If you’re making a case for what is the Atlanta Falcons biggest draft need, it starts and ends with edge pass-rusher.
The lack of a significant pass rush has plagued the team for multiple seasons. The last time the team finished in the top 15 league-wide in sacks was 2008, and the last time they finished in the top 10 was in 2004 when they led the entire league with 48 sacks.
Frankly, the Falcons wasted the talents of John Abraham for the seven years he played in Atlanta as they were never able to surround him with a good enough supporting cast to create a consistently effective pass rush. The Falcons have watched team after team tee off on Matt Ryan over the past few seasons, yet have rarely done the same to opposing quarterbacks. It is long overdue that changes.
Thus, it was disappointing when the team opted to not make any major moves during free agency to improve the pass rush. Instead the team focused their attention on adding run defenders like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson along with retaining the likes of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. While the latter three are solid players, they are simply part of the pass-rush-deficient problem that has plagued the team for multiple years.
So things now turn to the draft where the Falcons must find a way to improve the league’s worst third-down defense.
However that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie pass-rusher to essentially carry the unit, even if said rookie isas gifted as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.
But any rookie will get help from the likes of Jonathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora and Stansly Maponga. The Falcons are retaining their hybrid scheme, but may play with “more 3-4 flavor” than previously under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
That would mean good things for Massaquoi and Biermann, who probably are the best fits to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 unit. Massaquoi is in a position where he could be the breakout player on defense. Certainly, teammates like Sean Weatherspoon are expecting bigger things from the third-year pro. But personally, I think Massaquoi is a better fit playing with his hand on the ground. While he possesses the athleticism to drop in coverage, his awareness last season when asked to play in space was underwhelming. That is something that can improve, as it certainly did for Biermann, but takes time. It wasn’t until Biermann’s fifth season in 2012 when he finally stopped looking lost when dropping into coverage.
Biermann is coming off a torn Achilles, and spent the bulk of his time last season prior to that injury playing outside linebacker. If he is healthy and returns, he’ll likely play the same role, which will feature less pass-rushing and more coverage and run-defending duties.
Umenyiora has made his bones in the NFL rushing with his hand on the ground and is destined to be the top option when the team likely employs a four-man front in their nickel and other sub-package fronts. Given his experience and being the incumbent team-leader in sacks (7.5 in 2013) affords him that right.
Maponga got reps late last season thanks to a youth movement brought on by a poor record and could be hard-pressed to earn reps this year if the Falcons get a high-profile rookie and Biermann is back healthy. But he’ll likely back up Umenyiora and the team will hope that any sluggishness he showed last summer was due to missing much of the offseason recovering from an injury.
It’s almost a certainty that the Falcons won’t reach the third day of this year’s draft without addressing their need to get someone that can line up on the outside and provide pressure on the quarterback. That player could be more of a stand-up linebacker or a down defensive end, and whichever likely impacts Massaquoi’s role the most. If the Falcons add someone that is more natural at linebacker (e.g. Khalil Mack), Massaquoi will likely play with his hand in the dirt and be groomed to replace Umenyiora who is playing in the final year of his contract. If the Falcons add someone that is more of a defensive end, Massaquoi will likely be asked to stand up and be groomed to replace Biermann, who is also entering the final year of his contract.
Essentially what Nolan’s hybrid scheme boils down to is a team featuring one edge spot a 4-3 defensive end and at the other a 3-4 outside linebacker. After this year’s draft, it’s likely that the Falcons will be looking primarily at their rookie and Massaquoi to fill those roles and anchor their pass rush for years to come.