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Falcons Got Big Head Start on 2017 Free Agency

On March 9 at 4 p.m. ET, all NFL player contracts signed through 2016 will expire, officially signaling the start of free agency. Giant contracts will be doled out. Some teams will overhaul their rosters. And veterans will move their families across the country to begin the next chapter in their careers.

Atlanta will make some moves when the new league year begins (re-signing Falcons on expiring contracts will be a priority, according to general manager Thomas Dimitroff), but it's crucial to remember the team's free agency haul began months ago – in November, to be exact.

When the 2016 campaign began, Ryan Schraeder and Robert Alford were among those slated to enter the open market this spring. By inking Schraeder to a five-year deal, and Alford to a four-year pact, the Falcons secured a couple of important positions on their depth chart. And they kept two key members of their Super Bowl run in tow.

Schraeder, despite going undrafted in 2013, has become one of the best right tackles in football. His run blocking in Atlanta's outside zone scheme has been particularly strong: During the regular season, the Falcons gained a league-high 7.45 yards per carry when rushing behind the RT, according to NFL Game Stats and Information.

Schraeder has been durable, too, starting every game in the last two years and averaging 14.5 games per season over the course of his pro career.

"He's a big part of it," head coach Dan Quinn said about Schraeder's place on the offensive line. "The toughness that he plays with – we totally rely on him both in the run game and the pass game. The development that he's done over the last three years really set the stage for himself to be here for an extended time. … We're so pumped that he's going to be a part of it for a long time."

Alford, who emerged as a starter in 2014, has become one of the club's fiercest competitors, one who learned from adversity and improved substantially. After taking eight penalties in the first six games of 2016, officials flagged him just four more times during the regular season.

Overall, eight quarterbacks earned passer ratings below 60 when throwing at the Southeastern Louisiana product last year. One such player was Tom Brady, who fired a pick-six to Alford in the first half of Super Bowl LI. That wasn't the only big play Alford made in Houston: He also broke up two passes and allowed six catches on 11 targets.

"It's the speed that he plays with out on the outside and the ability to match up on different guys," Quinn said when asked what makes Alford valuable to the defense. "We like the combination that we do with he and Desmond Trufant where they can both play outside. He's got the versatility to also play nickel and that's a big thing for he and Tru where they don't always know where a guy's going to be and how we'll matchup on players.

"It's the speed, No. 1, that sets him off where just over the last few weeks we've matched him up on some guys that can absolutely fly. I think that's a real example for him, too. He's had a real awareness for the football in terms of going after it and having a ball hawking mentality so those two things probably are the tops."

Extending Trufant is now at the top of Atlanta's offseason list. Locking up the Pro Bowler will go a long way towards getting the Falcons back to Super Bowl contention. And it'd go a long way toward solidifying their free agency class, which, thanks to some aggressiveness on Dimitroff's part, has been in the works since before Thanksgiving.

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