NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

The fun behind mock drafts is opinions can change on a daily basis.

Such has been the case this year with mixed opinions about the quarterback class as well as the top pass-rushers.

Everyone, however, seems to agree South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the most physically gifted and dominating player in the draft, which is why he should be the No. 1 overall pick. But until the Houston Texans actually come out and declare Clowney as their guy, the speculation will continue.

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South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered the top prospect in this year’s NFL draft, is scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons next week, according to a league source.

Clowney said during his Pro Day that he was in the process of coordinating a meeting with the Falcons. His visit coincides with another appearance from a top prospect as Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is scheduled to visit Atlanta next week as well.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Newton Jadeveon Clowney shined during position drills at South Carolina's pro day workout.
Clowney has been touted as the No. 1 overall pick -- held by the Houston Texans -- by many draft experts. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say about Clowney in his latest mock draft:

"The Texans really need a QB, and (Blake) Bortles has the highest ceiling of any passer in this draft, but I just think it’s going to be too difficult for the Texans to pass on Clowney. He is the best player in this class and the most naturally talented defensive lineman I’ve ever evaluated, and guys like him simply don’t come around that often."

Clowney recently visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams, and reportedly visited the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. He made headlines this week after a story surfaced about him not doing any other private workouts after Clemson offensive tackle Brandon Thomas tore his ACL during such a workout.

Bus Cook, Clowney’s agent, told USA Today that his client could go through one more abbreviated private workout prior to the May 8 draft.

It is unclear whether Clowney already had a private workout with the Falcons.

Cook also dismissed comments from anonymous NFL teams calling Clowney spoiled and lazy.

"We don't give any consideration to that," Cook told USA TODAY Sports. "None of that has bothered us. It doesn't bother Jadeveon. That's not something that's been asked of me by any of the teams that I've talked to. Just go watch the tape."

If the Falcons truly have an interest in Clowney, they likely would have to trade up for him. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up or down. And during this year’s NFL combine, Clowney mentioned such a scenario involving the Falcons.

"I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney told, "but I hope I don’t fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta -- a lot. They’re pretty good. They’ve got some guys from South Carolina on the team, also. And it’s close to home."

The 6-foot-5-inch, 266-pound Clowney, a native of Rock Hill, S.C., solidified his standing as a top talent with a great performance at his pro day, where he showed the ability to drop into the coverage to go with blazing speed.

The Falcons sorely need help at pass-rusher after finishing tied for 29th in the league last season with just 32 sacks. Although the Falcons are preparing for more of a 3-4-base defensive scheme, the multiplicity they seek on defense would make Clowney a fit regardless.
Don't be surprised if Auburn tackle Greg Robinson's name surfaces in relation to workouts or visits conducted by the Atlanta Falcons over the next week or so.

The Falcons definitely could target an offensive tackle if they keep the sixth overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And they've reportedly already worked out top tackle prospects Jake Matthews from Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan from Michigan, so Robinson naturally would be next up in the workout circuit.

The Falcons also continue to bring in top players for visits, and Matthews has a visit scheduled for next week. So it would only make sense for both Robinson and Lewan to make the trek to Atlanta, too, if they haven't already.

ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay believe the Falcons will take Matthews with the sixth pick, although Kiper's opinion could change when his latest mock draft appears this week. At least one mock draft, posted this week by's Bucky Brooks, has Robinson falling to the Falcons at No. 6 with the St. Louis Rams taking Matthews with the second overall pick. There also has been talked this week of Robinson being worthy of consideration as the first overall pick, currently held by the Houston Texans.

However it all unfolds, the Falcons will have options. Protection still seems to be issue that needs to be addressed first over adding another pass-rusher, although Buffalo's Khalil Mack would be hard to pass up if he falls to No. 6.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney should be the top pick and likely won't fall to the Falcons. He is expected to visit Atlanta in the next few weeks, but don't count on him being a Falcon.

Matthews, Robinson or Lewan would be the safe bets.
The possibility still exists for the Atlanta Falcons to trade up or down in this year's NFL draft, as general manager Thomas Dimitroff has reiterated throughout the offseason.

But if the Falcons keep the sixth overall pick, they should find an impact player. The last time they owned the No. 6 pick was in 2011, when the Falcons selected game-changing receiver Julio Jones. Dimitroff, of course, traded away five draft picks in order to move up for Jones.

Matt Haley of the Falcons' football communications department put out some interesting figures recently. Players selected sixth overall have earned 136 Pro Bowls, 46 first-team All-Pro selections, and 10 Hall of Fame nods. The last to achieve the latter honor was offensive tackle Walter Jones, the sixth overall pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee.

Maybe the Falcons will find their own Hall of Fame tackle in a draft class that includes Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan.

Here's a look at the sixth-overall picks from the last 10 drafts, with a mixture of hits and misses:

Eventually, the Atlanta Falcons will have to addresss their depth at linebacker, considering how injuries affected the position throughout the 2013 season.

The Falcons seem destined to draft a linebacker or two with 10 picks in this year's draft. The question is, how high will they be willing to invest in a linebacker?

Well, Montana's Jordan Tripp seems to be making a steady rise up the draft charts and some believe he won't last beyond the third round.

And the Falcons continue to take a close look at Tripp.'s Gil Brandt first reported Tripp would make a pre-draft visit, and the linebacker prospect was actually was in Atlanta on Monday visiting with the team.

The 6-foot-3, 234-pound Tripp entered the draft process projected as a late-round pick. He is listed as an outside linebacker but would project better as an inside linebacker as the Falcons move toward a 3-4-base defense. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds at the combine. And Tripp called himself the most versatile linebacker in the draft.

Drafting a player from Montana wouldn't be new to the Falcons. They drafted defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann in the fifth round out of Montana in 2008 and also drafted former Montana safety Shann Schillinger in the sixth round in 2010. Biermann is set to return from a season-ending Achilles' injury while Schillinger was released by the Falcons and picked up by the Tennessee Titans.
The Atlanta Falcons are continuing to do their homework on a variety of pass-rushers in preparation for the NFL draft.

Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, a defensive end/outside linebacker prospect, is in Atlanta for a visit, according to a league source. Lawrence is projected as a second-round pick, although his strong workouts have earned him first-round consideration.

The 6-foot-3, 251-pound Lawrence is a South Carolina native who attended Butler Community College (Kansas) before transferring to Boise State. Last season, he led the Mountain West Conference with 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He then declared early for the draft.

Lawrence has impressed scouts with his aggressiveness and instincts. At the combine, he showed the ability to drop into coverage while performing linebacker drills. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds at Boise State's pro day.

Lawrence's agent, David Canter, recently tweeted that his client had 10 visits lined up in 14 days.

The Falcons sorely need pass-rush help and are looking into a number of first- and second-round-caliber talents to possibly fill the void. Most expect them to consider Buffalo's Khalil Mack in the first round if he's still available with the sixth overall pick. Trading up for South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney seems to be a long shot at this point, with Clowney projected to go No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans.

ESPN Draft expert Todd McShay has Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford falling to the Falcons in the second round of his latest mock draft.

BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy is visiting the Falcons next Wednesday while UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr is visiting the week of April 21. Mack, who already had a private workout with the Falcons, doesn't have a visit scheduled with the Falcons just yet.
As the Atlanta Falcons inch close to the NFL draft, adding an offensive tackle, pass-rusher and safety appear to be the priorities.

The team continues to work out players from coast to coast trying to determine which draft-eligible players are capable of helping them most this coming season.

Currently sitting with the sixth-overall pick, the Falcons should have their choice of impact players on both sides of the ball. And the latest selections in ESPN draft expert Todd McShay's updated two-round Mock Draft 4.0 Insider are names associated with the Falcons throughout the draft process thus far.

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If the Atlanta Falcons weren't considering drafting a safety high in next month's NFL draft, it definitely has to be under strong consideration now.

They thought they found a starter in restricted free agent Rafael Bush from the New Orleans Saints, a player the Falcons signed to a two-year, $4.5 million offer sheet. Bush even apparently told Falcons starting strong safety William Moore he wanted to get some attention from Atlanta.

Well, Bush ended up back with the Saints as New Orleans matched the Falcons' offer on Monday. And the Falcons were left without a legitimate option opposite Moore in the secondary.

The free-agent market is thin now, so the Falcons might have to seriously consider drafting a safety in the second round. The last time they drafted a safety that high, they plucked Moore from Missouri in 2009. The moved worked out pretty well, especially considering the leadership and toughness Moore brings to the team.

An offensive tackle or pass-rusher are likely to be the targets in the first round, as the Falcons currently own the sixth overall pick. The team did conduct a private workout with a safety projected to go in the first round: Louisville's Calvin Pryor. And Moore recently tweeted that Pryor is the one rookie he would love to have next to him. But that would appear to be an option only if the Falcons decided to trade down.

A prospect to keep an eye on is Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward. He's relatively small at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, but Ward already impressed the Falcons at the Senior Bowl. He just needs to show he's durable, especially coming off foot surgery.

Another intriguing player might be Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, a cornerback who is capable of playing free safety. He has been projected anywhere from late-first round to the third round.

The other scenario to watch for is what happens after the draft. Some veteran safeties might be released, which could give the Falcons some options to consider.

A void at free safety was created when the Falcons decided to part ways with veteran Thomas DeCoud, a former third-round pick.
The offer sheet that restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons is worth $4.5 million over two years, a league source told The Advocate. The source also said Bush is hoping the New Orleans Saints won’t match the deal because Atlanta is offering a chance at a starting job.

New Orleans has until Tuesday to match the Falcons’ offer. If the Saints don’t match the offer, they will not receive any draft pick compensation from Atlanta.

The Saints have certainly been acting like a team that’s prepared to let Bush go this week. They agreed to deals with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and former Canadian Football League safety Marcus Ball to add depth to their secondary.

Letting Bush go would free up $1.4 million in salary-cap space -- which the Saints probably need to be able to fit Bailey’s new deal under the cap. Bailey’s deal is worth up to $7 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Bush, 26, was expected to resume his role as the Saints’ No. 3 safety, which was practically a full-time job the way the Saints liked to use three safeties last year. The hard-hitting safety played 67 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps when he was healthy last year (he missed three games due to injury). He finished with a career-high 42 tackles and five pass defenses.

The Falcons, however, are offering an even greater opportunity. They have a vacancy in their starting lineup since they decided to release veteran Thomas DeCoud last month.

Bush would become the second-most experienced safety on the Falcons’ roster. And he is friends with the Falcons’ other starting safety, William Moore -- making the switch even more attractive.

The Atlanta Falcons are hoping to fill one of their biggest needs -- and to dent their longtime rivals, the New Orleans Saints, in the process.

Atlanta signed restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush to an offer sheet, meaning the Saints have until Tuesday to match the offer or lose Bush with no draft-pick compensation.

Terms of the Falcons' offer have not been disclosed. The Saints previously offered Bush a one-year deal at the lowest qualifying offer of $1.431 million. The Saints have given no indication yet whether or not they plan to match Atlanta's offer.

The reason the Saints would receive no draft-pick compensation is because Bush originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2010 -- with none other than the Falcons in 2010. Bush then spent a year with the Denver Broncos before finding a home as a part-time starter and special teams standout with the Saints over the past two years.

Bush had 42 tackles and five pass defenses last year as a part-time starter for the Saints, who often featured three safeties together in their nickel and dime packages. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has also been a standout in special teams coverage for New Orleans for the past two years.

Both teams could really use Bush, since they're both very thin at the safety position.

The Saints have two excellent starters in newly-signed free agent Jairus Byrd and second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. They also recently signed Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball. But those are the only three safeties on the Saints' current roster.

The Saints recently brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey for a visit. It's possible that Bailey could be used as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages if the Saints decide to add him.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has an even bigger need at safety after releasing longtime starting free safety Thomas DeCoud last month. They have a standout starter in strong safety William Moore. But the next two safeties on the Falcons' depth chart are unproven seventh-round picks from last year -- Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael.

Motta, who replaced DeCoud for a game last season, is coming off of surgery for a cervical fracture.

The Falcons released DeCoud in part because of his $4.8 million salary-cap cost and in part because they didn't feel he was a physical enough tackler and didn't make enough plays on the ball.

Bush, who was primarily used as a deep safety for the Saints, does bring some physicality to the position.

Moore and Bush are friends, and he previously said that he had talked with Bush about the possibility of joining the Falcons.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.
It’s my pleasure to pinch hit for Vaughn McClure today. In addition to covering the Buccaneers, I filled in for Vaughn on a conference call the NFL Nation reporters did with ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.

I know Atlanta has needs on the offensive and defensive lines and most of the mock drafts I’ve seen have the Falcons taking an offensive tackle. But I’m still wondering if it’s possible for the Falcons to land a pass-rusher in the first round.

By just about all indications, the top two pass-rushers (Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack) will be gone before the Falcons pick at No. 6 overall. So I asked Kiper if there is another pass-rusher who would be a good value at that point.

“No, that would not be a position you could fill at that particular point,’’ Kiper said. “I think you turn to offensive tackle. There are two really good ones in Taylor Lewan and Jake Matthews.’’

I’d have no problem with the Falcons taking Lewan or Matthews. The Falcons didn’t do a very good job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan last season and Lewan or Matthews would provide a big boost for the offensive line.

But let’s flip back to pass-rushers for just a moment. The other guy who was being mentioned along with Clowney and Mack early in the draft process was UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. But Barr’s stock seems to be falling a bit.

“Barr is the very intriguing guy,’’ Kiper said. “There’s a lot of polarization there. You can see the inexperience. He almost looks like an offensive player playing defense and he was an offensive player a couple years ago. But there is a lot of talent there.’’

But I don’t think Barr is polished enough for the Falcons to reach for him at No. 6.
The Atlanta Falcons currently hold the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, although general manager Thomas Dimitroff has reiterated his willingness to trade up or down.

Mel Kiper's fourth mock draft Insider -- one in which he picks as if he's each team's GM -- is out on ESPN Insider today, and his choice for the Falcons is consistent with the way I believe they should lean.

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Jake MatthewsDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDraft prospect Jake Matthews of Texas A&M has experience at both left and right tackle.
In February, it seemed logical to raise the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons trading up to draft South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

But opinions can be altered. Such is the case for me in this particular scenario.

As of today, a little more than a month away from the NFL draft, the Falcons still need to add a game-changing pass-rusher. Yet shoring up the offensive line has to be the primary emphasis going into the draft.

True, the Falcons took a positive step by adding a stout pass protector in offensive guard Jon Asamoah. However, one single player can't make up for how atrocious Atlanta's line was in 2013.

If the Falcons stand pat with the sixth overall pick, they would be smart to target one of the top three offensive tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or Michigan's Taylor Lewan. I'd even be somewhat tempted to trade up for Robinson, considering his tremendous upside.

Solidifying the line will be critical for the Falcons' worst-to-first aspirations in the NFC South, following last year's 4-12 implosion. Matt Ryan looked far from a $100 million quarterback because he was under extreme duress more often than not, and Atlanta couldn't rely on the line to clear holes in the run game to establish offensive balance.

The Falcons certainly believe Ryan would be among the league's best if given the time to throw. Former NFL executive Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, told me he thinks Ryan is a Super Bowl win away from being labeled elite. But Ryan won't even lead his team to the playoffs playing behind the same tackles from last season.

In all fairness to left tackle Sam Baker, his sudden decline was primarily attributed to a lingering knee issue he had surgically repaired. Now the question is whether or not he'll regain the form he displayed during the 2012 season, when he played more like a first-round pick.

As for Lamar Holmes, it's hard to imagine the Falcons still sticking with him and touting him as a player with Pro Bowl potential, as they did last season. He could be a decent backup if he keeps working on his game and remains in shape.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith talked about this draft being deep at offensive tackle. But the Falcons can't gamble on a later pick stepping in and contributing immediately to a team that should be in win-now mode, not the rebuilding phase.

Matthews seems like the most NFL-ready of the draft trio mentioned above. He certainly has the bloodlines, being the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.

Folks wonder how Robinson will transition into pass protecting at the next level after coming from an Auburn program built around the run. Anyone who has stood next to the mammoth Robinson in a room would say he should have no problem keeping defenders off a quarterback.

Then there's Lewan, a guy with the kind of mean streak the Falcons are looking for up front. But is he too nasty, as his recent misdemeanor assault charges might suggest? Honestly, that shouldn't affect his draft status. Lewan reportedly worked out for the Falcons this week, according to senior analyst and long-time NFL executive Gil Brandt

When I look at the Falcons going into 2014, I see a team that won't have it easy against a strong group of pass-rushers in the NFC South. I see a menacing duo in Carolina with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. I see a dangerous tandem in Tampa with Michael Johnson off the edge and Gerald McCoy through the middle. And I see pressure coming from every which direction in Rob Ryan's scheme down in New Orleans.

Eighteen of Matt Ryan's career-high 44 sacks last season came at the hands of the Panthers and Saints. Pressure contributed to Ryan throwing a career-high 17 interceptions, though he also attempted a career-high 651 passes.

No matter if the Falcons stick with a pass-happy offense or move toward a more grounded attack, they need to find a balance along the offensive line. Adding a tough line coach, Mike Tice, should have a tremendous impact, but Tice needs more talent to shape and mold.

The argument for the Falcons to draft a pass-rusher in the first round is understandable, particularly when you recall how the Falcons made Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith look like an All-Pro last season. I'm confident defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will make do, even without Khalil Mack or Clowney.

But Ryan won't make it through the season without better protection. That's why the Falcons need to tackle the issue with their first draft pick.
Many have voiced support for Michael Sam as he aspires to be the first openly gay player in the NFL. Add Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to his list of supporters.

Weatherspoon was a senior at Missouri in 2009 when Sam was a redshirt freshman.

"I was happy Mike was able to come out and be himself," Weatherspoon said Monday, his first public comments about his former college teammate. "I think the thing right now is that he would rather focus on football. But it's kind of tough, with everybody just wanting to talk about the potential of a gay player being in the locker room. To me, it's not a problem. I've already been in the locker room with Michael. Guys didn't talk about it, but we all kind of knew."

Sam publicly acknowledged his sexuality in February. Several months earlier, before the 2013 college football season, he came out to his Missouri teammates. Weatherspoon, who remains close to the Missouri program and attends Tigers game when possible, knew about that meeting.

“In training camp is when they talked about it,” Weatherspoon said. “And that's when I knew about [Sam's sexuality], because I have young little brothers still there.”

The Missouri players kept word of Sam's announcement inside the program, respecting their teammate's decision to come out publicly on his own terms.

“That's just how we are out there," Weatherspoon said of the tight bond between members of the program. "It's really a different place. ... That support is there. The coaches do a good job of attracting guys that are about family. And you get that family feel. Like people say, 'Family is everything.' Even though it's an extended family, it's still our family.”

The next phase for Sam is proving to NFL personnel that he's more than a "tweener" and is capable of making plays as a pass rusher in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme. He wasn't overly impressive at the NFL combine, although he did improve his numbers during Missouri's pro day. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay initially gave Sam a fourth-round grade.

"For right now, my advice to Mike is just to make sure you stay in shape because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who you date," Weatherspoon said. "It's all about what you do on Sundays. That's going to determine how long you play here. The main thing is football.

"We are in a time where the locker room has not matured yet. But Mike, he's a guy with a great sense of humor. I think after a while, it won't be a big deal at all. Hopefully it's not going to be a big deal to the team he goes to."
Paul SoliaiDoug Murray/Icon SMIAfter seven seasons in Miami, Paul Soliai will begin a new chapter in Atlanta.
Suddenly, there was silence.

The team on the phone line had to be thinking all sorts of random thoughts at that moment. Was something said to make negotiations fall apart? Was another team trying to call and get in on the action? Was a cell tower down in the area?

No, there was a simple explanation why agent David Canter's conversation with Atlanta Falcons contract negotiator Nick Polk got cut off while they discussed 30-year-old nose tackle Paul Soliai.

Blame it on the baby.

"I was holding my 2-year-old son, Austen, because we were talking very early in the morning, and my son pressed the button and hung up on them," Canter explained with a laugh. "I called Nick right back because I didn't want him to think I hung up on him."

Their contract talks got back on track in a big way. Canter's numerous discussions with Polk and the Falcons during the three-day NFL negotiation period resulted in a five-year deal for Soliai worth $33 million, with $14 million guaranteed -- somewhat defying the odds of age and position.

Canter was on a pirate-ship cruise with his wife and sons in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when multiple teams, including the Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts, started to inquire about Soliai on March 8.

"We were docking at 12:08 p.m. that Saturday when the first call came in," Canter recalled. "I really don't remember what team it was because I literally hung up the phone on them to take a call from another team. I honestly didn't expect a phone call Saturday right after noon."

A big part of Soliai wanted to remain with the Miami Dolphins, who drafted him in the fourth round out of Utah in 2007. But there was a natural fit in Atlanta, where his former defensive coordinator for the Dolphins, Mike Nolan, now holds the same title.

"When you're Mike Nolan and you're [general manager] Thomas Dimitroff and you're sitting there in your meetings and you're talking about moving to a 3-4, you need an anchor for a 3-4," Canter explained. "There's no better anchor, in my opinion, than Paul Soliai."

Here is the evolution of Soliai's free-agent contract through the eyes of the guy who negotiated it.

Testing the market

They had been through this process before.

In 2012, Canter and Soliai had thoughts of moving on from Miami. In fact, they were set to take a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos. But the trip to Denver was canceled at the last minute.

"Paul looked me in the eyes and said, 'I'm not comfortable leaving Florida,'" Canter recalled. "He said to me, 'I know you're close to terms with the Broncos, but call Miami and tell them I want to come back.' So we took a two-year, $11.5 million contract to remain in Miami."

Signing just a two-year deal allowed Soliai to test the market again this offseason. Canter tried to facilitate an extension with the Dolphins, but it never materialized. He said he met with former general manager Jeff Ireland in the parking lot following Miami's loss to the New York Jets in the 2013 season finale. Ireland told Canter that Soliai was one of the Dolphins' top three offseason priorities. But Ireland and the team parted ways in January.

So Canter felt somewhat in limbo with a client who wanted to stay put, yet likely wasn't going to be offered the compensation he desired.

"I actually needed a number from Miami in August," Canter explained. "We had a three-year extension on the table, but the major issue was guaranteed money."

Canter felt Soliai was taking a chance by playing the '13 season without an extension. The agent's worst fear almost became a reality when Soliai suffered a knee injury in Week 2 against the Colts. It knocked him out of just one game -- against, coincidentally, the Falcons.

The Dolphins, under new general manager Dennis Hickey, apparently made another attempt to re-sign Soliai the Friday before free agency began. Canter said the offer was similar to the two-year, $12 million deal defensive tackle Randy Starks accepted to remain in Miami.

When contacted for this story, the Dolphins declined to comment on their talks with Soliai.

Canter knew what type of money he desired all along. He huddled with his analytics consultant, Brian McIntyre, at season's end and figured $6 million to $8 million per year would be the price range for Soliai.

Atlanta, intent on beefing up both the offensive and defensive lines, made the most sense. Soliai's lone Pro Bowl season came under Nolan in 2011. And current Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox was the Dolphins' pass-rush coach that same season.

"With Atlanta, we heard rumors that there might be a change to a 3-4, so we started really looking at Atlanta as possibly an attractive team in January," Canter said. "But you really don't know until you get to Indianapolis at the combine because teams want to see the other defensive linemen that are out there."

Canter proclaimed himself open for business at the combine by hand-delivering analytics packages he developed with McIntyre that broke down all 12 of his free agents, including Soliai. The information also was distributed via email to all 32 teams before the combine.

The section devoted to Soliai emphasized that teams shouldn't focus on him being an aging guy playing an undervalued position.

"The first thing you had to fight wasn't the position; the first thing you had to fight was the age," Canter said. "There's ageism in the NFL. There's this belief that a player that is 30 years old just isn't worth any money anymore, or not nearly as much money."

Soliai hadn't necessarily taken the pounding you would expect from a seven-year interior lineman. He played just 45.7 percent of the Dolphins' defensive snaps in 2013.

"The reality is that snap count is what matters," Canter said. "Now, that can be a positive and a negative for Paul. He didn't, for whatever reason in Miami, play on third down a lot. So some teams would say, 'He's not a three-down player.' I disagree with that. Paul disagrees with that. We've proven when he is in on third down, with our analytics packages, that the team actually performed better."

Soliai missed only one game the past four seasons, which Canter pointed to as a sign of durability. Even after the brief knee scare in 2013, the tandem felt little to worry about in free agency.

"This guy doesn't have an injury history," Canter said of Soliai. "To use Paul's quote, 'I'm Samoan. We don't get hurt.'"

Sealing the deal

By Monday, March 10, the eve of free agency, Canter believed the Falcons would be the major player in the Soliai deal. There were a few more discussions with Polk, including one during which Dimitroff jumped on the line for 10 minutes. Canter figured he would get at least the $6 million per year range from the Falcons with at least $10 million guaranteed. He said seven teams total inquired about Soliai.

"Monday afternoon, I started to get the feeling that I was going to lose teams," he said. "I thought I had another team that I was going to really be able to play against Atlanta. Obviously, I couldn't call them because I'm going to lose leverage.

[+] EnlargePaul Soliai and David Canter
Courtesy of DEC ManagementSoliai and his agent, David Canter, reviewed the nose tackle's contract at an Atlanta restaurant.
"So Monday afternoon, after I hung up the phone with Nick, I started sending text messages to teams and said, 'Hey, if you want in on Paul, here's the range we're going to be in. Can you beat that? Can you get to $6.5 [million average per year]?'" Canter said. "A lot of teams, they won't say no, flat out. They'll say, 'We have something else working. If we don't get that done, we're coming to you.' That's not good enough for me."

Once Tuesday came, Canter and Soliai knew it was all but a done deal. Late that afternoon, Canter tried to push for a little more.

"There was a point in time when the Atlanta deal almost went away," he said. "I was set on $8 million a year for the first two years. Obviously, Atlanta wasn't going to go there. And we didn't get there. But we got $7 million a year. So, then I pushed for $15 million over two years fully guaranteed. During those conversations, I felt like we had to pause and reset and they had to pause and reset."

The sides eventually agreed to the five-year deal with $11 million going to Soliai in the first year.

Without discussing financial terms, Dimitroff explained the negotiations from the Falcons' perspective.

"When going through any negotiation, the ultimate goal is to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial for both the team and the player," Dimitroff said. "I think the three-day period in which you can talk with agents has become very beneficial for both sides. It is important to have constructive and honest dialogue during that time. And if that is the case, it can help you when free agency begins."

After the deal was done, Canter texted Miami out of courtesy, and he said the response back was, "Tell Paul we wish him the best of luck."

When the agreement was announced, Canter was watching with McIntyre on ESPN and actually negotiating the delivery of a Range Rover to another client, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith.

"I had to get free window tinting thrown into the deal for Sean because the truck was late being delivered," Canter said.

Soliai still had some questions that needed to be answered, such as where the nearest Wal-Mart or Super Target was located in relation to the Falcons' facility and how he could avoid the "challenging" traffic in the city. He nixed the possibility of living in a subdivision popular among the players because it wasn't close enough to a grocery store.

Any last-minute concerns Soliai had calmed when he saw the contract numbers in front of him. The final step in the process occurred at the popular Bones restaurant in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Soliai, his family and Canter dined with a group that included Dimitroff, assistant general manager Scott Pioli, head coach Mike Smith, Polk, Nolan and Cox. As Canter dug into a bone-in filet and Soliai into a veal steak, Canter reiterated to Soliai how fortunate he was to join such an organization.

"There are so many amazing football minds in that building, and that's kudos to Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and [owner] Arthur Blank for putting together a hierarchy of coaches and front-office people who have been either general managers or head coaches or pro personnel directors," Canter said. "It blew our minds at dinner."

Canter and Soliai scanned the contract details at the dinner table. Canter tried to go line by line over the contract, but Soliai just wanted to sign.

"Ever since I signed with David, I've been in good hands," Soliai said. "My family has been taken care of."

So now Soliai was set to call Atlanta his new home. He mentioned renting out his place in Florida because he already has a residence back in Utah.

As for Canter, he didn't leave town without making one final push: He tried to nudge the Falcons to sign more of his free agents, including safety Steve Gregory and cornerback Brice McCain.

"I went up to Thomas Dimitroff and [director of player personnel] Lionel Vital and I was like, 'Let's do another deal. Let's get another guy in the building,'" Canter said. "Maybe I'm a little too aggressive. But that's why guys hire me."