The Falcons pass rush was a major blemish on the defense last year. Mike Smith’s defenses have historically had their most success when they can get consistent pressure with the front four only. But about a month into the season, the Falcons had to switch to a blitz-heavy scheme, and were reliant on that blitz to get pressure in critical situations. It wound up leaving the secondary hung out to dry too often in coverage and led to too much breakdowns in coverage.
If the Falcons want to get their defense to a level where they can compete with the premier offenses in the league, the pass rush must improve.
But before the Falcons can look elsewhere for those improvements, they have to examine their own. The Falcons might opt to part ways with John Abraham this off-season. He’s due a $6.5 million base salary. And because of the uncapped season, dead money is no longer a factor. So if the Falcons don’t think much is left in the tank of Abraham, then it would make sense to cut him sooner rather than later. The Falcons might also decide to part ways with Jamaal Anderson, who has not made significant improvements as a defensive end. If Anderson is to come back, it’ll likely be as a defensive tackle exclusively.
If the Falcons are looking for someone to man the left end spot, then they will find no shortage of quality left ends available in free agency. Unfortunately, all of them are 30 or over.
Julius Peppers is chief among these, and just turned 30 in January. Peppers has been relatively consistent in terms of his production throughout his career. Excluding his poor 2.5 sack season in 2007, he’s averaged roughly 11 sacks per season. But Peppers is an expensive option. The Panthers aren’t expected to franchise tag him this off-season because the price tag will exceed $20 million. But it’s likely Peppers will look for a comparable amount in bonus money from any team looking for his services.
The best option maybe Aaron Kampman. He was miscast in the Packers 3-4 last season, but still managed 3.5 sacks in 9 games. He will turn 31 in November, so his age is a concern. BUt Kampman did have 9.5 sacks in 2008 in the 4-3 scheme. He tore his ACL last season and is expected to be ready for training camp, but may miss a significant portion of OTAs.
Also on the list is Reggie Hayward, who played for Mike Smith in Jacksonville making him a familiar option. But Heyward is a walking injury, having missed a combined 34 games in the past four seasons. He’s been semi-productive when healthy, but since he’s unreliable due to his durability, he shouldn’t be signed for more than a one-year veteran minimum deal.
Another option would be Adewale Ogunleye. He’ll be 33 in August, but has averaged roughly 7 sacks per year for the past four years in Chicago. Leonard Little will be 36 this year, but had 6.5 sacks last year for the Rams in a situational role. Derrick Burgess also played in a situational role as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end for the Patriots. He had 5 sacks in New England last year.
The issue the Falcons might have to face is how much money they want to commit to a 30-year old defensive end. And while each might have one or two good years left in the tank, free agency contracts often are handed out for four or five years. So do the Falcons want to commit a significant bonus to a player that they know they will likely cut in two years?
And how much money do the Falcons want to commit when the structure of the future CBA and its rules for bonuses are unknown.
The smart option is probably signing Kampman since he probably gives you the best bang for your buck. But the question the Falcons must ask themselves is there a such thing as having too much experience at what is becoming a young man’s position.