Despite losing a starting defensive tackle, both starting outside linebackers, a starting cornerback and their starting strong safety--nearly half of their starting defense--to free agency, the Falcons are one of six teams in the NFL that has yet to sign an unrestricted free agent or trade for a player who spent 2008 with another franchise. (Carolina, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and San Diego are the others)
Last month, FalconInsider.com identified several positions the Falcons could address via free agency. Today, we'll take a look at those positions and the best of what's left on the free agent market:
Internet reports on the first day of free agency had the Falcons signing L.J. Smith (Eagles), but the oft-injured tight end hadn't even visited with the Falcons until today.
In addition to Smith, Jerramy Stevens, a talented, but troubled tight end who's spent the past two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, remains available. Stevens is reportedly close a two-year deal to remain with the Bucs. Swainsboro, Ga. Native Ben Troupe is also available, but is coming off a foot injury that limited him to two games last season.
Top blocking tight ends still on the market include Will Heller and Darnell Dinkins.
Atlanta gave second-round tenders to right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo, and also brought back exclusive rights free agent center Ben Wilkerson. So it's very possible that the Falcons are done adding veterans to the offensive line, and will instead turn their attention to the draft.
The Falcons have met with free agent center and Todd McClure clone Brett Romberg. Other possible free agents who could visit Flowery Branch include tackle Ray Willis, tackle Khalif Barnes, guard/tackle Floyd Womack, and the team could always re-sign veteran Wayne Gandy.
Chauncey Davis has been re-signed, and since he received starting defensive end money (a frontloaded 4-year, $14.1 million deal), the Falcons are likely done shopping for defensive ends. In fact, a scheduled meeting with free agent Mike Montgomery (Packers) was canceled once the deal with Davis was struck. If Dimitroff wanted to add a veteran who would come cheaply and help the Falcons' pass rush, there are still familiar names available.
Players like 11-year veterans Bertrand Berry and Vonnie Holliday remain available, as does 13-year veteran Phillip Daniels. Lesser known "try hard" guys like Josh Thomas (Colts) and Jason Babin (Chiefs) are also looking to land with a team during the next wave of free agency.
Grady Jackson has signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Lions, leaving a 345-pound hole in the middle of the Falcons' defensive line. Atlanta could slide Jamaal Anderson inside or hope Trey Lewis (6-3, 317) can stay healthy to fill that void. The Falcons could turn to the draft to improve the defensive tackle position, which they may have to do as most of the top free agent defensive tackles got seriously paid in the opening week of free agency.
The top remaining free agent defensive tackles are Tank Johnson, who comes with some baggage and Shaun Cody, a run-stuffing defensive tackle that has yet to reach the potential many saw when he was coming out of USC. Veterans John Thornton, DeWayne Robertson, Howard Green, and Jimmy Kennedy are also on the market.
Micheal Boley and Keith Brooking, both of Atlanta's starting linebackers for most of the last four seasons, have moved on to teams in the NFC East. The Falcons did re-sign Coy Wire, though he's at his best in a reserve role. Three of the top free agent outside linebackers had the franchise tag slapped on them, but there are some talented linebackers available in free agency.
Future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks was released by the Buccaneers last week, but is contemplating retirement. If Brooks continues his career, it's unlikely he'll do so with an NFC South team. Released along with Brooks was Cato June, who could be an affordable short-term option at weak-side linebacker. Angelo Crowell (Bills) missed all of 2008 with a knee injury, but when healthy, has proven to be a productive linebacker. Indianapolis opted to not tender offers to outside linebackers Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler, both of whom have ample starting experience.
Even after the team expressed no interest in bringing safety Lawyer Milloy back for another season, and cornerback Domonique Foxworth signed a four-year, $28 million dollar contract with the Baltimore Ravens, the Falcons still have 14 defensive backs on the roster. Of those 14, only Chris Houston and Erik Coleman were starters in 2008.
Cornerback Chevis Jackson and safety Thomas DeCoud were third-round picks in 2008 and could make an impact in their second seasons. Safety Jamaal Fudge, who was re-signed this off-season, will compete for the starting safety job. Options in free agency include:
Veteran cornerbacks Leigh Bodden, Chris McAlister, David Barrett and Dre Bly, who were released for salary cap purposes. Younger, yet experienced corners include Bryant McFadden, Eric Green, and Justin Miller, who has added value as a kick returner.
At safety, former Georgia Bulldogs Sean Jones and Jermaine Phillips still haven't found a new home in free agency and either would be a solid replacement for Lawyer Milloy. Five-time Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams became available earlier today, though he's become a liability in pass coverage and wouldn't be a good fit in Atlanta.
Brian McIntyre lives in the Boston area. In addition to writing for FalconInsider.com, Brian maintains his own blog (www.macsfootballblog.com) and charts games for Football Outsiders. If you'd like to e-mail Brian, you may do so here.
Free Agency: Best of What's Left
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