One of the rare weeks where I'm in Atlanta for the weekend, and naturally it's our bye week... Oh well. That makes it a pretty good time to take a look at this coming offseason.
The Falcons had it easy with free agency heading into the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as the team was loaded with young players locked under contract. But the pendulum swung the other way this season and will be full tilt this coming offseason.
John Abraham will be a free agent. So will Brent Grimes, since we only tendered him as a RFA this year. Ditto for Eric Weems. The team only resigned Jason Snelling for a one year deal. He's a free agent again this year too. Same story with linebacker Mike Peterson.
Tony Gonzalez is in the final year of his contract. So are Todd McClure and Chris Redman, plus Joe Zelenka (long snappers are people too). And so are the second and later rounders from the 2008 draft: Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann, and Harry Douglas.
And except for DE Ray Edwards, who inked a long term deal, all of our new Falcons are only signed for this season: Kelvin Hayden, James Sanders, Brett Romberg, Reggie Kelly, Kirk Chambers, Mike Cox.
That's 19 unrestricted free agents on the current 53-man roster. Yikes...
At quarterback, Matt Ryan is still here. But John Parker Wilson is already a free agent - all practice squad members are free agents who could be plucked at any time. It's not a good sign for his future that the team chose to expose him rather than keep him on the roster. And Redman will turn 35 before the start of training camp next year. He may still have another year or two left in the tank, but I wouldn't depend on it. So figure at least one new quarterback - and maybe two - in our future next year.
At running back, the Falcons are in reasonable shape for 2012 - mainly because serviceable running backs are so easy to come by, and because the backups are still so underused. (Michael Turner has 138 carries going into the bye. The other RB/FBs have a combined total of 24.) Antone Smith has yet to carry the ball this year at all. He's likely to be a fringe player once again next summer.
At tight end, Michael Palmer is an exclusive rights free agent. That means the team can simply renew his contract, which makes him the only tight end they have locked in at all. Gonzalez has said he feels like he can play a few more years. He has also said before that he'd like to end his career with the Chiefs, so there's no telling whether he'd resign with Atlanta. Practice squad players Marquez Branson (injured) and Tommy Gallarda are likely to be here for camp on futures contracts. But we'll probably need more - I wouldn't expect to see Kelly back for another season.
At wide receiver, I would guess that Douglas wouldn't be too difficult to resign. Roddy White and Julio Jones are both here long term, and Kerry Meier is still under contract and likely to be more involved in his second year back from ACL surgery. The interesting question is whether one of the prospects might challenge for a roster spot. The front office reversed course last season. Instead of going for big guys with good hands but who are slow as molasses, the team started looking at speedsters. D.J. Davis and Kevin Cone are both lightning quick, and they're both getting a chance to learn the offense on the practice squad.
(I'm thrilled to see the change - finally. Too bad they couldn't have gone that route back in 2009, when we really could have used a speedster. Our scouts had seen Johnny Knox at the Texas vs The Nation game - but after trading away Laurent Robinson, Dimitroff left Knox sitting on the draft board to take cornerback William Middleton instead.)
For all the fuss about how Atlanta's offensive line would supposedly be devastated by free agency this season, we turned out to be overloaded instead. McClure is getting banged up pretty hard this year, and it's the final year of his contract. Don't be surprised if Ol' Mud Duck hangs up the cleats. But except for fill-ins Romberg and Chambers, everyone else is under contract at least through 2012. (One caveat: Sam Baker may be on one of those option or voidable years.) And there's already extra depth in the pipeline, as both Andrew Jackson and Jose Valdez are still sitting on the practice squad.
Specifically at center, Romberg would be likely to resign. He came aboard this season as a street level free agent. He's mainly working as a backup guard right now, but he's a natural center and was here previously as the #2 behind McClure. He became expendable last year when the team drafted Joe Hawley. Now he'd be a pretty obvious choice to bring back as Hawley's backup.
At DE, we're in trouble. Both Abraham and Biermann will be free agents. Can we even afford to sign both? We'd need at least one of them returning to supplement the remaining trio of Edwards, Lawrence Sidbury, and Cliff Matthews - and Sidbury will be a free agent after next season. If we're going to stick with the current 4-3 scheme, the DE position will continue to need attention every year.
At DT, we're set. Vance Walker will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and if he's still here, Carlton Powell would be a restricted free agent after 2012. But the trio of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry won't be free agents until 2014.
At linebacker, resigning Lofton will be a priority. But otherwise, Peterson is the only free agent this year, and Spencer Adkins is the only one set to become a free agent next year.
At cornerback, the question is whether we'd be able to hang on to Grimes at all. He was hoping for a long term deal this year but only got a tender. He's coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and continuing to make highlight reel plays. If he hits the open market, somebody is bound to offer him the big bucks, as the Ravens did with Domonique Foxworth a few years back. Hayden will also be a free agent this offseason, and Chris Owens will be entering the final year of his contract. The team has already started preparing for 2012 by keeping undrafted rookie Darrin Walls on the roster, while Dominique Franks also continues to develop.
One potential scenario: Grimes bolts for the big bucks, but the team resigns Hayden. Even before the draft, that gives Atlanta a quintet of Dunta Robinson, Hayden, Owens, Franks and Walls. Throw in few futures contract or two - perhaps bringing Kamaal McIlwain in for another run at training camp - and the group as a whole would at least be no worse off than in 2009 and 2010.
At safety, Decoud and Sanders are both free agents. That leaves William Moore (who will be in the final year of his contract) and Shann Schillinger as the only safeties locked in. The team opted to expose Rafael Bush to the practice squad instead of Walls, and he has already been plucked away. Suaesi Tuimaunei is getting a chance to learn the system as the replacement for Bush on the practice squad. He's an intriguing possibility as a long term project, but he won't be ready for real action in 2012. At least one more safety will be a must.