Relative to many positions on the Falcons roster, the defensive line won’t see a lot of shakeup during training camp. The four starters are pretty much settled and the majority of the reserves are fairly secure in their roster spots. The brunt of the competition will be based around many of those reserve players trying to carve out larger niches in the Falcons rotation.
The four starters that are likely to open the season include John Abraham and Ray Edwards at defensive end and Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters at defensive tackle. As far as the starters go, the issues to watch are how much improvement both Edwards and Peters make, and whether Babineaux can bounce back after a subpar 2011.
Edwards was hampered by an injury last summer, but also never seemed to mesh with Brian VanGorder. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan hopes to fix that issue, and it seems that Edwards has already warmed up to him and his new scheme. Last season, Peters flashed top-level playmaking skills, but still has yet to develop the sort of consistency to put together a complete season. It will be interesting to see whether or not the fact that he won’t have to look too much over his shoulder will drive him for greater success this season. Babineaux was hampered by an injury early last year, and the Falcons are hopeful that his production will return to a level where it was prior to 2011 when he was one of the most disruptive interior players in the league.
For bench players like Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury, both won’t have to worry too much about not collecting a check from the Falcons this year. Last year Biermann stole reps in nickel situations from Edwards. He’ll be competing to show that the new deal he signed this past off-season was money well worth spending. Biermann likely benefited to a degree from the relationship with VanGorder, and will have to find a way to similarly impress Nolan that he is worthy of being the top backup in the rotation. Sidbury was no sure thing to make the roster last summer, so a year has made a world of difference. Sidbury flashed potential last season and will be working to carve out a larger spot in the rotation. He’ll push Biermann to be the team’s top reserve. He’ll need to show improvement as a run defender, where Biermann has the edge. Abraham’s playing time is stream-lined so that the majority of snaps he comes off the field will be in running situations. And if Edwards can bounce back and earn Nolan’s trust on passing situations, then there may not be as many opportunities there as well. Becoming a more all-around player will be the key to Sidbury taking the next step.
Outside those six, the roster spots aren’t solidified. The Falcons will likely keep at least nine, but potentially ten players to beef up their rotation. A big part of the competition will be at tackle, where Peria Jerry, Vance Walker, and rookie Travian Robertson will all be competing for playing time. Jerry’s roster spot is probably the safest because his contract is structured so that cutting him doesn’t help the Falcons cap situation to a significant degree. And Vance Walker has proven himself over the years to be a valuable rotation player, making him less likely to be cut. Robertson will need a strong summer to move up the depth chart, but should be kept as a potential fifth tackle. The Falcons carried five tackles for much of last year with Carlton Powell in that role. That makes undrafted rookie Micanor Regis on the outside looking in as far as the roster goes, since he’s unlikely to leap frog all three players to make the team. But with a strong summer, he definitely can be a candidate for the practice squad.
At end, one of the big battles will come in the competition between Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews for the fifth defensive end spot. It’s unlikely that the Falcons will try and carry six defensive ends. It’s not impossible that the Falcons may opt to carry six defensive ends, particularly if they try and work either Massaquoi or Matthews at outside linebacker. But given only four ends will likely be active on game days, carrying a sixth player will mean that the roster could be depleted elsewhere. Massaquoi has the edge given that he has a bit higher upside as a pass rusher. Most years the Falcons have only seen their fifth defensive end as a special teams player, which may limit Massaquoi’s contributions as a rookies. But if he has a strong summer, he could push for playing time during the regular season comparable to Sidbury back in 2009. Even if the Falcons part ways with Matthews, he is still a prime candidate for the practice squad. He will need to have a strong summer to make the roster.
Also competing will be Louis Nzegwu, who is in a similar boat as Regis in facing long odds to make the roster. But he has the sort of athletic talent that can make him a nice project to carry and develop on the practice squad for a year or two.
Overall the issue along the defensive line won’t about shuffling around the roster, but more about Nolan trying to get more out of the current slate of players.