Falcons’ roster gutting could have big names

Any makeover begins with an admission that something went wrong. Whether it was a flawed plan or faulty personnel decisions that contributed to the Falcons’ slide the past two seasons, general manager Thomas Dimitroff conceded as much recently.

“I understand the criticism,” the team’s primary architect said. “I understand what I signed up for in 2008. Every game, my job is on the line. I understand that I made mistakes, and I understand that I’m going to do all I can to fix what I need to fix.”

So there’s the public confession. Now it’s about making amends.

There’s a new coaching staff, led by Dan Quinn, and a new front-office structure. Dimitroff has fewer responsibilities but is still over assistant Scott Pioli, who now runs pro and college scouting. New coaches mean new schemes, and Quinn hopes to implement the philosophies that worked in Seattle, where the Seahawks were fast and physical and played with speed on offense and defense.

Free-agent signings begin March 10. The draft begins April 30. The Falcons won’t be able to fix all of their problems in one offseason but they certainly can be a playoff team next season, based on the premise that they’ll still be able to attack offensively (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White) and they play in the NFC South (where nobody is that good).

Understand that roster changes are mandated by two things: perceived level of talent and salary. Given the latter, it’s worth noting that top nine projected salary-cap hits for next season among current Falcons players are (in millions) Ryan ($19.5), Jones ($10.176), guard Justin Blalock ($7.91), tackle Sam Baker ($7.3), safety William Moore ($5.65), White ($5.587), running back Steven Jackson ($4.917), defensive tackle Paul Soliai ($4.4) and wide receiver Harry Douglas ($4.396).

With that in mind, here are some suggested moves:

Jackson: Cut him. Health and the lack of offensive line help limited his effectiveness, but he’ll be 32 in July. It also didn’t look good when Jackson didn’t play in the final game against Carolina because of a quad injury. The Falcons can get another younger back in free agency or the draft.

Douglas: Trade him. He’s a No. 3 receiver with No. 2 skills, but his base salary next season is a bit rich for a team with so many needs. Douglas could be packaged with a draft pick to move up in the draft or offered for an extra pick.

Baker: Stress the wonderful attributes of retirement! It’s the best-case scenario for the Falcons. He has made a lot of money and has had an inordinate number of injuries, missing all of last season with a torn patellar tendon and playing only four games in 2013. If Baker tries to come back, it would be difficult for the Falcons to cut him because he was given a six-year extension in 2013 with a $10 million bonus (pro-rated over five years). But offensive linemen need to run in Quinn’s zone read offense. Can Baker do that coming off a major injury? If so, he can play right tackle.

Blalock: Be careful. Blalock has two years left on his contract. But with a high cap hit and back problems in 2014, Blalock may get cut. Blalock has been the steadiest player on an otherwise unsteady and underwhelming unit, so if the Falcons cut him they had better have a solid backup plan. Miscalculations with offensive linemen have cost them in the past.

Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes, OLs: Keep them. Both offensive linemen have struggled as touted draft picks, but they’re under contract for anther season and they come cheap, so it doesn’t make sense to cut either one, unless there’s talent behind them (and there’s not).

Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, DEs: Don’t re-sign either. Both are unrestricted free agents. Umenyiora has shown nothing in two seasons, even if he was handicapped by the team not having another viable pass-rush option on the line. Biermann hasn’t ascended like some expected after his first few seasons. He might be worth signing and bringing to camp for a budget-friendly contract, but that likely wouldn’t happen until late in the offseason if other plans didn’t materialize.

Sean Weatherspoon, LB: Re-sign him. This seems like a given, since Weatherspoon, an unrestricted free agent, is one of the more talented defensive players on the roster and he’s willing to sign a modest deal after missing the 2014 season with a ruptured Achilles. It’s potentially low risk/high reward.

That’s a lot. And it’s only a start.

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