Instead of scouring the bargain basement of the NFL free-agency pool this offseason, the Falcons went multi-level shopping.
They did some upscale shopping at Lenox Square, before stopping by Target and then Dollar General to sign some players. The team hopes the mixed-level plan pays big dividends in 2016.
When the clock struck 4 p.m. Wednesday, Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff went into the big-ticket market. The team’s No. 1 target was center Alex Mack, who they considered the best interior lineman available in free agency.
“The line of scrimmage was certainly an emphasis for us,” Quinn said.
The Falcons caught a break, too. Mack, who’d voided the final three years of his contract with Cleveland at $24 million, was signed for a Falcons-friendly five-year, $45 million deal. Mack’s market value was projected in $50 million range.
After signing Mack, the Falcons added defensive ends Derrick Shelby (four-year, $18 million) and Adrian Clayborn (two-year, $9 million with an additional $5 million in incentives) to respectable deals.
With the release of Roddy White, the Falcons needed a receiver and arguably signed the best one on the open market in former Cincinnati Bengal Mohamed Sanu. He signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract.
In what will be a popular move, the Falcons re-signed former first-round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon to a low-level, make-good contract. Weatherspoon will get a chance to revive his once promising career. The team also re-signed reserve tackle Bryce Harris.
That was just the first phase of the offseason program.
The Falcons, who released former starter William Moore, haven’t addressed the strong safety position, and there a perpetual concerns about the pass rush.
“It doesn’t just stay with one position or the pass rush,” Quinn said. “We’ve got this whole offseason to work our way through and add some guys to the group and we intend to do that.”
Mack, 30, was a mainstay in Cleveland. But he’d tried to escape the losing and the circus-like atmosphere for a couple of seasons.
He signed an offer sheet with Jacksonville in 2014, but the Browns matched. This time, he made it through the exit door and reunited with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“It’s a system that I’m comfortable with,” Mack said. “I was with him two years ago in Cleveland. I really like how the system works. I thought we had a good thing going. It made me very comfortable knowing that it is an offensive system that I knew and played well in.”
Mack believes that the offense, which quarterback Matt Ryan struggled with and managed to hide White as a decoy, will improve with time.
“The longer that you’re in the system the better,” Mack said. “The more in tune you’re going to be, the better you get at running the offense. Having another year under the belt, and a whole year of film to watch and learn from, we’ll become a well-oiled machine. We’ll have an explosive offense here.”
Mack will handle all of the signal-calling and pass-protection calls up front for the linemen. He’s relishes that role and being able to take that off Ryan’s plate.
“It’s very important for the center who has a good view of the entire defense to be able to see and communicate and tell the whole offensive line what’s going on,” Mack said.
Last season, the Falcons had center-and-quarterback-exchange issues that led to several untimely fumbles. Mack is proud of his snapping ability.
“If you can’t do that, you’ll have a real hard time being the center,” Mack said. “It presents some challenges, you are making contact very fast. There are a few minor tweaks that make the position different. But the actual act of snapping is pretty second-nature by now.”
The Falcons expect the Mack pickup to pay huge dividends. They extensively studied film of his play leading to free agency.
“Just the consistency each week in his performance,” Quinn said. “Not only in the run game, but in protection as well. He’s completely dialed in on the technique.”
Sanu, who’s 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, never caught more than 56 passes in a season for the Bengals as their second and third receiver.
“I think it’s a terrific fit,” Quinn said. “There are lots of reasons like getting a chance to play with guys like Julio Jones and Matt Ryan and the culture that we have in the locker room with the players.”
The Falcons finished last in the league with 19 sacks last season and gave up 20 rushing touchdowns, tied for the most in the league. They will continue to look to improve the defense.
“The draft is certainly a part of this plan that we are going through,” Quinn said. “We’ve got a plan and we’re sticking right to it.”
While Moore has not been directly replaced, Quinn is happy with free safeties Ricardo Allen and Robenson Therezie.
“Both of those guys went for it in a really good way,” Quinn said. “Both of them had experience outside and then to teach them and have them learn how to play middle-field defense, which was new for both of them, was really good. I thought (defensive backs coach) Marquand (Manual), specifically did a really good job of helping both of those guys develop.”
Kemal Ishmael finished last season as the starter at strong safety. The Falcons also used Charles Godfrey, who is an unrestricted free agent, but may return.
“As we go through the process of looking, I know there are some good candidates,” Quinn said. “It’s a really important one because of the tackling and because of the coverage that happens on third down. It’s one that has my attention for sure.”
Dimitroff believes his partnership with Quinn and their multi-level approach has been successful.
“Free-agency moves, I think we’ve become more and more dialed in, especially with Dan to know what type of players that we are looking for our scheme,” Dimitroff said.
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