One could argue that the Falcons need at defensive tackle exceeds that of their need at defensive end. That argument hinges on the fact that John Abraham is still productive, coupled with the presences of Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi gives the team two decent if not good options for the future. At defensive tackle, Jonathan Babineaux is entering the final year of his contract. Corey Peters has not developed into much of a pass rusher. Vance Walker is a free agent, and Peria Jerry is a bust. Right now, the only player that is a good bet to be on the Falcons roster come 2014 at defensive tackle is Travian Robertson, since Jerry and Peters are also entering contract years like Babs.
This of course could mean that the Falcons top pick this April could be an interior defensive lineman. But if they wish to explore their options in free agency prior to that point, they could find some upgrades.
The big question for the Falcons is going to be exactly what are they looking for at this position. Their run defense was porous in 2012, leading one to believe that their priority will be getting a widebody that can help there. But they also need help with the pass rush, and getting some better pressure up the middle certainly can help there. At this point, Babineaux is the only reliable guy that can get pressure up the middle, and he’s slowing down. Improving the run probably is more of a short-term goal that doesn’t require a significant investment, while improving the pass rush probably has much greater long-term value. And due to the premium teams put on quality pass rushers, it might require either a big investment in free agency or a high pick in the draft.
There really aren’t any signature free agents. Henry Melton (Bears) probably tops the list coming off a 6-sack season. Melton is an athletic player that played both running back and defensive end at Texas before moving inside for the Chicago Bears. He has flashed the ability to be a game-changer as an interior pass rusher. But I’m not sure if Melton is the next big thing in terms of interior pass rushers, as he didn’t wow me on tape. I think part of Melton’s success could do with the talent around him on the Bears front, which gives him a lot of one-on-one situations against inferior blockers. He has good quickness and is comfortable moving around the line. He played in some 3-man fronts at Texas, but has made his home as more of a 3-technique in the Bears defense. He’d have a chance to be a long-term replacement of Babineaux in the middle, as the two possess similar traits. But I’m not sure he’s the ideal candidate to be the “lead guy” on a unit, which are similar concerns I had about Ray Edwards two years ago.
Other notable names might have to come as teams begin to cut more players. Chris Canty (Giants) and Richard Seymour (Raiders) have already been given their walking papers. Canty was an effective pass rusher as primarily a nickel specialist for the Giants. He has experience in both the 3-4 and 4-3, making him a nice fit under Mike Nolan. But he turns 31 in November, making him just a year younger than Babineaux. That means he’s probably only a short-term solution that won’t be a dominant force in the middle (3 sacks in 2012). Seymour was once a dominant 3-4 end for the Patriots that was traded to the Raiders in 2009. While he provided good veteran leadership in their locker room and a physical presence against the run on the field, his skills have declined enough that he’s more of a backup at this point in his career than a starter. His ability as a pass rusher is fairly limited. He could help improve the Falcons run defense to a degree, but unless he’s willing to play on the cheap for one year, is probably not worth the time.
Other players that could be cut in the coming days or weeks could be Darnell Dockett (Cardinals), Kevin Williams (Vikings), and Jay Ratliff (Cowboys). Dockett and Babineaux have always been similar players. Dockett has been at times a dominant disruptor, but is coming off a subpar year. He’s not much of a run defender at this point in his career and probably would be best served playing primarily a role on passing downs. While he’s played in the 2-gap scheme in Arizona in recent years, he was never a great fit in it. His age (turns 32 in May) also means he’s just a short-term option.
Kevin Williams still has pretty good quickness and power for his age (he turns 33 in August). He can help out as a pass rusher, but is a far cry from the dominant interior player he was a few years ago when he was arguably the best at his position. He has the capacity to play in Nolan’s scheme, as a player with his size, strength, and quickness can carve a role in any scheme. But he’s not a great fit outside the 4-3.
Ratliff played nose tackle for the Cowboys in their 3-4 where he was a productive pass rusher. He still has decent quickness, but his age (32 in August) and injuries have sapped him in recent years. His skillset is similar to Babineaux and to abate his durability concerns might be forced to be more of a situational third down specialist in Atlanta.
Cullen Jenkins (Eagles) is another player that his team might part ways with. Jenkins played end in Green Bay’s 3-4 scheme for years. He has decent quickness and power and can provide pressure on the quarterback. But he’s not a great run defender anymore, and his age (just turned 32) makes him a less than ideal option.
Like the defensive end position, it makes more sense for the Falcons to target a younger player that has more potential to help out long-term than a short-term stopgap.
That probably hurts ex-Nolan players like Randy Starks (Dolphins), Aubrayo Franklin (Chargers), and Isaac Sopoaga (49ers). All played under Nolan in previous stints and performed well for him. Starks is the only one of that trio that is not already thirty years old, although he will be next December. Starks is a capable pass rusher because he possesses some quickness coupled with good strength. He can be an upgrade over what the Falcons currently have there, but won’t solve their issues. But what Starks does bring to the table is versatility, having played both end and nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, as well as being productive in a 4-3. Franklin was a key contributor for Nolan at the nose tackle spot, but since the coach’s departure from San Francisco after 2008, the player has struggled to find a home. Franklin certainly would give the team the classic 3-4 nose tackle that can be a widebody and help shield players like Sean Weatherspoon and Akeem Dent from blockers, much like he did in San Fran with Patrick Willis. Franklin is still a capable space eater at this point in his career, but given his age he’d probably have to sign a cheap one-year deal to get a chance in Atlanta. Sopoaga played a similar role in San Francisco under Nolan as Starks has in Miami playing both end and the nose. But at this point in his career he’s just a two-down run stopper, and not a great one at that. He gets the job done certainly, but again his age (32 in September) likely preempts anything more than a relatively low one-year offer.
Some other young guys that are known more for their pass rush potential that could be on the Falcons radar are Desmond Bryant (Raiders) and Jason Jones (Seahawks). Both are much better fits as 3-technique defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme rather than the hybrid scheme of Nolan. But both have experience playing end in a 4-3, so it’s not a huge leap to have them play both inside and outside for the Falcons. Jones starred in Tennessee as an inside pass rush specialist. He was not quite that player with the Seahawks, but still has decent quickness to be an effective situational player. Bryant is a similar player but with far less acclaim. His upside means that he could potentially be a suitable replacement for Babineaux if he continues to polish his pass rush ability.
Other free agent targets that probably fit best in a 4-3 include Sedrick Ellis (Saints), Sen’Derrick Marks (Titans), and Derek Landri (Eagles). Ellis came into the league with a lot of potential back in 2008, but has never really put it all together as a consistent impact player. After 6 sacks in 2010, he’s just tallied 0.5 the past two years. Ellis is not a great fit in a 3-4 scheme, and doesn’t have the quickness off the ball to really think he’s going to rebound and become an impact pass rusher once more. Marks has good size with decent quickness and power and reminds me a bit of Corey Peters in overall ability. He’s probably best as a No. 3 tackle rather than a starter, but can be a productive option in the rotation. Landri is another player that is better suited to be a reserve. But he is a high motor player that can help out both vs. the run and occasionally provide pressure as a pass rusher.
Glenn Dorsey (Chiefs) is like Ellis, a player that had a lot of promise coming out in the 2008 draft. Dorsey was miscast in the schemes of the Chiefs over the years, but has found a home as an end in their 3-4 scheme. At this point in his career, the quickness that was a trademark of Dorsey in his All-American days at LSU is no longer there. He can help out a rotation for a 3-4 team at end, but he’s more of a two-gap run stuffer that offers similar value to Vance Walker rather than being an impact starter.
Alan Branch (Seahawks) has good size and can help beef up the Falcons run defense. But Branch never really took to playing the nose during his days in Arizona, and was always more effective at end in the 3-4 as well as playing under tackle in Seattle’s 4-3 the past few years. Another 3-4 end that could help the Falcons beef up against the run is Vaughn Martin (Chargers). Martin has midcast as a starter the past two years in San Diego. But he has good size and some quickness to help out a team’s rotation, and could be a suitable replacement for Walker if he does not return.
Terrance Knighton (Jaguars) is another widebody that could be a decent option for the Falcons if they choose to add beef in the middle. Knighton has played both the nose in the 3-4 and 4-3 over the years in Jacksonville. He’s been criticized for questionable work ethic and inconsistency over the years, making him less than an ideal fit for what the Falcons prefer at the position. But he certainly has size and probably won’t command a huge price on the open market.
There really are no great options for the Falcons. There are plenty of stopgap veterans that can bolster the Falcons rotation both as pass rushers and run defenders, but besides Melton or perhaps Bryant, nobody that seems like a great fit to solve their issues long-term. If the Falcons are going more for the stopgap, and hope to get their long-term answers in the draft, then Randy Starks due to his familiarity with Nolan probably represents the best option. But Starks is coming off a Pro Bowl year (injury replacement), and likely won’t be cheap.