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How the team goes about fortifying the unit remains to be seen. Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were both Pro Bowlers in 2018, but there could be competition at the other three spots this spring.

Atlanta likely won’t have the ammo to bring in a top-tier free agent that would carry a high price tag, but it could still find a player it likes at a good price tag the way the team did with Brandon Fusco last offseason. The Falcons recently signed tackle Ty Sambrailo to the three-year contract, and it’s clear they are high on him as a potential starting option moving forward.

“We really believe that he did a really good job when he was asked to step up, and we continue to think that he will continue to do so,” Dimitroff said of Sambrailo. “There’s no question in my mind that he has starter ability as well, and it’s just a matter of how it comes together.”

But even with Matthews, Mack and Sambrailo, who started the final four games, on hand in 2018, the Falcons were 27th in rushing yards per game and allowed 42 sacks on quarterback Matt Ryan, tied for the eight-most in the NFL.

Still, finding an NFL-ready offensive lineman in the upcoming draft will be difficult. Given the various innovations that have shaped college football over the past decade, fewer offensive linemen are coming into the league ready to handle professional defenses.

“Collegiately, guys coming out in the draft, there’s a long way to go,” Dimitroff said. “… But the way that they’re going to continue to improve, and expeditiously improve is by being on the field. You can’t just tuck them away for a year, maybe like in the past, that’s not how it works right now.

“I love the fact that we are open to playing those young guys. We think there are some legitimate individuals both in free agency and in the draft, so we’ll see where we go.”

The Falcons have some young offensive linemen on the roster who have taken their lumps in games during recent years. Sambrailo is one such player, and guard Wes Schweitzer is another. Both players have improved, but it’s up to the team to decide whether they are comfortable with slotting either or both into a starting spot.

With nine picks in this year’s NFL Draft, the Falcons have a variety of different paths they could take. Now more than ever, teams seem to eschew conventional wisdom in an effort to get a leg up on the competition.

“Old-time theory was, never,” Dimitroff said of taking a guard in the first round. “You would never take a guard that early. And now, you’ve seen the change over this wave, probably over the last 10 years … I’m a lot more open to that now than I ever would have been … I think things have changed and most people understand that there are some really good O-linemen out there.”

If solidifying the offensive line is a priority for the Falcons this offseason, there are a few different ways the team could go about it. Dimitroff understands the importance of protecting his franchise quarterback, but the solution might rely on patience and development rather than a draft-night miracle.

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Hardman performed pass-catching and agility drills in front of a host of Falcons’ coaches and scouts, including special teams coach Ben Kotwica. It has been an annual occurrence for the local NFL franchise to make the 42-mile drive to Athens, but it hasn’t amounted to much in recent years (which has drawn its fair share of ire from the fan base). Atlanta hasn’t drafted a Georgia product since Akeem Dent in the third round, but this could be a match in the making.

There’s a reasoning that’s fairly cut-and-dry, Hardman said: “It’s their need and that’s what I do.” He’s correct, and that’s justified by Hardman’s explosiveness during his collegiate days as he was a threat to score a return touchdown on nearly any opportunity. The Falcons have an obvious need at the position, and Dimitroff isn’t hesitant to admit it.

“We know he can fly,” Dimitroff said. “He’s another versatile guy who can not only catch the ball and run routes, but he can do some damage as a return guy.”

Atlanta non-tendered wide receiver Marvin Hall, who was the team’s kick returner. Justin Hardy, a fourth-round draftee out of East Carolina in 2015, wasn’t resigned after spending the 2018 season as the Falcons’ punt returner. Hall was adequate with an average of 23.7 yards per return, but Hardy was unable to be a difference-maker for the 7-9 Falcons as he averaged 7.4 yards and a long return of only 18 yards.

Nevertheless, those talents are scratched from the roster and vacancies are present. Atlanta signed Kenjon Barner on March 14, but has bounced around the league and his highlight of the 2018 season was being pancaked by Falcons’ punter Matt Bosher as a member of the Carolina Panthers.

“(Barner is) more of a kickoff return guy,” Dimitroff said. “We feel like we have a couple of guys we can mix in there without getting into too much detail. Draft wise, there are some interesting guys out there.”

Atlanta has one area checked, maybe, and its second could be filled with a mid-round addition in Hardman. He fits the interesting label, after all. As a well-liked player by both fan bases, Hardman’s speed is what flashes. He recorded a 40-yard dash at 4.33 seconds at the combine, and chose not to run at pro day although he thought that blazing number could’ve been topped.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and NFL personnel alike are cautious to fully place stock in the time-based statistics, and that can be true for Elijah Holyfield and Isaac Nauta as they posted slower-than-expected times in the dash. It can be about game tape for some, but Hardman’s speed could be what lands him on a roster.

That can be seen by a stopwatch or on the highlight reel. Hardman averaged over 20 yards on each punt return and kick return as a departing junior. He added 543 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to that tally.

How does that translate professionally?

“That’s crazy to think about,” fellow wide receiver Jayson Stanley said. “He’s going to be something different. I don’t think the NFL has seen that speed. I know for a fact he’s going to take off immediately.”

As Hardman comes closer to hearing his name called, he is questioned about a position change after the 2016 season. He came to Georgia from Elbert County as a five-star defensive back, and even played quarterback in high school. Hardman was sidelined for most of his freshman year as he tried to develop, then had his two seasons to flash at wide receiver.

“They see the potential, and I don’t think it’s really a big issue,” Hardman said. “They’ve seen two years of film, combine and pro day. They see that I can (play receiver).”

Most mock drafts project Hardman to be chosen between the third and fifth rounds. That’s the case with most of his former teammates who decided to leave the program early. He’s not focused on where people believe he may be drafted, however, as his priority is being drafted period.

Stanley believed Hardman translates to that of Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill — a player who has wreaked havoc across the league as a receiver and on special teams’ units. He may also translate to former Bulldog Isaiah McKenzie who flashed for the Denver Broncos as a former fifth-round draft pick. But as the NFL evolves into featuring more speed-like talent, that list grows.

“You see Mecole Hardmans all over the league,” Smart said. “He has been elite from a special teams standpoint, and still think he has great upside at the wide receiver position. He will flourish at the next level, but he hasn’t even reached his full potential.”

There are pieces that lineup to make the addition a logical one, and many Falcons’ fans would be in favor of following a beloved player. As the Falcons intently watched the Bulldogs, there was also impression from the other side.

Atlanta’s obvious target was cornerback Deandre Baker, who is projected to be a first-round draft pick and called it a “dream come true” if drafted by the Falcons. Hardman creates intrigue, however, and the Falcons have a history of drafting two players from the same university — Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley Jr. out of Clemson in 2015.

It’ll be seen in about a month whether a simple handshake between Hardman and the Falcons’ decision-maker has any meaning.

“It’d be nice, for sure,” Hardman said.

Matt Ryan Jersey

The Atlanta Falcons kicked off the 2019 offseason by placing the franchise tag on defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. According to Will Brison of CBS Sports, the Falcons and Grady Jarrett are far apart on terms of a new contract. He also believes there is a good chance that Grady will hold out if he doesn’t receive the long-term contract that he desires. Take a look at the article for yourself here.

Now that Grady Jarrett is under the franchise tag, he will command a salary of 15.57 million dollars. The entirety of the his 2019 salary will count against the Atlanta Falcons cap, should the team be unable to work out a long deal with Jarrett. This is problematic for the team, as it will restrict the front office’s ability to sign a high level free agent.

The contract extension that star quarterback Matt Ryan signed last offseason kicks in this year. His cap number was scheduled increase from 17.7 million in 2018, to 22.8 million in 2019. However just recently, Matt Ryan adjusted his contact to receive more of his money up front in a signing bonus. This move saved the Falcons seven million dollars.

The Atlanta Falcons also cut former starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder who played college ball at Valdosta State University in South Georgia, lost his starting job to Ty Sambrailo late last season. He was cut with a post June 1 designation, allowing Atlanta to save nearly 6.5 million dollars in cap space. Atlanta has used the savings from the aforementioned moves, to shore up a few spots on the offensive side of the roster. Guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown are the most notable players signed in free agency. They certainly add size to the team, but I questioned rather they are truly an upgrade performance wise in this article.

Backup tight end Luke Stocker is another addition to the offense. He adds versatility with the ability to double as a full back. Kit Anderson of Atl All Day covered the signing here. Kejon Barner adds speed and depth at the running back position and gives the Dirty Birds another option in the return game. Additionally the Falcons resigned their own incumbent free agents, such as right tackle Ty Sambrailo, wide receiver Justin Hardy, tight end Logan Paulsen and quarterback Matt Schaub.

Defensively the Atlanta Falcons have not done much, besides retaining a couple their own free agents. The team has resigned defensive end Steven Means and linebacker Bruce Carter. They also decided to honor the 12.8 million dollar fifth year option on edge rusher Vic Beasley, a move I called a mistake in this article. Paying Beasley is the other major reason Atlanta is struggling to find cap space this offseason. The return of injured players such as free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal, along with a full season of Deion Jones should help the Dirty Birds defense return to top ten form, despite the lack in free agent reinforcements.

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Having a healthy Devonta Freeman back in the lineup should help.

“He’s doing well. I’m excited to get him back in the mix,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He’s a factor in the run game for sure based on his slashing style but he’s also a really good receiver. He’s one of those guys who has a lot to prove and heading into the season that’s a good thing. [I told him] his lost year, make it matter.”

The Falcons finished with the No. 27th ranked rushing offense in 2018 averaging 98.3 yards per game.

With Freeman sidelined for majority of the year, Tevin Coleman and rookie Ito Smith were tasked with carrying the load for the Falcons. Coleman has been a consistent offensive weapon for Atlanta over the past four seasons.

In 2018, Coleman rushed for 800 yards on 167 carries.

As one of the players who is scheduled to become a free agent when the new league year begins on March 13, the market for Coleman might be too high for the Falcons to be able to keep him given the five-year extension Freeman was given before the 2017 season.

“Tevin Coleman is a really good football player,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He did some great things for us this year. Of course, it’s never easy to have two running backs that are going to be in the market at a high-level money wise. Tevin is going to do well wherever he is, whether he is with us or whether he goes somewhere else.”

If the Falcons aren’t able to keep Coleman, Smith showed he’s capable of being a No. 2 option at running back. On 90 carries, Smith rushed for 315 yards.

“He’s certainly showed he’s capable of that,” Quinn said of Smith.

Quinn did hint that if the Falcons aren’t able to keep Coleman on their roster, they’ll be in the market to add a running back or two to compete with Smith.

With nine draft picks, running back could certainly be a position the Falcons target in the mid-to-late rounds based off what happens in free agency.

“If that takes place, then they’ll definitely be other guys we’ll put in the mix to compete with him,” Quinn said.

Regardless of what happens with Coleman and what Smith brings to the table, there’s no denying the impact Freeman makes on the field when healthy.

Freeman played in just two games in the 2018 season before being placed on injured reserve. In the two games he was able to start, he rushed for 68 yards on 14 carries.

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ATHENS —

The Falcons say they are in a good place with Julio Jones’ contract situation and plan to continue to negotiate with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who received the team’s $15.2 million franchise tag.

The Falcons have until July 12 to reach an extension with Jarrett. There is no timeline on the Jones’ deal.

“We’ll continue to talk with both Julio and his representation,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We’ve have had really good conversations with them. There is no particular time on that. I’m not concerned about it, nor is he. We’ll get that figured out.”

Oakland drove up the wide receiver market with the new guarantees they gave wide receiver Antonio Brown after he forced his way out of Pittsburgh.

“I know there is interest because of everything that’s going on with all of the receivers in the league,” Dimitroff said. “There are big numbers (being) talked about and a big situation there. Look, we feel good with our communications there.”

Brown received a three-year, $50.1 million deal with, $30.1 million guaranteed.
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The Chiefs were ready to bestow a lucrative contract on Tyreek Hill, but that was before the recent domestic situation was discovered.

“That’s the market, right,” Dimitroff said. “I think you have to be very cognizant of the market when you’re a general manager and a head coach, as a co-team builder, you have to be very aware of it.

“We can all be back on our heels on it, but the reality is the reality. It makes things more interesting when you are putting together a team with some really high paid players. Of course, when you have a quarterback that you are paying well and other players on our team, we know that we have a high paid group and we are going to continue to keep them around because we think they are worth it.”

It’s possible Jarrett could play the season on the franchise tag.

“As far as Grady, we of course have franchise tagged him and that’s where we are at this point,” Dimitroff said. “You can negotiate that all the way up to before training camp, so we have time to continue to discuss (the situation).”