Edwards was the obvious pick for this year’s most disappointing player, which is why he will be a key player to watch in 2012. As I mentioned in the linked piece, Edwards was a marginal improvement in 2011 in the pass rush department over the much-maligned Jamaal Anderson. After the season, Edwards’ lack of production was blamed on his bothersome knee that was operated on during last year’s lockout. But one wonders just how much the knee was really bothering him since he missed a total of three practices and was limited in three others all year long due to the knee injury, out of a total of fifty-one.
But regardless of whatever is to blame for Edwards lack of production, the bottom line is that in 2012 he has to step up his play. The Falcons paid him a hefty salary to improve the team’s pass rush. And while the pass rush did take positive steps last year, the Falcons are going to need more of that if they hope to make the playoffs and make a deep run in 2012. The Falcons pass rush has been a problem area for much of Mike Smith’s tenure as the head coach. The Falcons suffered through three seasons hoping that Jamaal Anderson would improve, and Kroy Biermann would emerge as the bookend player to John Abraham. That never happened, and thus when the team signed Edwards, they hoped those issues were over.
That did not prove to be the case in 2011, and needs to be the case in 2012, otherwise Ray Edwards may not last much longer as a Falcon. The team is desperately looking for someone that can take the mantle of the team’s top and most feared pass rusher from John Abraham in the coming years, and Edwards is in prime position. One of the reasons why the Falcons have struggled over the years in beating some of the league’s more prolific offenses such as the Saints and Packers has been because of their inability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. If the Falcons intend to close the gap on such teams in 2012, they will need to do a better job getting after the quarterback.
One of the issues Edwards had last year was how much shuffling he did on the line. In his days in Minnesota, Edwards could set up anchor on the left side playing opposite Jared Allen. Edwards also was rarely pulled off the field, playing the majority of both run and pass downs. But the Falcons like to flip their ends to try and feature Abraham with the best possible matchup on a given play. And they also have a steady rotation as players like Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury will get their share of reps in the lineup. If that new style took time to adjust to, that could explain some of Edwards’ struggles. But this year he can expect to continue that sort of role and should be better prepared to take advantage of it.
Edwards is a capable speed rusher that is more effective playing left end because he doesn’t have the blazing speed to really blow by most upper-level left tackles, often necessary to be a productive right end. His speed is a much better matchup against right tackles who tend to be not as swift of foot as their left-side counterparts. So flipping sides can be counterproductive to his style of play. But Edwards is a strong bulky player that if he so wished could potentially develop a deadly bull move if he manages to combine his speed and power to counter his lack of elite edge speed. That could become a functional weapon he could use those times when he plays on the right side of the line and goes against the typically lighter left tackles.
One area where Edwards did prove his worth was in run defense. The Falcons lost two good run stoppers last summer in Anderson and Chauncey Davis, and it was a question mark on whether players like Edwards, Biermann, and Sidbury would be able to fill their shoes. They did mainly due to the solid efforts of Edwards.
While Edwards does not need to have a monster year in order to be productive, he probably should be expected to at least double his output in terms of sack production from a year ago, giving him around 7 sacks in 2012. But even if he cannot hang his hat on the sack totals, he should at least get double-digit pressure numbers in the coming season. Last year, Edwards had 6 pressures and 2 hits. Compared to Abraham, who had 15 pressures and 8 hits. In fact, Abraham has averaged 21 combined pressures and hits in each of the past three seasons. While it might not be fair to expect Edwards to produce on Abe’s level, he should at least be surpassing the likes of Kroy Biermann who has averaged about 15.7 combined pressures and hits the past three years. Biermann had 13 last year, and 15 should be a fair benchmark for Edwards to be expected to reach and/or surpass in 2012.
One of the reasons why Biermann was able to out-produce Edwards, particularly late in the year, was because the team was pulling Edwards off the field in nickel situations. While this is merely speculation on my part, I think it led to a rift between Edwards and former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The hope is that alleged mistrust won’t exist now that Mike Nolan has taken over for VanGorder. Nolan’s past success should earn him instant credibility and respect within the locker room and in the film room, including from Edwards. And hopefully a stronger rapport will lead to Edwards playing harder and with more fire than he seemed to show at times last year.
Edwards is a prideful guy, and along with new coaches, improved health, and being more comfortable and integrated with the team should lead to a more successful 2012 season.