The next few days will be like baseball’s hot stove league for the NFL. We didn’t have this last March, due to the labor troubles. But now football’s free agency is back in full force starting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
That means this is a pivotal week for Atlanta, a team without a first-round or fourth-round pick in the draft thanks to the Julio Jones trade last year. The main avenue for this Atlanta team to improve will be through free agency.
And make no mistake about it, the Falcons need to improve. The memory of the disappointing and embarrassing loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants is still clear and vivid. Atlanta was a good team last season, but simply not good enough.
To become great, the Falcons must improve the pass rush on defense and the offensive line. While the defense was not awful last season, there’s no doubt they have to put more pressure on the quarterback. Last year’s big free agent signee, Ray Edwards, was a disappointment. But instead of getting rid of Edwards, Atlanta must instead find someone to complement him.
The best option would be a major acquisition. Mario Williams, the first pick in the 2006 draft, is available and for some weird reason isn’t going back to Houston. The Texans were laughed at when they chose Williams over Reggie Bush in that draft, but Williams has been the one with the last laugh.
Although he played in only five games last year due to an injury to his pectoral muscle, Williams has become a star. He relentlessly pressures the quarterback, and when he has been healthy, Williams has averaged almost a sack per game played. He would give the Falcons a great chance to improve in that area on defense.
Williams would replace John Abraham, who is still pretty good, but he will soon be 34 years old. Williams will be 27 this season, a year younger than Abraham was when he was acquired by the Falcons in 2006. So Atlanta’s front office would seemingly believe it is getting a younger version, and a better version, of what it has had from Abraham the past few years if Williams were signed.
Atlanta got the action started Saturday when it signed Lofa Tatupu, a 29-year-old middle linebacker who spent six seasons with Seattle before sitting out last season. Tatupu was one of the best players at his position for several seasons, and after working him out last week, the Falcons brought him back into the NFL.
Tatupu’s signing means Atlanta must be comfortable with Curtis Lofton walking away as a free agent. Lofton will be 26 years old this year, and he has led the Falcons in tackles the past three seasons. But with Akeem Dent on the depth chart and now Tatupu, Atlanta is ready to move in another direction.
This is surprising, since Lofton has become one of the best middle linebackers in football. But Atlanta evidently doesn’t want to raise his salary to around $8 million per season. Tampa Bay, among others, might do just that.
And that decision makes you believe the Falcons prefer to spend their salary cap room on a different defensive player. It has to be Williams, who is considered the top player on the market.
Let’s hope the Falcons don’t forget about the offensive line, which still needs more help. If they sign Williams, they probably won’t have enough cap room to go after New Orleans guard Carl Nicks, who is probably leaving the Saints. Atlanta signed former Jacksonville guard Vince Manuwai on Friday, but he’s coming back from an injury.
Maybe they’ll wait to spend the picks they do have in the draft on the offensive line, but that cannot be ignored. Quarterback Matt Ryan must have more protection from his line of scrimmage this season.
After another disappointment in the playoffs, the Falcons are at a crossroads. They can’t go backwards, and if they are to take that next step, the moves they make this week could be very important.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.