The Falcons improved their pass rush dramatically last season. They ranked last in the league with 19 sacks in 2015. They finished the regular season with 34 sacks, which was 16th in league. The defense added 10 sacks to lead the league in the playoffs.
The development of outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks with 15.5 in the regular season and none in the playoffs, and the Super Bowl performance of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (three sacks) gives the team a feared tandem.
With the status of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and defensive end Dwight Freeney up in the air, the Falcons may select a defensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft. However, they are pleased with how Ra’Shede Hageman came on down the stretch, and they also have Derrick Shelby, who was off to a promising start, coming off injured reserve.
“I think we need to continue to get up and affect the passer, whether that’s with the young guys who’ll continue to get better and better,” Dimitroff said. “I was really encouraged with how Ra’Shede Hageman came along on in the middle of the season. He’s really responding to Dan Quinn’s sort of tutoring. Dan’s presence like that has been great for that defensive line.”
The Falcons want to re-sign right guard Chris Chester, who turned 34 in January. He may want to follow former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco.
“We are really encouraged where we are from a roster standpoint,” Dimitroff said. “We have a lot of youth here. We have a lot of talented players. We are excited about the trajectory here. Of course, it’s very positive.”
Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli attended the Senior Bowl in Mobile, while Quinn was coaching in the playoffs. Quinn has to catch up on his film study time, with Dimitroff to continue their drafting partnership.
The veterans must be evaluated first before they head to the NFL scouting combine Feb. 28-March 6.
“Dan and I will spend a lot of time over the next few weeks and months looking at free agency and the draft to see where the values are,” Dimitroff said.
The Falcons have $139.6 million committed to their top 51 salaries for 2017 and are estimated to be $29.2 million under the cap. They are set to carry only about $2.9 million of dead money into next season.
“Every year, we’ve been pretty aggressive in free agency, and we think this year our focus is going to be on signing a number of players on our team who are up,” Dimitroff said. “That’s going to be the main focus.”
The Falcons value the contributions of veterans such as Babineaux, Freeney, Chester, and linebacker Philip Wheeler, returner Eric Weems, fullback Patrick DiMarco and defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw.
Others such as quarterback Matt Schaub, linebacker Paul Worrilow and safety Kemal Ishmael appear headed to the open market. Schaub may also follow Shanahan to San Francisco.
Decisions have to be made on tight end Jacob Tamme, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, safety Dashon Goldson, tackle Tom Compton, linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and tight end Levine Toilolo.
It’s a poor year for free-agent tight ends, so Tamme and Toilolo could likely be re-signed for modest deals. Also, Weatherspoon wants to return.
“I want to be here,” Weatherspoon said. “Let that be known.”
Weatherspoon was playing well until he suffered a season-ending ruptured right Achilles against Carolina on Oct. 2.
“I just want to continue to focus on finishing my rehab,” Weatherspoon said. “I’m going to keep working. I think the young guys are really ascending and you sprinkle in some veteran guys who can continue to help and play, too. My focus is getting back to that point where I can go out there and be me. ”
Worrilow led the team in tackles over a three-year span, but lost his job to rookie Deion Jones last season. He played mostly on special teams, but will look to land a full-time job on the open market.
“I don’t know what is ahead for myself,” Worrilow said. “But I know that being an Atlanta Falcon is the best thing for me. But I’m not going to make up a bunch of scenarios. I’m just going to let it play out.”
He could start on several other teams.
“I know I can go and play good ball,” Worrilow said. “Whether that’s here or somewhere else. I liked my role this year. I loved being in that linebacker room with them. I’m not worried. Everywhere I go, I make it work. I’m just going to let it play out.”
Based on how they stack up in free agency in March, the Falcons will then move on to the draft, which is set for April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
“It’s a good year for defense,” Dimitroff said. “Most of the defensive positions are quite strong. That plays well here with a young defense that’s continuing to be built. That’s a good thing. Offensively, there is always a ton of receivers, but I’m not sure that’s the area that we’re going to be focusing on that much. … The depth in the lower rounds, I think is as good as well.”
The Falcons could look for a speedy free safety in the draft, too.
“Anytime that you have a young defense, and I think we have some veteran players on the defense that we are looking to see where they are at in their careers,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll continue to build this defense.
“We really like them and are encouraged by the speed, athleticism and aggressiveness on the defense. They just continued to grow and played admirably into the final throes of the (Super Bowl) and the season.”