There is talk that the Falcons could opt to part ways with Abraham who turns 35 in May. If so, then they will have to definitely replace him with another player that can anchor the pass rush. The Falcons would then like to replace something old with something new, more than likely leading them to find Abe’s replacement in the draft. But they could have potential options in free agency. But cutting Abraham seems unlikely given his status on the team as the best pass rusher. If anything, he might be asked to take a paycut and will be expected to serve primarily as a third down pass rusher this year in the nickel subpackage. That will mean that the Falcons may seek to find someone that can also play on run downs, rather than someone that is purely a pass rusher.
The first decision the Falcons will have to make at this position in regards to free agency is whether or not to re-sign Lawrence Sidbury. Sidbury has flashed nice pass rushing skills, and arguably is only behind Abe in terms of who are the best rushers on the team currently. But Sidbury is not great at defending the run and has a minimal impact on special teams, which has made it harder for the team to justify him being active on Sundays. The Falcons have so few good pass rushers, it’d be hard to let Sidbury walk. But it probably comes down to price tag. If he’s willing to accept a modest deal in line with backup ends, then the chances he returns to Atlanta are higher. In that case, we’d be talking something along the lines of deals for one or two seasons that average less than $3 million per year. But if he’s looking for something that matches or exceeds the roughly $9 million that Kroy Biermann got over three years, then he’s likely gone.
There are a number of good pass rushers that should be available this off-season, although not sure if there are any great ones. Several big names will jump to the top of the list. Dwight Freeney (Colts) and Osi Umenyiora (Giants) are both free agents. Neither player is the dominant pass rusher they once were, but still effective at getting after the quarterback with good speed. But both players, like Abraham, at this point in their careers probably need to be protected in terms of reps. Neither player seem to project well into the hybrid defense that Nolan employs. Freeney played in a similar scheme last year in Indianapolis, and didn’t take quite well to it. But Freeney’s spin move is still one of the most deadly moves in the league which means if the Falcons were going to opt for a more traditional 4-3 look, he’d be an option. Umenyiora essentially became a situational rusher for the Giants last year with Jason Pierre-Paul taking over the full-time starting spot at right end. He’s still quick speed rusher, but has never been known for his enthusiasm for playing the run, nor is he versed into dropping into coverage. If the Falcons try to do with him what they did with Abraham last year, it’s likely going to be a very rocky relationship.
Some names that might become available if their respective teams opt to cut them are Justin Tuck (Giants), Jason Babin (Jaguars), and Will Smith (Saints). Tuck isn’t the same player he was a few years ago. He still has something left in the tank, but he’s no longer an impact pass rusher that you can rely on making multiple plays per game. Babin could have been an option for the Falcons late in the year. He’s still a competent speed rusher, and unlike the others has experience playing in the 3-4 so he wouldn’t be a true square peg in Nolan’s scheme. But Babin isn’t known for his great locker room presence, which probably prompted the Falcons to pass on him initially. And he did little in Jacksonville to suggest that decision was a mistake. Smith has had good performances against the Falcons over the years going up against Sam Baker, but overall is just nothing special as a pass rusher. He too would probably be miscast in a Nolan scheme.
The problem with many of the names I’ve mentioned already is age. Even if the Falcons could get production from some of them, all are on the wrong side of 30, and would essentially be lateral moves in regards to replacing/complementing Abraham. If the Falcons are going to go after free agent pass rushers, it makes much more sense to target players with much more youth.
Free agents like Michael Bennett (Bucs), Michael Johnson (Bengals), Cliff Avril (Lions), Connor Barwin (Texans), Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), and Paul Kruger (Ravens) make much more sense then. Spencer is the eldest, as he just turned 29 in January. Johnson is the youngest, turning 26 earlier this month. And unlike the other names mentioned, all probably project a little better in the Nolan scheme due to their athleticism and/or experience playing in the 3-4.Bennett is probably the least conventional fit of the group. He’s been a productive pass rusher the past two years, with a combined 11 sacks in his last 19 games. Bennett has good size and strength, and when he was coming out of Texas A&M had a skillset that mirrored more of a pass rushing defensive tackle than a true edge rusher. That could mean that the Falcons could tinker with the idea of moving him inside in certain situations similar to how the Giants have used Justin Tuck over the years. He’s not going to be a great pass rusher, but certainly is an upgrade coming off a solid 9-sack season. Bennett is not going to play the same role as Abraham or Biermann would, but could be a good option at end on run downs, and then kick inside on nickel situations to provide better interior pressure.
Johnson and Avril probably have the most upside of the group, because both are the most explosive edge rushers. Johnson has the long frame with good straight-line speed and athleticism. It’s not hard seeing him being able to drop into coverage at times and cover tight ends on occasion. He was raw coming out of Georgia Tech in 2009 but he’s developed nicely and may be starting to hit his stride (11.5 sacks in 2012). Avril may be even more explosive off the edge, being able to shine at times in the “Wide 9” techniques that the Lions often employ. His production dipped a bit in 2012, but not by a huge degree (11 sacks in 2011 to 9.5 last year). The issue with Avril is that he has almost no passion for defending the run. Part of that is the attacking scheme the Lions employ which basically asks their linemen to defend the run on the way to the quarterback, but Avril is probably the least effective of the group when it comes to that. He’d be a much better candidate than Abraham to be the Falcon’s situational nickel pass rusher because of that.
Barwin, Spencer, and Kruger all have experience playing in 3-4 schemes. Barwin had a breakout 2011 campaign with 11.5 sacks, but his production tanked this past year with 3 sacks. Barwin has good athleticism and a nice first step off the edge. But he is probably closer to Biermann in terms of talent than Abraham, meaning that he’s mostly a complementary pass rusher. He certainly can help out the Falcons rotation and is probably still an upgrade over Biermann on the edge, but may not be a reliable impact pass rusher. Spencer is more of a pure 3-4 outside linebacker that is comfortable dropping into coverage. But he’s an underwhelming pass rusher because he’s not blessed with great speed off the edge. He’s coming off a career year with 11 sacks but in his three previous years as a Cowboy starter, he averaged less than 6 sacks per year. It’s most likely that his 2012 production is an aberration rather than the new norm.
Kruger had a breakout year in Baltimore, and was one of their key contributors on defense for their stretch run in the playoffs that ultimately led to the Super Bowl. He had 4.5 sacks in the postseason, and 12 sacks in his final 12 games of 2012, playoffs included. But as Danny O’Neil of the Seattle Times notes, it’s probably not a coincidence that uptick in production coincided with the midseason return of Terrell Suggs to the Ravens lineup. Prior to this year, Kruger never really found a home in the Ravens defense, moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. With the loss of Jarret Johnson last off-season, he was expected to provide help at outside linebacker. He ultimately did, but got off to a meager start until he had a player like Suggs, even a diminished form, lining up across from him. It all probably means that Kruger is a complementary pass rusher. That won’t be so bad in Atlanta, because he should be lining up across from Abraham. Kruger is a superior pass rusher to Biermann because he has bigger frame and good speed which makes him an effective power rusher off the edge. Kruger isn’t a great run defender however, nor is he gifted in coverage. Competent is the best way to describe him, however one could probably describe the Falcons current ends in the same manner.A few pass rushers that could sneak under the radar are Rob Jackson (Redskins), Willie Young (Lions), and Victor Butler (Cowboys). Jackson filled in for an injured Brian Orakpo in Washington’s 3-4 this year. He made a number of big plays in coverage but he’s not much as a pass rusher due to average edge speed. As a role player that can add depth and help out in coverage against tight ends he could work for the right price. Young is probably the Lions player rather than Avril that the Falcons might want to keep their eyes on. The Lions expected 2012 to be his breakout campaign, but it was disappointing from a production standpoint (no sacks). But when you watch Young play, you understand why the Lions’ coaches were very high on his potential. He has a good long frame with long arms and excellent athleticism. His speed is good, but he’s still developing the technique and moves it requires to be an effective edge rusher. Unlike many of his Lion counterparts (such as Avril), there are zero concerns about Young’s motor and ability to play the run. Like Jackson, he’ll be a restricted free agent. As a former seventh round pick, the compensation could be exceedingly low for him. If the Lions don’t tender him at the first or second round level, then the Falcons probably need to jump all over that.
Butler will be an unrestricted free agent. He has good edge speed, but not to a level where you expect him to be significantly more productive in Atlanta than he has been in Dallas the past few years (11 sacks in 4 seasons). But he can add depth and is comparable to Biermann as a player with some quickness and plays with a good motor.
Matt Shaughnessy (Raiders), Shaun Phillips (Chargers), and if cut, Mark Anderson (Bills) could be other notable players on the open market. Shaughnessy is a solid player that had a nice 7-sack campaign in 2010. But since has battled injuries and doesn’t possess the explosive burst off the edge to think he’s going to have many more years like that going forward. Phillips is another elder player, that like Avril and Spencer was produced out of Purdue’s pass rushing factory (other ex-Boilermakers include Ray Edwards, Rob Ninkovich, and Ryan Kerrigan). But he turns 32 in May, and going forward is probably closer to the guy that had 3.5 sacks in 2011 than the one that had 9.5 in 2012. Anderson was a big money signing by the Bills last spring, but had a very disappointing year (1 sack) and was benched half-way through it. He’s always been a player that has been at his best as a situational rusher in a 4-3 scheme, making him a poor fit in Atlanta.
There are no slam dunks with the Falcons if they choose to go down this path. If the team is going to try and make a big splash with a sizable contract, then the best bets are probably Michael Johnson or Paul Kruger. Both should be relatively good fits in Nolan’s scheme, and both have enough production and/or upside to think that they can continue to produce in Atlanta unlike Ray Edwards. But similar to Edwards, both are largely complementary pass rushers rather than the guys that truly make their units go. Johnson plays second fiddle to Carlos Dunlap in Cincinnati, while Kruger is the lesser of the duo that features Suggs. So the Falcons do need to have some level of wariness negotiated into their deals.
If there is a sleeper candidate, it would be Detroit’s Willie Young. But that will all come down to where the Lions tender him. Presumably the Lions think highly enough of him to tend him at least at the second-round level and thus would require the Falcons to give him a substantial offer sheet (to deter the Lions from matching) and give up their second round pick this year. While he has the potential to be worth that investment, it’s probably too risky given what little returns Young has given thus far in his three-year career. However if the Lions tender him at the original level that means the Falcons would only need to give up a seventh round pick, and Young’s upside is definitely worth that even with the increased offer sheet it would likely require. Placing Young under Abraham’s wing for a year or two could do wonders for his development.
If the Falcons can’t figure out a way to find the money to spend on these guys, then it probably just means that the wait until April to address their pass rush.