Without key starters in strongside linebacker Michael Boley, weakside linebacker Keith Brooking and left cornerback Domonique Foxworth, Smith will get to leave his imprint on the unit. All those players departed in the first week of unrestricted free agency and the team has yet to add anyone.
Coy Wire replaced Boley late in the season in running downs and was re-signed. He's a good run-and-hit linebacker, but he didn't play in passing situations. Stephen Nicholas, who drafted as a weakside linebacker, has played mostly on special teams his first two seasons. Last season, the Falcons played him at strongside and tried to use him coming off the edge as a pass rusher in a 3-3-5 alignment.
"He will get a chance to compete for a starting position," Smith said.
Nicholas has good striking ability and ideal speed. He was a sideline-to-sideline backer at South Florida. In the secondary, the Falcons are banking on the return to good health of Von Hutchins (broken foot) with the hope that he can take over the nickel back position from Chevis Jackson. If Hutchins can make it back, Jackson can be moved outside to compete for Foxworth's position against Brent Grimes and David Irons.
Smith, a former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, is trying to put together a fast, aggressive and attacking unit. The players that were not re-signed didn't fit this master plan.
"We definitely have some holes to fill on our football team," Smith said. "We are going to take a good strong look on the defensive side of the football."
Smith will get a chance to replace at least five starters and play the brand of defense that helped him land the head coaching job in the first place.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Falcons have to address the loss of strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who won't be re-signed. They are looking for a rangy, hybrid safety who can come down in the box in run support and also display some range in coverage. When at Jacksonville, Smith drafted Reggie Nelson in the first round. So he knows what he's looking for. General manager Thomas Dimitroff polished off his defensive back evaluating skills with New England coach Bill Belichick. Smith and Dimitroff will likely kick the tires on free agent Sean Jones, an Atlanta native. If they are not satisfied, they'll enter the draft with an eye on Western Michigan's Louis Delmas, Alabama's Rashad Johnson or Missouri's William Moore.
--Keith Brooking, breaking into tears several times, bid an emotional farewell to Atlanta and the Falcons. The linebacker, a five-time Pro Bowler, had a tough time dealing with joining the Dallas Cowboys after playing all 11 seasons of his NFL career with the Falcons. He also played locally at East Coweta High School before going on to star at Georgia Tech.
"I promised my wife I would not get emotional," Brooking said, as he started to tear up. When the Falcons and Brooking couldn't come to a deal, it became clear that the team's leading tackler for the past eight seasons would move on. Dallas was a logical landing place because they are coached by former Falcons defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Brooking was the 12th player taken in the 1998 NFL draft, and he was a rookie on the Falcons team that made the franchise's only trip to the Super Bowl. He was the last link to that team.
Brooking also played on the team that reached the NFC championship game after the 2004 season.
Some of Brooking's highlights included:
*Last season's turnaround. "Being a part of setting that foundation is a memory that I will always take with me," Brooking said.
*His rookie season. "What a great experience that was to come in to the league (and go to the Super Bowl)," Brooking said. "I grew up in Atlanta, (and) the Falcons were bad for a very long time. That year was surreal for me."
*Playing with Jessie Tuggle. "He was Mr. Falcon," Brooking said. "I got to play with him."
*Winning the NFC championship in Minnesota. "I'll never forget that game," Brooking said. "It was one of my better games my rookie year as well. That was a lot of fun for several reasons. ... You never forget those moments."
--In an unscientific AJC.Com poll, fans were asked, "Who is the best linebacker in Falcons history? The choices were Tommy Nobis, Jessie Tuggle, Keith Brooking or Someone Else. Tuggle was the winner with 55.8 percent of the votes, followed by Nobis with 27.3, Brooking 15.6 and Someone Else 1.3.
--The Falcons re-signed Tony Gilbert and Jason Snelling. Gilbert, a 29-year-old linebacker who starred at the University of Georgia, was an unrestricted free agent. Snelling, a third-year running back out of Virginia, was an exclusive rights free agent. He was used primarily as a blocking back in 2008. The Falcons also signed cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive back Antoine Harris.
--Free agent visitors to Atlanta included tight end L.J. Smith and center Brett Romberg. Smith played last season with the Philadelphia Eagles and Romberg with the St. Louis Rams. Smith, who is 6-feet-3 and 258 pounds, played six seasons with the Eagles and caught 231 passes, 18 for touchdowns. The Falcons are in the market for a pass-catching tight end.
They recently re-signed Justin Peele, but he is more of a blocking tight end. Romberg (6-2, 298) likely would be a backup to starter Todd McClure. Also, defensive end Mike Montgomery, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, was set to visit, but his trip was canceled when the Falcons re-signed defensive end Chauncey Davis.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're sorry it didn't work out the way we'd hoped. For us, it's like saying good-bye to a member of the family." -- Falcons owner Arthur Blank on the team not re-signing 11-year veteran linebacker Keith Brooking.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Defense, defense and defense are the Falcons' priorities for the rest of free agency and leading up to the draft. They've gutted the unit, which finished 11th in scoring and 24th overall last season. The cupboard must be re-stocked. The line needs a tackle, the linebacker unit has no proven three-down players and a safety and cornerback is needed in the secondary. They did slap the franchise tag on punter Michael Koenen, who should help the unit with field position.
TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY
The defensive master plan is to be strong up the middle and play aggressively. That, in part, explains the major retooling that's under way.
Falcons coach Mike Smith has been around some of the better defenses in the league while in Baltimore and Jacksonville. His defenses played fast. In Baltimore, he had stellar linebacker play. He also likes to anchor the defense with massive tackles.
The Falcons are attempting to get bigger, stronger and more athletic on the front-end of the defense so that they don't have sit in so much zone coverage. The sign hanging outside of the Flowery Branch facilities should read: "Play-makers apply within."
1. Strong safety: The Falcons have elected to move away from safety Lawyer Milloy. He can still play, but they want to get younger. They'd like to get a younger safety with more range in pass defense.
2. Tight end: A pass-catching tight end is vital to the development of quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Smith is the best out there in free agency and the draft is deep at the position. Chase Coffman from Missouri might be a good fit.
3. Linebacker: There are no three-down linebackers on the roster. Veteran Michael Peterson, who played under Falcons head coach Mike Smith, in Jacksonville is a possibility. He could provide knowledge of the defense and leadership to what figures to be a young unit.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: P/K Michael Koenen: Tendered at $2.483M; signed tender Feb. 17.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OT Wayne Gandy is veteran who could provide quality depth behind some young tackles.
--SS Lawyer Milloy will not return. He would like to end his career in Seattle and be reunited with coach Jim Mora.
--TE Marcus Pollard was signed late in the season and probably won't return.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered)
--OT Pat McCoy (not tendered as RFA) spent the season on injured reserve.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--RT Tyson Clabo (tendered at $1.545M with second-round pick as compensation) has started for last two seasons and played with mean streak.
--RG Harvey Dahl (tendered at $1.545M with second-round pick as compensation) won the starting job last year. Played well against the run and gave up only one sack in 16 starts.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: Unknown.
--DE Chauncey Davis: UFA; $14M/4 yrs, guarantee unknown.
--S Jamaal Fudge: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--LB Tony Gilbert: UFA; terms unknown.
--CB Brent Grimes: ERFA; terms unknown.
--S Antoine Harris: ERFA; terms unknown.
--DT Jason Jefferson: UFA; terms unknown.
--P/K Michael Koenen: FFA; $2.483M/1 yr.
--TE Justin Peelle: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--RB Jason Snelling: ERFA; terms unknown.
--C/G Ben Wilkerson (not tendered as RFA); $535,000/1 yr.
--LB Coy Wire: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--OT Will Svitek: FA; terms unknown.
--LB Michael Boley: UFA Giants; $25M/5 yrs, $11M guaranteed.
--LB Keith Brooking: UFA Cowboys; $6M/3 yrs, $2.5M guaranteed.
--CB Domonique Foxworth: UFA Ravens; $27.2M/4 yrs, $4M SB/$3.38 report bonus/$16.5M guaranteed.
--DT Grady Jackson: UFA Lions; $8M/3 yrs, guarantees unknown.
--LT Todd Weiner (retired).