Superbowl XLVI has ended the NFL season, and the Falcons have once again secured their spot as "springboard for the eventual champion." In fact, the 2011 Falcons were simply one out of a long line of Atlanta teams that have taken on the role of "almost there, but not quite."
But going forward, I believe that Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have attained a better sense of what is required to win in this league. Bringing in a big-name free agent like Dunta Robinson or Ray Edwards might sound nice on paper, but more often than not those vets fail to live up to their paycheck. Trading up for Julio Jones sounded awesome in theory, but now with no first-round pick this season the Falcons are missing out on guys like Cordy Glenn or Brandon Jenkins.
What's more, the Falcons suffered something like an identity crisis in 2011. What kind of team are they? Will they still run an offense that gives the ball to Michael Turner 25 times a game? Will Smitty's defense finally take a the next big step after four years of mediocrity? With a revamped coaching staff featuring a new offensive and defensive coordinator, I think there's no question we'll see the Falcons move in a different direction next year.
That's why during this offseason the Falcons need to adopt a "back to basics" mentality if they want to finally notch that coveted postseason victory. Here's my to-do list for the Dirty Birds this offseason:
1. Draft A Legitimate Starter At Left Tackle
You look at the last four teams in the playoffs (Giants, Patriots, 49ers, Ravens) and what was the one thing they all had in common? Really good offensive linemen. The journey to rebuilding Atlanta's line starts at left tackle.
The Falcons need a dominant tackle if they to give Ryan enough time to make his throws. Without enough time to make throws, that all-star receiving corps of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez (not to mention the running game) is pretty much useless.
The caveat here is that franchise left tackles are incredibly difficult to find, and outside of perhaps Bills tackle Demetrius Bell there aren't many enticing options available in free agency. The Falcons also have no first-round pick this year, having sent that to the Browns in the deal for Julio.
But even with only two draft picks inside of the top 100, the Falcons should be able to find a quality tackle. I've heard Boise State tackle Nate Potter's name thrown around often: he's versatile, has great intangibles and is one of the better pass blockers in this year's draft (scouting report). The downside is, well, he draws comparisons to Sam Baker in that he is undersized. Not appealling.
Personally I prefer Florida State's Zebrie Sanders purely because of size and athleticism, but it's really a crapshoot predicting who will fall to the Falcons in the second round.
2. Sign A Pass-Rushing Successor To John Abraham
I'm relying on my intuition and predicting that Abe will not be with the Falcons next season. He probably wants one more multi-year deal, and at 34 years old he doesn't offer much upside.
Here's where I think the Falcons spend big in free agency. They'll have a ton of cap room this offseason, and Arthur Blank appears fully committed to funding an "aggressive" offseason. Never mind the fact that free agency is chock-full of good defensive ends.
Mike Nolan's intended direction will mean a lot here, and in fact he may go for one of the less-expensive pass rushers. In fact, I might prefer that after we've seen Ray Edwards yet to arrive after receiving a pretty nice contract from the Falcons. Calais Campbell, if not franchise tagged by the Cardinals, would make a nice long-term solution at age 25.
But regardless of who, the Falcons will absolutely be bringing in a free agent DE to replace Abraham when he walks.
3. Re-Sign Curtis Lofton
I think this goes without question: you need to keep your leaders around on both sides of the ball. On defense, Lofton is that leader.
I'd call Lofton the most important signing of the offseason. He's been a huge part of the reason the Falcons have been so impressive against the run. Over 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons pretty much speaks for itself, and his pass coverage has been more than adequate.
If you look at why the Eagles were such a failure last season, you'll find it was a big-time weakness at middle linebacker. Teams (like the Falcons) could run the ball up the middle no problem. The elite defenses of the league (49ers, Ravens, etc.) all have that big-hitting mike linebacker that can rally the troops, and the Falcons have one in 5-0.
If there's one guy I hope the Falcons keep, it's Lofton.
4. Find An Heir Apparent To Todd McClure At Center
I know, not exciting, but it's what the Falcons need. Joe Hawley was pretty unimpressive at center, evidenced by his eventual transition to right guard during the second half of the year. Todd McClure, also 34 (almost 35), was the glue that kept the line from falling apart this season.
Here's where I'll enter my shameless UGA plug and suggest Ben Jones. He was definitely the best lineman the Dawgs had in 2011, and it's not often you find a really impressive center prospect. He also projects to the second round (!!), so if the Falcons opt against taking a left tackle, Jones would be an incredibly easy and logical choice.
Of course, McClure could very well come back on, say, a one year low-salary deal. I certainly wouldn't be against that. But either way, the Falcons need to find a long-term solution at center because Hawley does not fit the bill.
5. Steal A Couple Of Saints
The two I have in mind? Tracy Porter and Robert Meachem. With Brent Grimes looking like he'll be on his way out of Atlanta and Harry Douglas failing to impress since being injured in 2009, the Falcons could use an upgrade or two at both positions. I can think of no better way to do so than by taking two great players away from the Saints.
Porter may not be the best corner in the league, but he's darn good. He also has some highly valuable playoff experience (remember he picked off Peyton Manning to seal NO's Super Bowl win) and has developed a reputation as a good tackler.
Meachem, on the other hand, is someone I'm sure everyone is familiar with. He's constantly burning the Falcons' secondary in almost every head to head matchup I can think of and would bring an extra dimension to a Falcons offense that already has two big, strong possession receivers in White and Jones.
Does this have anything to do with "back to basics" or is it even likely to happen? No, not really. But it would be pretty cool.
For more on the Falcons, check out The Falcoholic.