Addressing their pass rush will certainly be a priority for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, yet they could also have other potential issues at defensive end.
One of those will be determining if veteran Tyson Jackson will return in 2016. Between him and fellow 2014 signee Paul Soliai, it seems that Jackson is less likely to be retained by the Falcons this offseason. Yet the team has already approached Soliai about restructuring his contract, with no word has emerged about Jackson’s future status.
That could be interpreted one of two ways: (1) either that Jackson is a sure-fire goner and the Falcons have no intention of bringing him back even at a lower salary or (2) that they’ve already decided to keep him at his current price tag.
It’s unlikely to be the latter given that his $6.35 million cap hit in 2016 looks too high for a two-down, rotational player. Jackson simply doesn’t provide enough as a pass-rusher, likely justifying the Falcons’ inevitable decision to reap the modest $1.55 million in cap savings by releasing him in the coming days or weeks.
If the Falcons do dump Jackson, it’ll create a void at the strong-side (or five-technique) defensive end spot in the base defense. The best in-house candidates to replace Jackson are Ra’Shede Hageman and Malliciah Goodman. Hageman is likely to remain inside at defensive tackle, leaving Goodman, who saw very limited action last year as a healthy scratch for most of the season, as their best option.
Goodman was on the bubble entering the final weeks of training camp, so it would be a fairly big leap to go from his limited role in 2015 to being a starter in 2016. Yet he’ll still be in the mix for an increase role in the rotation this summer, marking what is likely his last opportunity to impress Dan Quinn’s coaching staff since he is on the verge of hitting free agent a year from now.
Instead the Falcons could use Jackson’s potential absence as a catalyst to overhaul the entire conception behind their defensive line’s rotation. This past season the Falcons utilized a strict dichotomy between their lines in the base defense and nickel sub-package, borrowing from Quinn’s days in Seattle as defensive coordinator in 2013. However since then, especially this past year given Quinn’s departure, the Seahawks’ line evolved into a more blended unit between their base and nickel units.
If the Falcons adopt a similar approach, they could try and add someone that is sturdy enough to hold up against the run on base downs and also provide pressure in passing situations in the nickel. Michael Bennett filled that role the past few years in Seattle, often kicking inside to defensive tackle in nickel situations as well.
The Falcons could opt against copying that if they intend to deploy Grady Jarrett and Jonathan Babineaux together inside at defensive tackle in their nickel defense this season. Yet if they do borrow a page from the Seahawks, a free agent like Malik Jackson could be a worthwhile, albeit expensive addition this offseason.
Jackson already played that dual inside-outside role throughout his stint with the Denver Broncos, especially when they utilized a 4-3 scheme from 2012 to 2014 before switching to the 3-4 this past season. Jackson proved an adept five-technique defensive end this past year under Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, while also providing steady pressure on the interior when the team utilized four-man fronts on passing downs.
Signing Jackson might prove pricey, but bringing that “Bennett-esque” element to a defense as pass-rush needy as the Falcons can’t be overlooked or disregarded.
If the Falcons are more inclined to look at a cheaper alternative to Jackson, they could add his former Broncos teammate in Robert Ayers, who has been effective playing a similar inside-outside role with the New York Giants the past two years.
Ayers will turn 31 when the 2016 season starts, but was productive down the stretch for the Giants, tallying eight of his nine sacks over the second half of this past season when the team welcomed back Jason Pierre-Paul from injury. It’s notable since Vic Beasley could form a similar tag team with Ayers in Atlanta.
Beasley’s role with the Falcons in the future is a bit undetermined as of today. Beasley started his rookie year off as a “LEO” defensive end, but the team seemed less attached to him in that role as 2015 wore on.
Beasley made the shift to playing almost exclusively on the left side of the defensive line in the second half of the year. That will likely continue since his speed and first-step quickness proved far more troublesome for right tackles than it did for left tackles earlier in the season.
The Falcons could also tinker with the idea of moving Beasley from “LEO” to strong-side linebacker in the future. Such a permanent move is unlikely to occur in 2016, but the team could experiment more with it this upcoming season with an eye towards 2017 for the complete transition to occur. By then, current incumbent strong-side linebacker Brooks Reed is likely to be gone, assuming the Falcons don’t cut bait with him this offseason.
Should Beasley move to linebacker, he’d be employed in a role similar to how the Seahawks used Bruce Irvin when Quinn coordinated that defense. As a rookie in 2012, Irvin was an effective situational pass-rusher but struggled versus the run down the stretch as a “LEO” when his reps increased. He moved to linebacker the following year and began to put his hand in the dirt as a defensive end more often in the nickel starting in 2014. Beasley could be utilized in that same capacity, although again, it’s unlikely any firm decisions have been made just yet.
If that is the prospective plan for Beasley, then it might prompt the Falcons to look for a more permanent replacement at “LEO” in addition to the strong-side defender. That is unlikely to be either of the team’s impending free agents in Kroy Biermann or Adrian Clayborn, as both appear to be more akin to stopgaps moving forward.
Biermann played mostly at “LEO” in the base package this past season and continued to showcase himself as an effective run-defender. The team could bring him back for that very same role again in 2016, but it appears unlikely given their expected desire to add more pass-rushers on the field in their base defense.
One option there could be O’Brien Schofield, another impending unrestricted free agent. Schofield has the versatility to play either defensive end or outside linebacker, making him a strong bet to be retained by the Falcons. The team probably sees him primarily as a backup but his ability to fit a variety of roles, including Biermann’s, makes the latter more expendable.
Clayborn is likely to be another player the Falcons try to keep but it might be harder given he’s likely to draw more interest from other teams on the open market. The 27-year old is coming off a resurgent year after missing nearly all of 2014 with an arm injury. He started this past season playing exclusively at defensive tackle in the nickel defense but the Falcons moved him to defensive end in December, where he seemed to adjust well to the new role and made more impact plays.
Clayborn has never been a gifted run-defender throughout his NFL career, thus replacing Biermann at “LEO” in the base defense is less than ideal. But the Falcons might be willing to trade off a decline versus the run if it came increase pass-rushing productivity on run downs.
Pierre-Paul, Irvin, Olivier Vernon (Miami Dolphins), Chris Long (Los Angles Rams) and the expected-to-be-released Mario Williams (Buffalo Bills) are some of the more prominent edge-rushers that could be available when free agency begins on March 9. Signing any one of those players might prompt the Falcons to pass on retaining Clayborn or any of their other free agents.
The same could be said if the Falcons decide to target a pass-rusher early in the draft. It’s certainly a possibility with their top selection with many mock drafts projecting Beasley and Jarrett’s former Clemson teammate, Shaq Lawson as a potential target in the middle of the first round.
Regardless of whether it comes via free agency or the draft, one can expect the Falcons to prioritize making at least one major addition at defensive end to help improve their underwhelming pass rush.