NFL DRAFT NEEDS: NFC SOUTH Panthers | Saints | Bucs OVERVIEW
Atlanta has done a fantastic job of turning the team around in just a short period of time. The Falcons have turned in two consecutive winning seasons that included a playoff appearance in 2008 after finishing with a 4-12 record in 2007. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has done a great job of rebuilding the roster through free agency, trades and the chess match that is the draft. This offseason, he's already addressed the team's biggest need by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $57 million contract, and is hoping to cap it all off with another successful go-round in the draft.
The Falcons have eight choices to work with, but traded away their second-round choice a year ago in exchange for Tony Gonzalez. They currently hold picks No. 19, 83, 98, 117, 149, 165, 171 and 189.
The top draft priority is finding a quality defensive end that can pressure the passer. John Abraham will be 32 years old in May and collected just 5.5 sacks last season, the lowest 16-game total of his career. Jamaal Anderson has been a titanic bust since the Falcons draft him eighth overall. In three seasons, he's managed just 2.5 sacks despite starting 44 games. Atlanta is likely to target a player in the first round such as Michigan's Brandon Graham or Everson Griffen of USC, both of whom have worked out or visited with the team.
Another area of concern is at linebacker. Stephen Nichols was solid in his first year as a starter and Curtis Lofton is becoming a star. Mike Peterson was equally solid on the weakside, but turns 34 in June. Atlanta is going to need to find a suitable replacement for Peterson in the near future, and may opt to draft an heir apparent this year. The Falcons have hosted Missouri outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain on visits.
The offense is well set, but a few needs exist. At tight end, Tony Gonzalez is 34 years old and on the last year of his contract. He seems to be ageless and still caught 83 passes for 867 yards and six touchdowns. There is no doubt Gonzo still has gas left in the tank, but if he isn't re-signed the team will need a young tight end who can step in and replace the surefire Hall of Famer. The team met with Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham, but would need to use their first-round pick to land the big tight end. Atlanta can afford to wait until the later rounds to grab a tight end thanks to a deep class.
The offense line is a solid group and will remain intact as Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl signed tender offers as restricted free agents. The concern comes at center where Todd McClure is 33-years old. McClure has been a mainstay snapping the ball for the Falcons and has started 128 consecutive games. Finding a replacement that Matt Ryan can grow accustomed to while McClure is still around would be a wise decision. The team hosted Florida's Maurkice Pouncey on a visit and conducted an on-campus workout with Matt Tennant of Boston College. It would be hard to imagine the team selecting Pouncey considering they would have to use their first-rounder on him, but grabbing Tennant is a much more likely scenario. Tennant started at center for Boston College during Ryan's senior season and already has a rapport with the quarterback. He would also be the cheaper option and could be had with one of the Falcons' two third-round picks.
Other players the Falcons have hosted on visits include defensive tackles Brian Price of UCLA, Corey Peters of Kentucky, Arthur Jones of Syracuse, Travis Ivey of Maryland and Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: LS Joe Zelenka (re-signed), CB Brian Williams (re-signed for one-year at $1.6 million), LS Mike Schneck (retired), QB Chris Redman (re-signed for two-years at $5.6 million), FB Verron Haynes, RB Aaron Stecker, WR Brian Finneran (re-signed for one-year), LB Tony Gilbert, WR Marty Booker
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: RB Jason Snelling (received second-round tender at $1.684 million and signed), T Tyson Clabo (received first-round tender at $2.521 million and signed), G Harvey Dahl (received first-round tender at $2.521 million and signed), RB Jerious Norwood (received second-round tender at $1.759 million), T Quinn Ojinnaka (original-round tender at $1.176 million and signed), P Michael Koenen (received second-round tender at $1.809 million), S Jamaal Fudge (was not tendered), S Charlie Peprah (was not tendered), S Antoine Harris (was not tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: CB Brent Grimes (tendered and signed)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: LS Joe Zelenka, CB Brian Williams, QB Chris Redman, WR Brian Finneran, RB Jason Snelling, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl, T Quinn Ojinnaka, CB Brent Grimes
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB Dunta Robinson (signed for six-years at $57 million), S Matt Giordano
PLAYERS LOST: CB Chris Houston (via trade with Detroit), CB Tye Hill, S Eric Brock, DE Maurice Lewis, LS Mike Schneck, FB Verron Haynes, RB Aaron Stecker, LB Tony Gilbert, WR Marty Booker, S Jamaal Fudge, S Charlie Peprah, S Antoine Harris
DEFENSIVE END -- This is by far the Falcons top area of need. John Abraham turns 32 in May and is likely nearing the end. He's also coming off a season in which he registered just 5.5 sacks. Jamaal Anderson has flat been a bust and after 44 starts without any results, it may be time to move on. In all likelihood Atlanta will address this need with their first-round pick.
TIGHT END -- Tony Gonzalez is 34 years old and entering the final year of his contract, although it may not be fair to point out his age considering he's shown no signs of slowing down. Still, if the team doesn't re-sign him they're going to need a young tight end to take his place. The time to grab his heir apparent may be now.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER -- Mike Peterson did a job good at weakside linebacker last season, but he'll be 34-years old in June. The team should look to add some young depth behind him at some point in the draft.
CENTER -- Todd McClure has been durable to say the least. The 11-year veteran has started 128 consecutive games for the Falcons. However, the timing on finding a replacement may be just right considering Atlanta should have a chance to draft a guy that Matt Ryan has already worked with in Matt Tennant of Boston College.