The Atlanta Falcons are counting the days until March 12, 2013. On that day, the Falcons can begin reloading the roster as free agency officially begins. The Falcons have a major question to answer before the team begins opening up its checkbook. Will Atlanta be shopping Rodeo Drive or Walmart?
The Falcons have a solid nucleus, yet still have a few glaring holes. This makes a win-now approach very tempting. The allure of a Super Bowl can make even the most conservative general manager overlook potential cap-Armageddon.
With five consecutive winning seasons and no rings, will Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith stay the course or gamble away the Falcons' future?
The lighthouse in the stormy sea of what-ifs might be found in the Falcons' 2012 season.
The Grimes Effect
Brent Grimes worked hard for a big paycheck prior to the 2012 season. Because of Grimes' diminutive size, the Falcons snagged grimes as an undrafted free agent. After spending time on the Falcons practice squad in 2007, Grimes earned a role on the 53-man roster. From there, Grimes became the best player on a bad secondary.
Or what looked like a bad secondary at least.
Prior to the 2012 season, Grimes signed a $10.6 million franchise tag. Grimes went down with an Achilles tendon injury in the very first game of 2012. Grimes would watch the secondary's amazing turn around from the sidelines.
Under new DC Mike Nolan, the Falcons secondary improved all season. Quarterbacks that would have feasted in years past, like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, found themselves being feasted upon. While not flawless, the secondary saw different players stepping up every game.
Relative unknowns, like Robert McClain, made an impact throughout the 2012 season. The mantra became "next man up." It served the Falcons well, both on the field and in the bank account.
The Lofton Escape
The Falcons surprisingly let MLB Curtis Lofton walk in 2012. Lofton had been the Falcons' best middle linebacker since Jessie Tuggle, but he was deemed too expensive for the new defensive scheme.
This proved to be true. While the Falcons' need for a second outside linebacker to complement Sean Weatherspoon was exposed, Lofton never had the coverage skills to fill that role.
At first glance, Lofton seemed like a huge loss for the team. After a season of nickel-heavy schemes, the Falcons proved they had made the right choice.
The Falcons already rely heavily on rotating players to help keep them fresh. The injury situations of 2012 brought the need for depth into the spotlight. The Falcons were able to move on when Grimes went down, but there seemed to be no answer when John Abraham was limited in the postseason.
From a salary cap standpoint, a 53-man roster can not be filled with starters. Superstar playmakers tend to ask for superstar contracts. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for five years and $60 million. His free agency splash did not materialize into wins.
The New Orleans Saints' 2012 addition of Curtis Lofton did not lead to defensive dominance either.
As the Falcons begin to compare and contrast the free-agent market and the upcoming draft, the proverbial fork-in-the-road could determine the team's fate for years to come. If the Falcons stay the course, there will be plenty of big names that will "get away."
And the team will be better for it.
The Falcons are not desperate on offense. There is a solid core of players that will need new contracts soon. The impending free agency of Matt Ryan should constantly be on the mind of the front office.
The Falcons have needs on defense, but those are far from desperation as well. Feeding too much of the salary cap pie to one position would only serve to weaken the foundation.
To put it in perspective, if Brent Grimes averaged his franchise tag $10.6 million for three years, he would receive $31.8 million. That would be the equivalent of two Asante Samuels and a long snapper.
The Falcons have come too far to fall into salary cap quicksand. Filling out the open roster spots with good players at a good value will prevent that.
If the Falcons chase big-name, big-contract free agents, they will be one ankle sprain away from being on the wrong side of the rainbow.