When the Falcons signed former 49ers safety Ronnie Heard this week, it did nothing to damage the idea in the minds of team observers that Atlanta is most likely to use its first-round draft choice next month on the defensive line.
Entering the offseasons, the Falcons' need areas were linebacker, defensive line, the secondary, offensive line and wide receiver, roughly in that order.
They've added LB Ike Reese (Eagles), although they're not finished at that position, signed safeties Rich Coady (Rams) and Heard, and may re-sign UFA FS Keion Carpenter, who missed last season with a knee injury.
They've re-signed cornerbacks Kevin Mathis and Allen Rossum, still have starting cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster and string safety Bryan Scott not to mention some other backups.
This is not to say the Falcons are finished in the secondary, but they've made hey there, and at linebacker, where they also added former Titans reserve Jordan Kramer.
On the offensive line, they've resigned several of their own players, added former Cowboys and Rams guard/center Matt Lehr.
On the defensive line, where they cut starting nose tackle Ed Jasper and key reserve Travis Hall, they've done nothing.
Add the fact the draft is deep in defensive linemen that figure to go in the first round-and-a-half, and that looks like a relatively intelligent - and even cost-effective - way to address that position.
Left defensive end Patrick Kerney, coming off his first Pro Bowl, is in the prime of his career. Right defensive end Brady Smith is still playing quite well, but will be 32 in June, and has a nagging ankle, and tends to deal with groin issues each year.
Defensive tackle Rod Coleman was fantastic last year, and should have multiple years of significant production in front of him. Jasper's replacement will be Chad Lavalais, who played pretty well as a rookie last season, particularly for a fifth-round draft choice.
As for depth, there's defensive tackle Antwan Lake and defensive end Junior Glymph and that's it.
--The Falcons have raised ticket prices for the third year in a row. After making headlines in 2002 by slashing tickets prices shortly after buying the team, owner Arthur Blank has upped the ante for fans by 16.3 percent in 2003, 26.2 percent in 2004 and about 19 percent this year. Atlanta will still rank low among league rivals. Last year, the Falcons' average ticket price of $43.71 was sixth-lowest in the league. That number's up to about $52 per ticket, still below last year's NFL average of about $57, and the league average will climb when new tabulations are available within a month or so.
--QB Michael Vick would rather distance himself from an awkward situation that landed in the March 13 Washington Post. In a Post story, an acquaintance of Vick's picked up a watch belonging to a TSA screener while at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport - allegedly without Vick's knowledge at the time -- while traveling with Vick, another man and a child. There were no charges filed, but Vick ended up trying to negotiate the return of the watch to Alvin C. Spencer, and the process apparently became somewhat entangled before its eventual resolution.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With the Falcons' tight budget, they may find themselves counting at least a tiny bit more on rookies in 2005 than in 2004.
Last season, the only rookie starter was LCB DeAngelo Hall, the No. 8 pick of the draft, although DT Chad Lavalais started a few games because of injuries to others, and LB Demorrio Williams quickly became a full-time nickel and dime LB.
Lavalais and Williams may both be starters in 2005, and it's not such a push to expect that WR Michael Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2004 who caught just seven passes, will see his role increase as well.
The trick is, the first of the Falcons' eight picks is No. 27 in the first round.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--CB Aaron Beasley was well worth his minimum-value contract this season, working at cornerback/safety early in the season, and strictly at FS in passing situations late in the season. If he returns, though, it will most likely be with a similar one-year contract.
--S Keion Carpenter missed the entire season with a knee injury, but made his presence felt as a pseudo coach. Atlanta is likely to offer the former starter a very modest, perhaps minimum-value contract. His best friend is quarterback Michael Vick, by the way.
--QB Ty Detmer did not take a snap from scrimmage for the third season in a row (the previous two in Detroit), but was considered valuable as a coach of sorts. The only way he returns (if he doesn't retire) is with a one-year, minimum-value deal.
--LB Jamie Duncan was signed in the spring as an insurance policy of sorts. He was active in just a handful of games, and had occasional problems making it to meetings on time. He's not likely to be asked back.
--OL Roberto Garza started the final 15 games at LG, after Michael Moore's shoulder was injured, and played OK. If he returns to Atlanta, it will be after he gets a chance to test his market value.
--LB Eric Johnson was signed last spring chiefly to augment special teams, but did not stand out. He'll hit free agency for sure.
--FB George Layne (not tendered as ERFA).
--FB Stanley Pritchett, an Atlanta native, was solid before a season-ending thumb injury in December. He probably will warrant no more than a minimum-value contract, however, behind Pro Bowl-caliber FB Justin Griffith.
--DE Karon Riley missed the season on injured reserve. He has done nothing to make Atlanta officials run out and re-sign him.
--LB Artie Ulmer was again very good on special teams. But if he returns to Atlanta, it will be late in the spring with another one-year contract. He's not significant as a backup LB.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OT Kevin Shaffer (tendered at $1.43M with 1st-round pick as compensation) started eight games in 2003, and 15 in 2005. The former seventh-round draft pick might be a candidate for a multi-year contract although at this point he's not assured of a starting position next season.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--TE Dwayne Blakely (tendered at $305,000).
--OL Martin Bibla: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--CB Kevin Mathis: UFA; $5.2M/4 yrs, SB unknown.
--S Kevin McCadam: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--RB Fred McCrary: UFA; terms unknown.
--OL Steven Herndon: UFA; $540,000/1 yr; 2005 cap: $455,000.
--OG Michael Moore: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--CB/KR Allen Rossum: UFA; 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Rich Coady: UFA Rams; $540,000/1 yr; 2005 cap: $455,000.
--P Toby Gowin: UFA Jets; $665,000/1 yr; 2005 cap: $455,000.
--FS Ronnie Heard: UFA 49ers; terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Kramer: Not tendered as ERFA by Titans; terms unknown.
--G/C Matt Lehr: UFA Rams; $2.13M/3 yrs, $500,000 SB.
--PK Todd Peterson: UFA 49ers; $790,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2005 cap: $480,000.
--LB Ike Reese: UFA Eagles; terms unknown.
--PK Jay Feely: UFA Giants; 3 yrs; $760,000 SB, other terms unknown.
--S Cory Hall (released).
--DE Travis Hall (released).
--DT Ed Jasper (released).
--P Chris Mohr (released).
--LB Matt Stewart: UFA Browns; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.