Although defensive tackle probably won’t be as big a priority of other spots across the roster, the presence of older veterans could prompt the Atlanta Falcons to address this position in the offseason.
First and foremost, the Falcons will have to resolve the status of nose tackle Paul Soliai, who the team has reportedly approached to restructure his contract. The 32-year old veteran carries a cap hit of roughly $6.84 million in 2016, which might be too pricey for a player that only played in about 41 percent of the defensive snaps through the 13 games he was healthy in during 2015. The Falcons could save about $2.64 million against the cap by cutting the veteran.
Some reports indicate that Soliai is unlikely to take a pay cut given that could still potentially earn a comparable amount to his 2016 base salary of $5 million in guaranteed money on the open market, but it’s likely the Soliai’s representatives and the team will meet during the annual Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis to really discuss things in earnest. Any decisions by either side probably won’t happen for at least a week or two.
Even if the Falcons do part ways with Soliai, they won’t be devoid of bodies at defensive tackle. Ra’Shede Hageman was a fixture for the team in their base defense beside Soliai.
Grady Jarrett is likely to see increased reps in 2016 in the team’s nickel sub-packages. Down the stretch the team played Adrian Clayborn more at defensive end after beginning the season playing exclusively beside Jonathan Babineauxat defensive tackle in the nickel. Given that Clayborn is an impending free agent and proved more productive at end likely creates a void that Jarrett could easily slide into this upcoming season.
Babineaux entering his contract year also bears mentioning. While it’s possible the Falcons could look to move on from the 34-year old veteran this offseason, it’s unlikely given how valuable his pass-rushing ability proved last season. For a team that collected a league-low 19 sacks in 2015, departing with one of their two or three best pass-rushers doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.
After being overworked by the previous coaching staff, Dan Quinn seemed to settle on him being used primarily as a situational player. Babineaux is now ideally suited to help mentor Jarrett alongside defensive line coach Bryan Cox as the second-year stud attempts to hone his pass-rushing ability on the inside.
Jarrett is likely being groomed to replace Babineaux long-term as the team’s primary pass-rusher on the inside starting in 2017 when the latter might opt to retire. It’s also possible that the Falcons convince Babineaux to come back on what could be comparable to the year-to-year status that tight end Tony Gonzalez obtained at the end of his career.
Yet the chief concern remains replacing Soliai at nose tackle in the team’s base defense. The team was able to get something out of undrafted rookie Joey Mbu late in the year but it would be an extremely tall order for Mbu to go from being practice squad player to a 16-game starter in 2016.
The Falcons can allay those concerns by signing a veteran nose tackle, giving Mbu more time to develop down the road. One potential target could be Brandon Mebane, who excelled in Soliai’s role for years under Quinn’s guidance for four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
The 31-year old Mebane isn’t quite the player he once was but he is still an effective run-defender that could be a worthwhile addition, especially if the Falcons can get can him at a significantly lower price than what they are set to give Soliai over the next few years.
Soliai’s combined cap hits over the next two years approaches $14 million and eclipses $22 million through three years, giving the Falcons a solid bench mark for what could be considered a bargain for Mebane.
If the Falcons are looking to go younger at nose tackle and are willing to pay for it, they could add another former Quinn protege in Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Jaye Howard. The 27-year old free agent is coming off a strong season with the Chiefs and played for Quinn both at the University of Florida and in Seattle in 2012.
Howard filled in for nose tackle Dontari Poe during this past spring and summer when the latter was sidelined with a back injury. Poe was able to return for the start of the regular season, allowing Howard to return to his more natural 3-4 defensive end spot. But that versatility coupled with his ability to impact both as a pass-rusher and run-stopper could make him a potential long-term solution at nose tackle rather than a one or two-year stopgap like Mebane.
The Falcons could also draft a nose tackle towards the latter part of the draft as well, but given other more pressing needs and already having a developmental option like Mbu on the roster, it could be considered more of a luxury pick at this point.
If the Falcons do address the interior of their defensive line in the draft, instead they will likely focus on adding another pass-rusher given the previously mentioned issues there. A player that could supplant Babineaux in their sub-packages as early as 2017 would be an ideal addition, especially given questions over whether Hageman is going to take the next step in becoming a player deserving a consistent role in the nickel.
Hageman flashes potential where his power and burst off the line can overwhelm unprepared guards, but those moments have been too few and far between for the young defensive tackle. The Falcons could try and draft a more polished player in this draft. That would add insurance in case Hageman doesn’t take that next step and give them another candidate to look at next season if/when Babineaux and the team decide to part ways.
The Falcons need to make a decision on Soliai’s future and if they do decide to move on, will likely try and secure a veteran to fill any emerging hole at nose tackle. The draft will likely be looked upon to develop future assets as the team continues to get younger and add more pass-rush help on their defensive interior.
Defensive tackle isn’t a pressing need given that the Falcons have the ability to stand pat with their current roster and be fine for 2016, but it’s likely one that will involve some roster shakeup as they try to get better.