Yesterday I went over the offense and the changes that may be ahead for the team. Those changes will continue on the defensive side of the ball. Not only does the arrival of Mike Nolan bring changes to the defensive philosophy the changes will also be noticeable in the personnel. Most of this will obviously be in the front seven and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point.
SAFETIES: The starting safeties from last season, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, will return for the 2012 season with DeCoud’s recent re-signing. The way the contract is structured it seems that it’s more of a 2 year audition for DeCoud that could lead to a very good deal for both parties. Who will back them up is the better question. Shann Schillinger returns as one of the better special teams players on the squad. James Sanders is an unrestricted free agent and it’s unclear whether or not the team will re-sign him. The draft isn’t very deep at safety this year but it’s certainly possible the team draft one in the later rounds or simply sign Sanders or another free agent to round out the squad.
CORNERBACKS: Brent Grimes received the franchise tag but shows no indications of wanting to play under the 1 year tender. If I had to guess, the sticking point may be the length of the contract. At 29, teams often shy away from longer term contracts while Grimes most certainly wants to ensure he makes the most of his opportunity to secure his future. Hopefully the situation will not turn into a hold out situation but that is something the team will have to prepare for. Dunta Robinson, Christopher Owens and a rapidly improving Dominique Franks return along with Darrin Walls who opened eyes last preseason. Kelvin Hayden is an unrestricted free agent and my guess is that he will not be re-signed. This is one area of the team that I’m almost certain that the front office will use a draft pick to add depth, competition as well as guard against a potential hold out.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: Starters Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon return along with reserves Spencer Adkins and Robert James. Mike Peterson is the lone free agent of the group and should be re-signed to provide quality depth to the unit. More on this position a little later on when defensive ends are covered.
MIDDLE LINEBACKERS: The most noticeable change is most likely coming at middle linebacker. With Akeem Dent drafted last year and the recent signing of Lofa Tatupu, I can’t help but think that the Falcons and free agent Curtis Lofton are parting ways. There is just entirely too much “smoke” that indicates the team has one value for Lofton while he and his agent have another and feel they can get that value on the open market. That said, I’m sure the door is still open but probably not as widely as it once was. Whether or not another middle linebacker is added remains to be seen as the team is not tipping it’s hand but I would not be surprised to see it happen.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry are all under contract. The fourth in the rotation, Vance Walker, is a restricted free agent and all indications are that he will return under the one year tender. I’m not of the opinion that this group is the final group though. A role player through free agency may be added or just as likely, a draft pick spent.
DEFENSIVE END: With Lawrence Sidbury, Ray Edwards, last year’s draft pick addition, Cliff Matthews and the newly re-signed Kroy Biermann the Falcons return a youthful group of ends. Free agent John Abraham has been reported to have priced himself far out of the team’s range and it appears that the team will make a very strong push for free agent to be Mario Williams. I’m of the opinion that a rotation of Sidbury and Biermann would yield production from the right end position but things may not be as straight forward as that. With Mike Nolan’s defense, there will be 3-4 situations that would show Williams as a pass rushing linebacker or even Biermann as a linebacker at times as well. This will be and already is the most discussed issue (along with whether or not Lofton will return) among Falcon fans. I could just as easily see a role playing type defensive end (Kendall Langford is one that has been mentioned) added if Williams is not added but again, I expect the Falcons to pull out all the stops to acquire Mario Williams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Last year’s draft pick, Matt Bosher, started off on the shaky side but quickly worked through it and became a very consistent punter. The future looks very bright for Bosher and I look for him to establish himself much like Michael Koenen did early in his career with the team. Matt Bryant returns along with his consistency as the placekicker. Returner Eric Weems is a free agent. If he doesn’t return, a receiver like Eddie Royal may be added to not only be the returner but also fill receiver duties. Another option would be cornerback Dominique Franks as well. In the end, I expect Weems to return to the team.
In two days, when the free agency doors swing wide open, there will certainly be a frenzy of signings. The path of the future of the Falcons will be paved and the direction of the team will be clearer as question marks are erased with each signing.