Defensive front seven personnel was a top priority entering free agency Tuesday, but the angle taken to upgrade by the Atlanta Falcons was a bit of a surprise.
In the opening hour of the free agent signing period, defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai agreed to terms with the Falcons on multi-year contracts. The initial implication is the Falcons didn't just add great size -- Atlanta added experienced, productive foundation pieces for a shift to a 3-4 defense.
While general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated this week the Falcons would be "more multiple" adding the wide-bodied Soliai with a $14.5 million guarantee as part of a five-year, $33 million contract and Jackson, a two-gap defender drafted by assistant general manager Scott Pioli as the third overall pick out of LSU. He signed a five-year, $25 million deal.
The moves were part of a flurry of activity to kick off free agency. Offensive guard Jon Asamoah, another former Pioli draft pick, agreed to terms Tuesday.
"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines and I feel we were able to accomplish that," Dimitroff said. "We believe that Paul and Tyson will add stoutness and grittiness to our defensive front and will help in the run game. Jon is a solid offensive lineman that has started 41 games during his four-year career that will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front."
Atlanta kept defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux with a three-year deal worth $9 million and $4 million guaranteed in 2014 and retained offensive lineman Joe Hawley on a two-year contract extension. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Babineaux (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) was selected by the Falcons in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Iowa. He has played in 138 career games with 108 starts including all 16 games in each of the last two seasons.
Eventually, head coach Mike Smith claimed coordinator Mike Nolan will be doing the same thing he's been doing.
Said Smith, "I think we're going to be what we've been much like in the last couple of years: very multiple. When you start talking about 3-4, 4-3, they're very similar in principles. You line up on a 4-3 in a base down, you slide your tackle in and under and over defense. You line up in a 3-4 and slide your tackle over you're in an over defense. You slide him under, you're in an under defense.
"We're going to play with 11 players on the field and we're going to be very multiple. Mike Nolan has got a background - probably half and half - 50 percent of the time he's been based out of a 3-4 and based out of a 4-3. The thing that I think people don't realize is that the game has become substitutional defense. About 65 to 75 percent of large snaps have been in sub defense where you're playing with five defensive backs. There are more snaps with five defensive backs than four. That nickel back is more of a starter than your fourth linebacker or your third linebacker. The multiplicity and the complexity of the game have changed. You very rarely see the same formations offensively."
--The NFL announced each team's preseason schedule without precise dates or times, except for national TV games and the final preseason week in which all games will be on Thurs. Aug. 28. Week 1 games are Aug. 7-10, Week 2 Aug. 14-18 and Week 3 Aug. 21-24.
The Falcons will play at home against Miami in Week 1 and Tennessee in Week 3, while going on the road to play Houston in Week 2 and Jacksonville in Week 4.
--Mark Collins, who has been a defensive assistant for the past four seasons, was promoted to outside linebackers coach, the team announced on Monday.
The Falcons also added Andrew Thacker as a defensive assistant.
"We are pleased to promote Mark to outside linebacker coach," said Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith in a statement released by the team. "He has proved to be a valuable part of our coaching staff the last four seasons and we are confident that he will continue to help develop our outside linebackers. Andrew is a young coach who has experience in major college football and we feel he will be an asset to our staff."
Thacker, a native of Cartersville who played safety at Gainesville High and Furman, was the safeties coach at Southern Mississippi last season. He previously coached at Oklahoma State and Central Florida.
CHURCH MOVES FOR STADIUM: After 53 years at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Northside Drives in downtown Atlanta, Mount Vernon Baptist Church held its final service there Sunday morning.
It was a three-plus hour event marked by sad exit processional in which the 200 or so who attended followed the Rev. R.K. Turner down the center aisle and out of the sanctuary, never to return.
Mount Vernon's congregation last September voted to approve a $14.5 million agreement to vacate, clearing the way for the Falcons to build on the land, which is located just south of the Georgia Dome where they now play.
A second, older, historic black church, Friendship Baptist, which sits just across the street from Mount Vernon, sold for $19.5 million, and also will move.
--Peria Jerry was selected with the 24th pick in 2009, two picks before the Green Bay Packers selected Clay Matthews III. While Jerry battled injuries, Matthews turned into a four-time Pro Bowler and was the Sporting News' defensive player of the year in 2010.
After coming back from the knee injury, Jerry played sparingly in 2010.
The Falcons' position of not announcing details of injuries helped fuel the perception that Jerry's has been a bust. In the second game of his career he suffered what was described as a "severe" injury. But the details were never forthcoming.
In 2010, he played about 30 percent of the snaps, but was inconsistent. The following season he started four of the 16 games that he played in. In 2012, he started nine of 14 games as he played some defensive end when the Falcons were in a 3-4.
Last season, he played 678 snaps, had 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Jerry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wanted to return after becoming a free agent.
"Whatever happens, happens," Jerry said. "You (don't) have any control over that. Really, we are just playing it by ear to see what happens. There is nothing that you can do about it. That's the people upstairs' decision.
"I started here and would love to stay here."
That was accomplished when he re-signed March 19.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Falcons signed record-setting return specialist Devin Hester to a three-year contract.
Hester, the NFL's all-time leader with 13 career punt return touchdowns and total kick return touchdowns (18), was not re-signed after eight seasons with the Chicago Bears.
Robert McClain led the Falcons with a 10.2-yard average on 19 punt returns last season, while Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 23 yards as the primary kickoff returner. By comparison, Hester holds a 12.3-yard career punt return average and 24.8 on kickoffs.
Despite turning 31 last November, Hester enjoyed a strong 2013 season with a 14.2-yard punt return average and 27.6 on kickoffs, both well above his career averages.
Including a 108-yard return off a missed field goal, Hester has 19 overall return touchdowns, tied with Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders for the most in regular-season history. Including his 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI, Hester's 20 return scores including the postseason is an NFL record.
Hester, who had a career-high 57-receptions in 2009 and has 217 catches during his career, did not play offense for Chicago in 2013 after seeing his reception totals decline for four three consecutive seasons.
--TIGHT END: The Falcons released tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is set to retire and join the TV booth next season. They don't have an experienced tight end on the roster.
--FREE SAFETY: Thomas DeCoud was also released. His poor angles and lack of toughness will no longer be tolerated. The Falcons will sift through the leftovers in free agency to find a replacement.
--OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Both tackles, Sam Baker and Mike Johnson, are coming back from surgery. The team is in prime draft country to land a great tackle prospect.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--TE Chase Coffman played in 10 games last season and won't be re-signed.
--CB Dominique Franks was a contributor on special teams and provided depth in the secondary. He's young and has experience as a nickel back.
--LB Omar Gaither was signed as insurance last season as the team took on injuries at the linebacker spot. He may be a valuable veteran reserve.
--T Sean Locklear was signed as insurance last season, but never saw the field. He's not likely to return.
--T Jeremy Trueblood started 10 of 15 games last season, but the team is looking to upgrade the position. He is not expected to return.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--WR Drew Davis (tendered $570,000) was a valuable reserve who will compete for a backup spot in training camp.
--S Jonathan Babineaux: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--C/G Joe Hawley: Potential UFA; $6.5M/2 yrs, $3M guaranteed.
--LB Justin Hickman: Potential ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Peria Jerry: UFA; terms unknown.
--T/G Mike Johnson: Potential RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Robert McClain: RFA tendered at $1.431M with 7th-round pick as compensation); $1.431M/1 yr.
--DT Corey Peters: Potential UFA; $1M/1 yr.
--CB Javier Arenas: UFA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--G Jon Asamoah: UFA Chiefs; $22.5M/5 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--OL Gabe Carimi: FA Buccaneers; $850,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--WR/KR Devin Hester: UFA Bears; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Tyson Jackson: UFA Chiefs: $25M/5 yrs.
--S Dwight Lowery: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Paul Soliai: UFA Dolphins; $33M/5 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--CB Josh Wilson: UFA Redskins; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Kevin Cone: Not tendered as ERFA/Dolphins; terms unknown.
--S Thomas DeCoud (released/post-June 1 designation)
--FB Bradie Ewing (released).
--TE Tony Gonzalez (retired).
--LB Stephen Nicholas (released).
--G Garrett Reynolds (released).
--CB Asante Samuel (released).
--RB Jason Snelling (retired).
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- the Falcons
- Jonathan Babineaux
- Tyson Jackson
- Paul Soliai
- Atlanta Falcons