The Falcons appear to be set with their two starters at the defensive end position. Free agent pickup Osi Umenyiora will draw the tall order of replacing one of the team’s all-time best in John Abraham at right defensive end. Kroy Biermann will once again fill in as the team’s left defensive end.
But the rest of the position will feature heavy competition as a number of young players compete not for starting spots, but for placement and reps in the team’s rotation.
The likeliest candidate to serve as the team’s third defensive end will be Jonathan Massaquoi, who enters his second season with the team. He played very little on defense last year, with most of his play coming on special teams. He was very effective there and coupled with his upside as a pass rusher, he’s in no danger to be cut. But the Falcons will look for him to have a good summer as he is the candidate most likely to figure into the Falcons nickel subpackage if/when Umenyiora and Biermann aren’t on the field. The multiple fronts presented by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could easily feature all three, especially given Biermann’s ability to drop into coverage like a linebacker.
Another player that is assured of making the final roster is 2013 fourth round pick Malliciah Goodman. Goodman’s best shot at earning playing time will more than likely come on run downs in the team’s base package as they look to get more size on the field. While Biermann is a consistent run defender, Umenyiora is not, and it’s likely that Massaquoi won’t be asked to play a major part in that role. Goodman possesses good physical tools to develop long-term into an effective pass rusher, but probably his best chance of earning lots of initial playing time will be proving himself as a run defender.
The past three seasons the Falcons have opted to keep at least five defensive ends on the roster, although last year that number was six until the November release of Ray Edwards. That probably will be the case again with Cliff Matthews and Stansly Maponga rounding out the depth chart. If the Falcons only opt for five on the roster, Matthews is the likelier candidate. Given his ability to help as a run defender, high motor, and value on special teams he has a leg up on Maponga, who missed most of the offseason coming off a leg injury. While Maponga offers better long-term value down the road as a pass rusher, he’s unlikely to offer immediate value to the rotation. If the Falcons do opt to keep six ends on the roster, Maponga will likely be the last and is primed to spend most of the year on the team’s inactive list each Sunday. Not unless he can showcase special teams prowess along the same lines of Matthews and Massaquoi a year ago, and show he’s 100% recovered from his injury. While Maponga isn’t guaranteed to make the team’s 53-man roster, he’s almost certainly a lock to be carried on the team’s practice squad at a minimum.
Two other players that the Falcons will bring to camp but are longshots to make the roster are undrafted rookies Cam Henderson and Brandon Thurmond. Henderson has a solid frame (6-4/260) with good arm length (over 34 inches) that passes the eyeball test when it comes to NFL defensive ends. Thurmond is shorter, squatter player with short arms but had excellent production while at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Between the two, it really doesn’t matter who looks better in a uniform, it will come down to any production they can produce on the field. If either player can impress with a strong preseason, the Falcons might opt to carry a seventh defensive end on their practice squad.