With the news on Wednesday that veteran center Todd McClure had agreed to terms, the Atlanta Falcons continue to make steady progress in free agency minus at least one key player.
Judging by general manager Thomas Dimitroffs rough estimate in January that the team would be able to retain eight of its free agents, the Falcons have exceeded expectations by that measure.
McClure is the eighth to return to Atlanta, following in the steps of defensive end Kroy Biermann, starting safety Thomas DeCoud, running back Jason Snelling, back-up quarterback Chris Redman, No. 3 wide receiver Harry Douglas, starting defensive end John Abraham and long snapper Joe Zelenka.
The Falcons also tagged starting left cornerback Brent Grimes as their franchise player, securing his rights. Grimes agent has told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the player would not sign the tender, nonetheless, the Falcons are hopeful that they can sign Grimes to a long-term contract, as they continue to try and improve upon a group that has made the playoffs three of the last four seasons yet failed to win a playoff game.
On Saturday, the Falcons lost starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, their leading tackler the last few seasons, to the teams arch-rival, New Orleans. The Falcons had seemed to prepare for the loss of Lofton, 25. Last season, they drafted linebacker Akeem Dent out of Georgia in the third round and on March 10 they signed free agent Lofa Tatupu, a three-time Pro-Bowler and All-Pro in 2007. Tatupu did not play last season, reportedly because of a knee injury. Dent and Tatupu are likely to battle it out for the starting job.
Two factors helped to spell the end of Loftons tenure in Atlanta. The first was that the Falcons did not have much in the way of salary cap space to afford what he could command on the open market. Loftons five-year deal reportedly is worth 30 million. By bringing back Abraham, whose salary cap figure is 4.4 million this season, according to ESPN.com, and franchising Grimes to the tune of 10 million for one season, the Falcons could not offer Lofton that kind of deal. Evidently, they prioritized Grimes and the pass-rushing Abraham at a lower price over Lofton.
The second factor was the whispers that came out of Flowery Branch that Lofton was not a three-down linebacker and that he was not good enough in pass coverage. This could be part of the evaluation process that the Falcons talked about in bringing in new coordinators. Perhaps new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan felt that Lofton would not fit in his schemes in pass coverage. Nolan already has talked about how he thinks the future of NFL defenses could involve a lot more use of five defensive backs, as the league is becoming more pass-oriented. In that sense, it would not make sense to offer Lofton too much money.
There is further evidence that the Falcons evaluations were not so high on Lofton. In an interview on Monday with the teams flagship radio station, 790 The Zone, Lofton might have inadvertently revealed this fact. He said the Falcons rate players in four categories: average, above average, superior and elite. He said the Falcons rated him as above average. Euphemisms aside, that is still the second-lowest rating of the four.
Nonetheless, while mostly taking the high road, Lofton scoffed at the idea that he was not a three-down linebacker. He said in his final three seasons, he played 95, 95 and 99 percent of the snaps on defense. Yet what he failed to add is that the Falcons never finished above 20th in the league in pass defense in any of those seasons.
That kind of makes me laugh, he said on the radio. I mean, as much you dont want to take things personal, you want to set emotions aside. Yeah, there is a little bit of that.
He pointed out that he never missed a game and did everything that was asked of him.
This is what you do? he said. It kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Then he observed that the NFL is a business and said he was excited to join the Saints.
On the offensive side of the ball, the return of McClure could mean that the change on the line is not as radical as it could have been. McClure has started 157 of the last 160 games at center for the Falcons and has represented a source of stability during the teams success. At 35, his greatest contributions might be more mental and intangible recognizing defenses and making the right blocking calls while providing leadership than physical.
Having already signed Vince Manuwai -- a former Jacksonville player who did not play last season because of injury, to compete for the right guard spot -- that could have meant two new starters on the line, if McClure had left, along with a new offensive line coach in Pat Hill. That would have meant a good measure of flux for that position group to deal with. Continuity on the offensive line is often a key to success and the Falcons excelled on the line from 2008 to 2010 with the same five starters and same offensive line coach, Paul Boudreau, who was let go after the 11 season.
Most of the holes created by free agency have been filled and few of the teams key free agents remain. The only ones who started last season were injury-prone nickel back Kelvin Hayden and veteran safety James Sanders. Yet in re-signing DeCoud, the Falcons appear ready to go with him and William Moore.
Only a few tweaks or surprises perhaps at left tackle likely remain. The picture of the Falcons roster entering next season is nearly complete.