in the passing game in preseason, leading many fans to wonder whether the team kept the wrong man. He turned it on in the final preseason game to save his roster spot last year, but afterwards appeared only on special teams - or on the inactive list.
Dimitri Nance came to camp as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and was the main alternative to Smith. The Falcons opted to try to stash Nance on the practice squad. He didn't last long before the Packers signed him away. He was available this offseason, and Atlanta quickly scooped him back up for camp.
Based on what we saw of him in the 2010 preseason, he was a decent inside runner and could catch. He needed more work on his reads in pass protection - possibly an issue of trying to learn the offense as an undrafted rookie. He doesn't have tremendous speed but does have versatility. If he turns it on in preseason, he's likely to beat out Smith this time around.
Mike Cox is a pure fullback. He came aboard when Mughelli went on IR last season. Mixed grades on his effectiveness. He didn't know much of the offense, so the team wasn't able to use him in as many situations as they could Mughelli or Snelling. If nothing else, he does have experience.
My take: I'm not sure I'd keep any of these three as the fifth man, though I'd let them all compete for the job in camp. Nance needs to show he can block. Smith needs to show he can run routes and catch. Cox needs to show he can learn the whole offense and be more than just a pure lead blocker.
I wouldn't make RB a draft priority, but I'd consider it in the later rounds. I'd definitely add at least one RB as an undrafted free agent. The ideal guy would either be someone versatile like Snelling or a speedster who has KR experience and who would be deadly on the screen pass. Atlanta thought it had Noel Devine as an undrafted free agent last year. Someone like that would do.
This year's potential crop of undrafted runners doesn't seem to be as strong as last year's. The other side of that coin: by the end of August, there will likely be several candidates from last year's college class available as free agents or waiver pickups.
I would generally prefer to go with five runners rather than four, as the team ran into trouble in 2009 when several players got banged up.
But if the right candidate can be found for the practice squad (and if we can keep him - we lost Kenneth Darby in 2008 and Nance in 2010), going with four would allow the team to carry an extra player elsewhere, such as an extra receiver or a DB for special teams.
The fifth man could also be someone doubling up from another unit - such as a backup TE lining up at the h-back spot in a spread package.
The big picture: to quote the old song, a change is gonna come. But not yet. RB really shouldn't be an area of need for this draft.