Falcons use offseason to add toughness and a little flair


The first day of free agency was a positively epic one in Atlanta. How impressive it was in terms of quality obviously remains to be seen, but the quantity of work done by general manager Thomas Dimitroff was second to none. The trio of newcomers he inked right away on March 11 featured guard Jon Asamoah, defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai.

Those signings have to be attributed at least in part to assistant general manager Scott Pioli, former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, who was hired by the Falcons in November. Pioli and Dimitroff wasted no time raiding his former team, as both Asamoah and Jackson came from Kansas City. The Chiefs selected Asamoah in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft. In four seasons, the University of Illinois product made 41 starts at right guard and last year he helped the Chiefs average 337.3 yards per game (128.5 on the ground). Jackson’s stock was at its peak in 2009, when the former LSU Tiger went off the board third overall to Kansas City. Although he never entirely lived up to expectations there, Jackson started 55 of his 74 games during five seasons with the Chiefs.

Soliai also came from the AFC, having spent the first seven seasons of his career in Miami—including two years and one Pro Bowl appearance with current Atlanta defensive co- ordinator Mike Nolan at the helm of the Dolphins’ defense. A hulking presence at 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds, the Samoan attended the University of Utah before being selected by the Dolphins in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. Soliai has made 62 starts in his 99-game professional career.

“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 will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front.”


Ruggedness may be one of the top priorities for the Falcons this offseason, but it has not stopped them from pursuing other avenues. One week into free agency, they made their most high-profile splash with a player of a much different ilk. Atlanta signed special-teams legend Devin Hester, without a doubt one of the most electrifying kick returners in the history of the NFL.

Drafted by Chicago in the second round in 2006, Hester now finds himself as the record- holder for most punt return touchdowns in NFL history with 13. Last year, he tied the record for most return touchdowns (punt and kickoff combined) with his 19th such score. The University of Miami alum is the only player in NFL history to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown (XLI vs. Indianapolis). Hester also lined up on offense for the Bears, recording 217 receptions for 2,807 yards and 14 touchdowns.

He could on occasion be featured in any number of formations to give the Falcons’ offensive attack an extra dimension.

“Atlanta, at the end of the day, was the team that showed the most interest,” Hester said in a Q&A with the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter. “It’s a winning program. I looked at them as a team that I know is going to have a good season. Last year was a little down- fall for these guys because injuries occurred. This is a playoff team without any injuries.”

Hester added that 2014 is “a big chance for us” and he plans on “making the playoffs and hopefully competing for the Super Bowl.”

A big step would be taken in that direction if the Falcons can get improved play in the secondary. In that effort, Dimitroff’s two April transactions saw him add safety Dwight Lowery and cornerback Josh Wilson. Lowery, a sixth- year pro after being selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, started three games last season with Jacksonville before being placed on injured reserve due to a concussion. Wilson, a second-round pick by Seattle in 2006, has a knack for the game-changing play. At just 5-foot-9, he has 14 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries, nine forced fumbles and five sacks during a career that includes 102 games and 81 starts. Last year in Washington, he started all 16 games and posted a career- high 93 tackles to go along with two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.


Perhaps just as important as the new additions, a trio of Falcons re-upped with the or-ganization before testing the open market. De- fensive tackle Corey Peters signed a one-year contract extension earlier in the month before the Falcons’ March 11 frenzy began. Only a few hours before they would have become unrestricted free agents at a 4:00 p.m. deadline, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and center Joe Hawley re-signed with Atlanta.

Retaining Babineaux was especially critical for the Falcons, who still need address their defensive line in the draft even after bringing back Babineaux. Selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, the former University of Iowa standout has made 108 starts—including all 32 in each of the last two regular seasons. He made 37 solo tackles in 2013 in addition to a sack and two fumble recoveries.

“I started my NFL career nine years ago as an Atlanta Falcon and I am happy to announce that I am continuing as a proud member of the Atlanta Falcons family,” read a statement released by Babineaux. “Remaining an Atlanta Falcon and in Atlanta as my home were the best decisions for me and my family. Thanks to my family, friends, fans, the press for your support. See you at camp and the games soon!”

Given what the Falcons have done in free agency, their favorable position in the upcom- ing NFL Draft (No. 6 overall) and their expectations to have dynamic receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White back at 100 percent next season, Babineaux cannot be the only one looking forward to training camp and the start of the 2014 campaign. It could be filled with a whole lot of excitement and, more importantly, a whole lot of winning.

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