Michael Cunningham: Falcons hit Dimitroff’s free-agency goals, but have less talent than before

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“I don’t know what the (external) expectations were,” Dimitroff said. “Our internal expectations were that we’re going to grab two or three people who will help us and project as potential starters for us.”

The Falcons cleared that bar. Dante Fowler is their new No. 1 edge pass rusher. Hayden Hurst (acquired in a trade) is the next starting tight end. Todd Gurley is the lead running back.

Of course, that’s not the complete equation. The numbers say the Falcons lost five starters and added three. I say they have less talent now than before.

One Falcons player who left, cornerback Desmond Trufant, was their best starter at an important position. Among the veterans the Falcons signed, only Fowler is a clear upgrade over the one he’s replacing. Gurley (knee) still hasn’t passed a physical. Free agency also chipped away at the Falcons’ already thin depth at pass rusher and along the offensive line.

Major holes remaining after free agency always was the likely outcome for the Falcons. That’s the punishment for a 7-9 team with a tight salary cap that’s top-heavy with big contracts. That philosophy and mistakes on past contracts left Dimitroff with limited means to improve the roster by adding and retaining good veterans.

Hurst, a first-round draft pick, might be an adequate replacement for two-time Pro Bowl selection Hooper. He has potential, but that’s another way of saying he hasn’t done it yet. Over the past two seasons, Hooper had more than twice as many receptions (146) as Hurst had targets (62) in Baltimore.

Peak Gurley was better than peak Freeman. Injuries contributed to a decline for both players. But the question for Gurley isn’t just whether he can get back to that level, or close to it. It’s whether he’ll end up playing for the Falcons at all.

The Falcons were able to sign Gurley to a modest one-year contract because of questions about his left knee. It’s been an issue since late in the 2018 season. Restrictions related to the coronavirus prevented Falcons medical staff from getting a close look at the knee before agreeing to terms.

Dimitroff said the contract includes language that “protects” the Falcons if Gurley’s knee isn’t as sound as they like when their doctors get a look at it.

“If the player has an issue where he can’t pass the physical, that’s something we’ll address then,” Dimitroff said. “We are not looking at it that way. We are looking at it like he really takes care of his body. We feel very comfortable with it.”

Financially, Gurley’s deal is a low risk for the Falcons. But they’ll be without a proven lead back if the deal ultimately falls apart. The position has lost value in the NFL, but backs who are good in the passing game remain beneficial.

Gurley can do that when healthy. The other three backs on the roster combined for 23 catches and a touchdown in 2019. The Falcons can use Gurley as a part-time back with some punch.

Fowler is the one unequivocal impact move for the Falcons. It’s true that Fowler has only one good season to his credit, but at least it was the most recent one. He’ll provide much more production than Vic Beasley at a position one tier below quarterback in importance.

And there’s one thing Fowler said in a recent media call that stood out: “Everything I do is based off of motor.” Uneven intensity was one of Beasley’s weaknesses, so Fowler will give the Falcons a missing element if he goes hard all the time.

The Falcons still don’t have enough pass-rushers. Adrian Clayborn left to sign a cheap deal with the Browns, and free agent Robert Quinn picked the Bears over the Falcons. But Fowler gives the Falcons one good edge rusher, which they didn’t have before.

The Falcons should be fine without departed linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. He was their leading tackler in 2019, but third-year pro Foyesade Oluokon has the potential to be better. Good teams can get by with average players at that position.

The Falcons are going to have a much tougher time replacing Trufant. It’s hard to be a good team without a good No. 1 corner. Tufant isn’t elite anymore, but even lower-tier No. 1 cornerbacks are valuable.

Now the Falcons don’t even have that. The position’s depth is lacking, too. Dimitroff said the Falcons believe holders Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield are on the come, but added: “It’s really important for us to continue to home in on that (position), whether in the back end of free agency or the draft.”

To significantly improve their roster the Falcons will have to find instant starters from the draft (difficult), get more than expected out of incoming veterans (possible) and see rapid growth from young players (unknown). The Falcons will have to be better to beat expectations which, according to the betting markets, is a third-place finish in the NFC South.

The Saints retained nearly all their key players. You might have heard the Bucs signed a guy named Tom Brady. New Orleans is a good team that stayed good. Tampa Bay finished 7-9 last season, but has surpassed the Falcons in player talent. That’s the reward for sounder cap management.

The Falcons have replaced three of their five departed starters, which is about as good as they could have expected. It still means they’ll go into 2020 with less established talent than they had in 2019, when they weren’t good.


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