COMMENTARY | When Tony Gonzalez scored a second-quarter touchdown in the Atlanta Falcons' 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, he proceeded to do something inexplicable and out-of-character. Instead of summarily dunking the pigskin through the uprights, as he usually does, he elected to just keep the ball and carry it with him to the sidelines for safe keeping. The thought immediately crossed my mind that this subtle, largely unnoticed action was his way of silently recognizing the light at the end of his career tunnel.
With only three games left to go in the Atlanta's miserable 2013 season, there is no guarantee the future Hall of Famer will make it back to pay dirt before the final curtain closes. If I'm right, and Gonzalez wanted to make sure he kept a souvenir to commemoration his possible last moment in the sun, then that all but closes the book on the idea of him returning for one final (one final) season.
Gonzalez won't be the only change to this roster. The Falcons' front office is going to have a lot of decisions to make if they want to quickly revert this team back to the Super Bowl contender it once was.
Technically, the Falcons have the three-time Pro Bowler locked up for two more seasons, but, after the injury-plagued sub-par performance he gave in 2013; Atlanta could just consider cutting their losses and release him after only one season in the ATL.
Jackson signed a three-year, $12 million contract before this season began, but only $4 million of that salary is guaranteed, making it possible for the Falcons to simply walk away from the remaining two years of his contract.
Jackson has shown some signs of life in the last two games, rushing for 84 yards and 71 yards respectively; however, he will be 31-years-old before the 2014 season begins, and he is currently producing his lowest yards per carry (3.7) of his entire 10-year career.
The problem is that if Jackson is not the answer next season, who is? The list of valuable free agent backs is short, and potentially costly. The Houston Texans' Ben Tate, Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and Detroit Lions' Joique Bell would be the names at the top of most team's free-agent wish list. But are any of those players really a better option than Jackson? Atlanta would only be on the hook for $3 million to bring him back and see if he can get healthy enough to produce like they expected him to in 2013.
High Draft Pick
If we consider this year a quick one-off that will be forgotten just as soon as the closing bell sounds on the season, then fans should be very excited about the possibility of 2014. Not only will Atlanta get back injured stars Julio Jones, Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann, the team's poor play will also produce a highly-touted prospect at the top of the NFL Draft board.
Currently, the Falcons have the second-worst record in all of football. With other terrible teams likely vying for quarterback help at the top of the draft, the Falcons should be able to target the exact player they want.
Defensive Help: Atlanta ranks No. 30 in the NFL at stopping the run, so they may chose to go after South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr or Norte Dame's Louis Nix to fill their need.
Trading Back: Since the Falcons are still a Super Bowl contender when healthy, they may not like the idea of having to pay a prospect at the top of the draft. They could use their supreme draft position to start auctioning off their spot to the teams that may what to jump other clubs for a chance at Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or Fresno State's Derek Carr. In 2012, the St. Louis Rams received three first-round picks and one second-round pick by trading the No. 2 overall pick to the Washington Redskins - a pick later used to select Robert Griffin III.
Trading back in the draft could allow Atlanta to accumulate more picks while still begin able to fill needs. Defensive players such as Clemson's Vic Beasley or Ohio State's Ryan Shazier will be available at the back end of the first round, and this draft class will be very heavy on offense line prospects (no pun intended). Michigan's Taylor Lewan or Florida State's Cameron Erving could become difference makers for a team that has only averaged 81.2 rushing yards per game, while also allowing Matt Ryan to be sacked 31 times already this season.
Locking Up Current Players
Although this season has felt like a bad dream from which fans are unable to wake, there have been a couple of bright spots. Harry Douglas emerged as a true pass-catching weapon in this offense, recording career highs in receptions (68) and yards (926). Atlanta still has him under contract for two more seasons, but now may be the time to lock him down to a team-friendly long-term deal before he demands significantly more on the open market.
While Douglas will definitely be back next season, Atlanta has two important free agents they need to re-sign. Jonathan Babineaux and Robert McClain will both become unrestricted free agents in the offseason and will garner significant interest from other teams. At 32, Babineaux will likely be in line for a similar deal to the $5 million per season he has averaged over the last five seasons, but McClain, 25, will need a nice salary bump from the $555,000 he made in 2013 if Atlanta hopes to retain him.
The Falcons have a great opportunity to turn their luck back around in only one year, but it will all come down to the decisions they make this offseason.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Falcons since they first started playing games inside the Georgia Dome. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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