An offseason priority for the Atlanta Falcons was “toughening up” their team, with an emphasis on bulking up on both lines of scrimmage. The team did just that when they opened up free agency by signing defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
For many, it signaled that the Falcons were moving to a 3-4 scheme. Why else would would they guarantee $25 million to players that have spent the bulk of their careers playing in that defensive scheme? While Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, prior to his arrival in Atlanta he had not coached a defense with a 4-3 as their base scheme in seven years. Nolan’s history signaled a clear preference for the 3-4 defense, and the signings of Soliai and Jackson appeared to be that preference finally coming to fruition in Atlanta after two years of a hybrid unit between the two schemes.
But Falcons head coach Mike Smith was quick to pump the brakes on those expectations, indicating that the team would still be utilizing a hybrid scheme. That makes sense given the team opted to bring back free agents Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry, who all were drafted by the Falcons originally to play in a 4-3 scheme.
Although it’s interesting that between the three of them, they are making less than $5 million in guaranteed money. So if money talks, then the Falcons will be tailoring their defense more towards the strengths of Jackson and Soliai, which should indicate more 3-4 “flavor” than 4-3 in their hybrid unit in 2014.
That should help a player like Malliciah Goodman, who has the ability to play in either scheme, but may project best in a 3-4 at defensive end. Goodman flashed good ability as a run defender as a rookie last year, and has reportedly bulked up considerably this offseason with the mindset of becoming a regular in the team’s base defense.
That development should benefit a player like Babineaux, who was the team’s top pass-rusher a year ago despite having a single sack. Per Moneyball game reviews which focus on All-22, Babineaux led the team with 13 “positive pass rushes,” which are sacks, quarterback hits and pressures combined. Babineaux also played the most of any Falcon defensive lineman last year with 924 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Only William Moore (1,064 snaps) and Desmond Trufant (1,022) played more on defense. Babineaux’s reps were the fourth-most of any interior defensive lineman in the league in 2013, and frankly way too much for a 32-year old player.
Goodman missed two games due to injury last season, but wound up playing 305 snaps. If he can carve a bigger role in the rotation, particularly on run downs, it will allow the team to streamline Babineaux’s playing time on passing downs. That could potentially cut his snap count in half, and thus keep him fresher for this year and give him a better chance to play out the remainder of what is expected to be his final NFL contract.
Like Goodman, Jackson and Soliai will primarily be run-first defenders that may be pulled off the field in the majority of passing situations. In those instances, they could potentially give way to Peters and Jerry. Peters is coming off his best season as a Falcon, but also an Achilles tear that could limit him at the start of the season. But he played well as the team’s nose tackle a year ago in their hybrid scheme, and would be the ideal option to supplant Soliai in passing situations. But he signed a one-year deal, and his status beyond 2014 is completely up in the air. If he has a strong rebound year where he’s a regular member of the rotation, he should expect a long-term offer. But if he struggles to see the field due to injury or other circumstances, it’s likely the Falcons will let him walk in 2015.
Jerry is also coming off his best season, but given the disappointing career he has had since being the team’s top pick in 2009, that is not saying much. Jerry did show some ability as a pass-rusher last season but often proved a liability against the run. Platooning him with Jackson would make a lot of sense. But Jerry lacks the ideal quickness that you want to see in a five-technique defensive end, one of the reasons why he was miscast on run downs a year ago.
So the Falcons may opt to bring another draft pick that can push Jerry for his roster spot. Ideally, it will be another young prospect in the same mold as Goodman that fits the 3-4 and offers pass-rushing upside. With a strong enough summer, that player could replace Jerry outright, but at the very least will be expected to redshirt this season as he gets adjusted to the pros. Down the road, the goal would to have said rookie and Goodman handle the starting end spots when the team goes to 3-4 looks. If the Falcons do intend to stick with the hybrid scheme long-term, the rookie might also be considered more of a tweener between a 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 end. Such a player would have the sort of quickness you look for in a penetrating tackle, but might also possess the size and length that you prefer in an end.
The Falcons may also look towards drafting another plugger in the middle. Given the unknown future of Peters coupled with the fact that third-string nose tackle Travian Robertson has done little in two seasons, another developmental guy to groom as Soliai’s heir apparent makes sense. If Robertson doesn’t step up this summer, then any rookie would be able to push him off the roster since the team can’t afford to carry more than one nose tackle that is buried on the depth chart.
In both cases, any additions here likely won’t be high priorities for the Falcons. If need be, the team could probably get by with Jerry and Robertson filling in the back end of their rotation. But they should not hesitate to add any good, young developmental player(s) on the third day of the draft if available.