As I explained in the write-up on the Falcons defensive ends, all signs point to the Falcons adopting more of a 3-4 schematic look in their base attack on defense this season. The addition of Soliai is a big part of that reason for he is the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle.
Big, strong and capable of absorbing double teams, Soliai gives the Falcons something they did not truly have with Corey Peters last season. Peters was capable in performing some of those roles, but was by no means the classic version of the 3-4 nose that usually weighs in above 320 pounds. Coupled with Peters’ recovery from injury, it was clear the Falcons were going to need more help at the position.
They found that in Soliai with a substantial long-term contract. If offensive tackle Jake Matthews is the jewel of the draft class, then Soliai is that for free agency based purely off his contract. And thus, it doesn’t make sense for a team to spend as much money as they did on 3-4 players like Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson and not utilize them in the manner that suits them best.
Soliai will start for the Falcons, but will likely be pulled off the field in most passing situations. That was the case in Miami as Soliai had a tendency to wear down over the course of games. The Falcons will need to find a way to minimize that.
A heavy rotation with Peters could be one answer, but that is dependent on his health. Peters told me himself that he is expecting to return for the regular season opener, and if that is the case then he’ll be able to earn reps replacing Soliai in passing situations.
Unlike some 3-4 teams, the Falcons will likely utilize a four-man front when they employ their nickel sub-packages on passing downs. It’s likely that the same starting lineup the team featured up front last season: Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi at the end spots with Peters and Jonathan Babineaux at tackle will be their go-to group. That potentially puts the team’s four best pass-rushers (minus linebacker Kroy Biermann) on the field at the same time.
Pushing for a chance to get into that mix is returning veteran Peria Jerry. Jerry flashed ability as a pass-rusher last season and was a regular at end when the Falcons utilized a three-man front. Jerry was a bit miscast in that role, since he lacks the ideal range and ability to reliably get off blocks to excel there. Jerry also got work at nose tackle during points in the year where Peters was injured and also did not fare especially better there.
In Jerry, the Falcons have a known commodity. He’s a player that is good enough to contribute from time to time in the rotation, but not good enough to be a significant part of it. With defensive ends like Jackson, Malliciah Goodman, and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman also in the mix for reps, it would seem that Jerry will be hard-pressed to carve out a distinctive role in the rotation.
Thus, Jerry’s best hope may be that Peters is not healthy for the early going of the season. Therefore, Jerry would be the likeliest player asked to supplant Soliai in passing situations.
Pushing him for that role will be Travian Robertson, who has earned minimal playing time in his two seasons with the Falcons. Robertson has flashed run-stuffing ability in the preseason, but has not been able to translate that into significant reps during the regular season. This summer will likely mark his last chance to really stick given the upgrades in talent elsewhere.
Undrafted rookie Donte Rumph is also in the mix for playing time. Another classic widebody in the same mold as Soliai, he could make a good candidate to develop on the practice squad for a year or two.
Hageman could also see reps here, since he played mostly defensive tackle during his days at Minnesota. However, Hageman played better when he was playing the five-technique defensive end spot than when he was asked to play the one-technique nose or three-technique tackle spots like Peters and Babinaeux, respectively. The Falcons may opt to move him all around the defensive line to increase his versatility this summer as part of their plan to develop him long-term. Especially given that Hageman might be harder pressed to see immediate playing time at end with Jackson, Babineaux and Goodman ahead of him on the depth chart.
Hageman’s best asset is his pure strength, which does translate well to playing nose tackle. The only issue is that Hageman’s long frame is not conducive to banging inside since it’s a lot easier for shorter centers and guards to get leverage against him.
But overall, the big questions surrounding the Falcons defensive tackle battles in camp surround the depth behind Soliai, centering on the health of Peters, and whether or not reserves like Jerry and Robertson are ready to step up and earn significant time.