The 2012 Atlanta Falcons may appear predominately the same as the 2011 Atlanta Falcons. Thomas Dimitroff sat back during free agency, watching big names such as Mario Williams and our own Curtis Lofton sign elsewhere. Instead Dimitroff went low-key, giving some reasonable contracts to a good, if inconsistent, free safety Thomas DeCoud, the speedy Harry Douglas, as well as special teams ace, mediocre pass rusher, and reality-TV squatter Kroy Biermann.
The changes will be based around Atlanta's offseason prize, after Dimitroff bamboozled the Eagles for Asante Samuel. Fans will potentially see a good bit of Lofa Tatupu at Lofton's old position as well. The remaining additions from late in the draft, as well as the undrafted free agents, are unlikely to see the field in 2012 outside of special teams.
The biggest change will help complement our change in personnel. Falcons new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has said previously that he expects the base defense to include an extra defensive back, assumably meaning we will see Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes, and Dunta Robinson on the field together for the majority of the defensive snaps.
NFL offenses have grown increasingly pass-heavy, in case you missed the Saints game last year in Atlanta, which has necessitated (at least) five starting-caliber defensive backs to counteract the pass game. We may have all seen Lofton attempting to cover far too often last year, which is likely one of the reasons he is not here this year. Perhaps for that reason, Dimitroff grew tired of waiting for a nickel back to develop and instead traded for four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel. Sorry Chris Owens and Dominique Franks.
Samuel will take the left corner back spot, moving Grimes to the right side and Robinson down to nickel. This remains a formidable starting secondary, along with big hitter William Moore and DeCoud. The man with 45 career interceptions, Samuel, clearly has some sway, as he gets his preferred position, with our other corners switching positions.
After originally signing Robinson in 2010, there were rumblings that Atlanta wanted to move Robinson to the nickel in obvious passing situations. This was likely hurt by the Falcons not having much of anyone to replace him at outside corner. So moving Robinson to nickel may not be as extreme as it sounds, despite his sizable salary. In fact, Robinson said as much earlier this week.
While he never excelled in the nickel position in Houston, nor does he seem like a good fit in the nickel, Robinson will likely hope to show he deserves the next year of his contract, which has very little guaranteed money, by playing at a Pro Bowl level at nickel. Anything short of that will allow Robinson to find a new team for significantly less money in the next offseason. The fact of the matter is Robinson is being paid far too much money to play nickel, especially if he struggles at that position.
This may be the biggest change, as far as personnel is concerned, as former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder enjoyed the base 4-3 defense perhaps too much. Perhaps the lack of a quality nickel back made him uneasy in removing a starting linebacker, but VanGorder always seemed to sell out the pass in order to stop the run. Sure, it worked. Atlanta has been proficient in stopping the run while being abysmal against the pass. With three starting-worthy cornerbacks, expect to see all three on the field for a vast majority of the defensive snaps, considering Atlanta probably has the most expensive cornerback trio in the league.
Also important is Tatupu, who has been starting over Akeem Dent so far in OTAs. Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowler, was having a fantastic bounce-back season in 2010 before having a pretty horrible looking knee injury. After sitting out last year, Tatupu figures to make a big push for starting reps after sitting out last year, and will certainly be a big improvement in pass coverage over Lofton. Dent figures to be more of the run-stuffer type, and I could certainly see Tatupu and Dent receiving reps depending upon the game situation. However, the winner will likely be on the field for limited snaps with the coaching staff putting additional emphasis on the secondary and budding third-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
With this twinkering of the roster, as well as new defensive ideas from Nolan, expect to see a different defense on the field than we have seen the past four years under VanGorder.
Get more great Atlanta Falcons news and analysis over at The Grits Blitz.