<
>

Thomas Dimitroff: Protecting MVP Matt Ryan in mind during free agency

With offensive lineman Chris Chester becoming a free agent and getting up there in age, the Falcons will look to upgrade. Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff stressed focusing on enhancing both the offensive and defensive lines as the team digs into free agency this week.

Dimitroff, appearing on the "Know Them From Adam" podcast with ESPN's Adam Schefter, was asked about his approach toward free agency.

"We need to continue to work on both sides of both fronts," Dimitroff said. "That's going to be really important for us to continue to build to put more pressure on (opposing) quarterbacks. We need to continue to make sure we're protecting Matt Ryan and continue to create the offensive line that's going to protect him and allow him to continue to be prolific as a quarterback and to have a prolific offense.

"We just feel like we need to continue to get the right fits on the O and D lines, get the right fits in certain skill positions that are going to continue to fortify this team."

The Falcons were the only team in the league to go with the same five starters on the offensive line the entire season. However, 34-year-old veteran Chris Chester, who started all 32 regular-season games and all three playoff contests at right guard the last two seasons, is unsure about a return as he is set to become a free agent. Even if Chester decides to continue playing, the Falcons seem likely to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft -- or both -- with Chester's legs, of course, not what they used to be. And it's unknown whether Wes Schweitzer, a sixth-round draft pick from last year, or Ben Garland, a restricted free agent who has played on both the offensive and defensive lines, can be the right guard of the future.

In terms of the defensive line, the Falcons appear ready to re-sign versatile Courtney Upshaw to a low-cost deal for depth. They looked into defensive tackle Earl Mitchell before Mitchell signed a four-year, $16 million deal with San Francisco. The Falcons might not re-sign seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney despite Freeney expressing a desire to continue playing. And veteran defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Tyson Jackson likely won't be in the team's plans moving forward, with Babineaux heading toward free agency and Jackson expected to be released if not brought back at a cheaper price.

Dimitroff emphasized once again how he feels the team doesn't have any glaring holes coming off the Super Bowl run. The Falcons enter free agency with about $15.266 million in cap space, according to NFLPA figures and based on Gabriel's tender.

Although Dimitroff said a general manager has to "have an open mind and be flexible" going into free agency, he didn't sound like a guy ready to overspend on one specific player.

"The reality is, we're going to be very focused on our present roster," Dimitroff said. "This is going to be one of those years; we've already signed a guy like Robert Alford, one of our corners, to a substantial contract, and we feel comfortable with him. We have Desmond Trufant coming up and we will have that secured in the relatively near future. That's going to be s significant contract, of course, and he's a legitimate contributor to our defensive corps, so we're excited about having him back.

"And there are a number of other positions on this team, players on this team, that are up as free agents that we'll definitely secure or hope to secure. And then we'll face what's out there in free agency."

Besides Upshaw, fullback Patrick DiMarco, tight end Levine Toilolo, and safety Kemal Ishmael are playing the Falcons are negotiating with for a return. Starting free safety Ricardo Allen, an exclusive rights free agent, was tendered on Tuesday, although Allen has yet to sign the one-year, $615,000 tender. And wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, a restricted free agent, will receive a second-round tender at $2.746 million for next season.