In his first year as an NFL head coach, the Falcons' Jim Mora frequently trumpeted his team's "chemistry," which was undeniably solid. The ingredients, however, are leaking away in a significant way since the Falcons lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
Several of the players who helped bond the team are gone. Since last season ended, Atlanta has cut DL Ed Jasper and Travis Hall, MLB Chris Draft and FS Cory Hall, among others, and lost SLB Matt Stewart and K Jay Feely, among others, in free agency.
They were all high-character players, and Mora admits as much.
But he said he's not worried about the character loss his team's undergoing.
"No, because we still have Mike Vick, Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn, Pat Kerney, Keith Brooking, Jason Webster," Mora said. "And the guys we brought in, (linebackers) Ike Reese, Ed Hartwell, are fiber guys. I don't think we've taken a hit at all in the character department. As a matter of fact, I think we've improved it, and I don't mean because we lost guys."
In recent years, the Falcons moved fast in free agency to make at least one splashy move right off the bat (RB Warrick Dunn in 2002, WR Peerless Price in 2003, DT Rod Coleman and CB Jason Webster in 2004).
This year, they waited four weeks to jump into the fray, and still spent big, landing former Ravens LB Edgerton Hartwell (six years, $26.25 million).
But the Falcons claim to look at this season as one in which their biggest roster moves were not in players added, but players kept.
"We feel good about all our free agent acquisitions so far, starting with Mike Vick, Alge Crumpler, Kynan Forney," Mora said. "If you'd have said would you feel good about getting those three guys in free agency, you'd say, 'Yes, sir.' "
Crumpler, a Pro Bowl tight end, and Forney, a high-caliber guard, could have become unrestricted free agents after the 2004 season, but the Falcons signed them to contract extensions first.
Vick had a clause in his previous contract which mandated that the Falcons pay him a sizable option bonus of about $5 million just to buy two more years on his contract. Otherwise, he could have opted for free agency.
So owner Arthur Blank gave Vick a new 10-year contract worth more than $100 million, with $37 million in guaranteed money, even though Vick's cap charges in the next two seasons aren't much different than they would've been if Atlanta exercised what amounted to an option.
--Unless there are surprises between now and June, the Falcons have reached a "tweaking stage" of roster development, although they might pick a defensive tackle or safety in the April 23-24 draft who'd have a shot at starting.
Asked what areas of the roster need attention, coach Jim Mora said, "Well, right now, we've slowed way down on our free agency although we're out there looking for a(n offensive) tackle that can help."
Mora didn't mention the defensive line, where Atlanta's lack of depth is obvious to teams around the NFL, who spend time every spring trying to figure what other teams are going to do in the draft in addition to working on their own plans.
There's obvious merit to what Mora said. Last season, upon cutting Bob Whitfield, the Falcons were left with starting tackles Todd Weiner and Kevin Shaffer. Career guard/center Steven Herndon filled in at tackle.
The Falcons, though, are likely finished looking for new offensive line starters. The only spot that might be manned by a different player in 2005 is left guard. Newcomer Matt Lehr, signed two weeks ago to a three-year, $2.13 million contract with a $500,000 signing bonus, will compete with Michael Moore there.
Mora said Alex Gibbs, who carries the title of consultant after serving as offensive line coach last year, will be around plenty this spring and summer.
In the regular season, he'll split time between his Arizona home and the Falcons, generally working games, breaking down tape on Mondays and helping install game plans on Tuesdays.
There shouldn't be noticeable changes under line coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who coached tight ends last season. "We're not going to add anything, take anything out, change any techniques," Mora said.
-- LB Chris Draft, who manned the middle for the Falcons last season even though he's probably better suited to play WLB, was released Friday. His salary of $1.3 million comes off Atlanta's books, but he'll still count $650,000 against the cap.
-- The Falcons will begin Organized Team Activities on May 17.
-- RB Warrick Dunn is visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan with Patriots special teamer/linebacker Larry Izzo. His contract was recently restructured to create about $1.4 million in cap space for the Falcons. He got $2.35 million of his scheduled $3 million salary in the form of a bonus.
-- Starting SS Bryan Scott is a strong candidate -- pending future roster moves -- to move to FS for the Falcons, who play their SS more like a FS and vice-versa than many teams. That conversion may take a while, if it's not first nullified by another roster move. Scott had arthroscopic surgery recently to repair a shoulder injury that didn't heal as expected after the season. "I think Bryan is probably better suited for what we consider the free safety spot, you know, up in the box," coach Jim Mora said. "(The surgery) is going to hurt him a little in terms of that switch, but we'll probably work toward switching him that way."
-- The Falcons hired former 49ers C Chris Dalman as assistant offensive line coach. He played for San Francisco from 1993-2000 before a neck injury shortened his career. He'll assist offensive line coach Jeff Jagodzinski, the former TEs coach who's taking over for Alex Gibbs, Atlanta's recently-minted "consultant."
-- Eric Beverly, who joined the Falcons last March as a G/C, is expected to remain at backup TE, where he was moved in training camp last season.
-- S Keion Carpenter, who recently re-signed with the Falcons when he got a one-year contract, has been a FS but may fit in better at SS in the Atlanta defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It's not the Falcons' first priority, but they going to tend to their offensive line between now and training camp, either in free agency, the draft, or both.
The addition of G/C Matt Lehr helped considerably. He'll compete at LG with Michael Moore.
But the team definitely doesn't want to go into the 2005 season without a third tackle, like they did last year, when career G/C Steven Herndon filled in a few times. "Well, right now, we've slowed way down on our free agency although we're out there looking for a tackle that can help," coach Jim Mora said. "You can never have enough.
1. Linebacker. With SLB Matt Stewart having signed with Cleveland, and every reserve LB in unrestricted free agency, this is obvious. The addition of Ike Reese helped, but the Falcons are still looking. Team officials want to add speed at this position.
2. Defensive line. Atlanta cut NT Ed Jasper, 32 and reserve DL Travis Hall, 32, and RDE Brady Smith will be 32 in June. The only young DL who's shown enough promise to bank on is DT Chad Lavalais.
3. Offensive line. The addition this week of G/C Matt Lehr helped considerably. Starting left tackle Kevin Shaffer, who was tendered a one-year contract at a value of $1.43 million as a restricted free agent, probably will be back, but team officials might create competition for him, and at a minimum need a bona fide No. 3 OT, something they didn't have this season. Guards Michael Moore, who began the season as the left-side starter before a season-ending shoulder injury, and Martin Bibla signed contracts with the team to avoid becoming restricted free agents, and UFA Steven Herndon re-signed with the team. But Roberto Garza, who took over for Moore, is a UFA.
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.
--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.
--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: None.
--OL Martin Bibla: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--TE Dwayne Blakely: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--S Keion Carpenter: UFA; $540,000/1 yr.
--QB Ty Detmer: UFA; $765,000/1 yr.
--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.
--LB Ed Hartwell: UFA Ravens; $26.25M/6 yrs, $8M bonuses.
--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.
--LB Chris Draft; released.
--PK Jay Feely: UFA Giants; 3 yrs; $760,000 SB, other terms unknown.
--OL Roberto Garza: UFA Bears; $900,000/1 yr, SB 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.