The Atlanta Falcons appear to have devolved from annual contender to rebuilder in the span of just one season. The guess here is that general manager Thomas Dimitroff still views his squad as one that can reclaim the NFC South title with a series of touch-ups via free agency and the draft. The offseason process has already begun with the releases of veterans Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas to free up salary-cap space. Although Tony Gonzalez's retirement will create a void at tight end, it will also give Dimitroff more flexibility to play the market. Julio Jones' return will more than make up for the future Hall of Famer's absence.
» DT Jonathan Babineaux: The 32-year-old has been Atlanta's best defensive player over the past two years, which is sort of like being the top quarterback in Jacksonville. Babineaux has spent his entire career with the Falcons, and both sides have expressed an interest in re-upping for a few more years. He's been one of the NFL's underrated interior linemen.
»*DT Corey Peters:* After struggling in 2012, Peters rivaled Babineaux as the team's premier run-stuffer until tearing his Achilles in late December. Facing an offseason of rehab, Peters likely will be forced to sign a one-year, make-good contract to re-enter the open market at age 26 next season.
What they need
The Falcons desperately need competition or an upgrade at three spots on the offensive line, in addition to Gonzalez's successor at tight end. The rest of the needs are on the other side of the ball where pass rushing takes precedence. At least two impact edge rushers are needed on the defensive line. With Samuel already gone and Thomas DeCoud a potential cap casualty, reinforcements are needed in the secondary as well.
On the way out?
Offseason crystal ball
Lucking into Jadeveon Clowney in the draft would be a boon to the ailing defense. Potential free-agent fits include Georgia Tech alum Michael Johnson, Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and one of a half-dozen impact offensive linemen available. Outside of the Jones blockbuster, Dimitroff hasn't had a good draft class since his 2008 debut. With a bevy of compensatory picks and cap space this year, the pressure is on the two-time NFL Executive of the Year to regain his magic touch and turn the franchise around.