As with some other positions, free agency could offer a significant shake up to this unit if the Falcons pursue a veteran free agent on the open market. But recent reports put a damper on that possibility.
If the Falcons do spend money to go out and get a top-notch free agent such as Charles Johnson or Ray Edwards, then you can pencil in that player to be the starting left end. If not, then Kroy Biermann should be expected back for another year. While Biermann disappointed many with his less than stellar production last year (only 3 sacks), one gets the feeling that the Falcons brass aren’t as down on him as many in the fan base. John Abraham is locked in at right end.
Regardless of whether the Falcons make moves in free agency, the bulk of the competition on the outside will involve several players fighting for depth spots.
If the Falcons do nothing in free agency, it probably makes the odds that Jamaal Anderson returns for fifth season in Atlanta much higher. Anderson is Biermann’s top backup at left end, and his prowess in defending the run helps depth and keeps Biermann fresher. If the Falcons were to add a free agent, it would make it tougher to bring Anderson back unless they moved Biermann primarily to the right side behind Abraham.
Behind Abraham, the team will likely have a three-way competition for who is his top backup. The incumbent is Chauncey Davis, who fills a similar niche as Anderson. But it is becoming increasingly redundant to have both players on the roster, and any addition made in free agency would likely push one of them off the roster. Davis probably has the least firm footing between the two.
Pushing Davis will be Lawrence Sidbury and rookie Cliff Matthews. Matthews is probably on the outside looking in. His small stature (257 pounds) and undeveloped technique would make him a longshot to beat out either Davis or Sidbury for a roster spot. In recent seasons, the Falcons have carried five defensive ends on the regular season roster, and being that fifth guy might be Matthews best chances to make the team. But more than likely, as has been the case the past two seasons, that player will be inactive most weeks and required to play special teams when he does suit up, making him more of a body than a contributor in 2011.
That leaves Sidbury possibly out of the mix. After a promising preseason last summer, Sidbury proceeded to ride the pine almost the entire 2010 season, souring many on whether or not the Falcons are optimistic about his future. Sidbury offers more pass rush potential than Davis, but he needs to prove that he can also add value on run downs if he expects to unseat an established player like Davis.
More than likely, Davis and Sidbury will be competing for one roster spot, while Matthews may land the fifth spot dependent on how strong a summer he has. Otherwise, he could be headed to the practice squad. Any addition in free agency, will make it that much harder for Davis or Sidbury to remain.
Inside, the Falcons also will have their share of competition. Like Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux is not going anywhere. But the team is likely to have an open competition for the starting spot beside him. The incumbent is second-year pro Corey Peters, but he should be pushed by third-year man Peria Jerry. The team likely would prefer Jerry to be the starter to confirm his higher draft status, but Peters certainly isn’t expected to roll over and give up his job without a fight.
Jerry is going to have to show the coaching staff that his knee is 100% and remain healthy throughout the summer. Jerry offers greater pass rush potential than Peters due to superior power and quickness, but has had limited opportunities to display his run-stopping abilities in the past. That will be an important element to that competition. Peters struggled throughout most of his rookie season but came on towards the end of the year. If he picks up where he left off, he’ll be difficult to unseat since he represents a potentially better option to play on those first and second downs against the run.
Also on the roster will be Vance Walker and Trey Lewis. Thomas Johnson is a free agent and probably not expected to return. Walker is the likelier of the pair to make the roster. Lewis started the season opener due to a suspended Jonathan Babineaux a year ago, but then never suited up after that point. His 316 pounds make him the heaviest defender on the team, he has struggled to defend the run in recent seasons. That is something of a strength of Walker, who has been a valuable run stuffer over the past two seasons. But it should be noted that Lewis did seem to outperform Walker during last summer’s camp. So Walker is going to need to have a stronger summer than he did a year ago, despite having a much better body of work during the regular season.
Also on the roster is end Emmanuel Stephens, who flashed quickness off the edge last summer. He still should be a candidate for the practice squad, although if the Falcons put Matthews there it will be tougher. But another strong summer and he’ll definitely be in the mix. If the Falcons don’t add a veteran free agent at this position, they still should opt to fill out their depth chart with some undrafted rookies to bolster competition at either end or tackle, particularly the latter.