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Falcons need to find help at defensive end

It seems most everyone can agree that a major area of weakness for the Falcons team and defense is their pass rush. The Falcons inability to provide adequate pressure on Aaron Rodgers was a big reason why the Falcons defense was embarrassed in its poorest showing of the year, giving up 48 points in a postseason loss.

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Ray Edwards: The New John Abraham?

John Abraham had a resurgent year, going from 5.5 sacks in 2009 to 13 in 2010. But I would argue that overall, while Abe’s production improved in the sack department, his ability to get to the quarterback wasn’t significantly better. As many may have noticed by looking at the final regular season stats for Moneyball, Abraham was credited with 6.5 quarterback pressures and 5.5 quarterback hits in addition to his 12 sacks (one of his official sacks was credited as a hit under Moneyball rules). A year ago, he had 3.5 Moneyball-credited sacks along with 18 pressures and 3 hits. For those unfamiliar with the Moneyball concept, a QB pressure is considered when a defender’s pressure on a QB results in an incomplete pass. So if one were to add up sacks, pressures, and hits all as positive pass rushes (PPRs), then in 2009, Abe had 24.5 and this past year 24 PPRs.

Now I’m not quite sure how to quantify the net difference between having 7.5 more sacks in one year and 9 less pressures/hits. I’d certainly argue that a sack should count a bit more because it results in a loss of yardage, which is probably better for a defense than an incompletion. But I don’t know quite how much better, and figuring that out might be best left to other experts.

But the bigger story from 2009 to 2010 may not be how much or little Abraham improved, but the significant dropoff from other members of the Falcons front. Most notably Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux. Biermann went from 27 PPRs in 2009 to 14 this past year. Babineaux dropped from 26 PPRs last year to 15.5. The combination of Thomas Johnson, Peria Jerry, and Vance Walker a year ago combined for 10 PPRs. This year with Jerry, Walker, and Corey Peters running the show that number was roughly the same at 10.5. But Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis, and Lawrence Sidbury combined for 21.5 PPRs in 2009. But this year, the Falcons only got 11 from those same players, including no production from Sidbury.

It’s clear that the Falcons probably need to work on getting more pressure from the outside for next year. Who knows what sort of changes could occur with Abraham being a year older. Will Biermann and Babineaux bounce back to their previous 2009 form? How much improvement can Jerry and Peters show? All questions that won’t be answered until the 2011 season begins. But in the meantime the Falcons would be smart to try and improve the area so that there isn’t even more decline next season.

Now getting to free agency, who knows if there will be free agency this off-season. Most signs seem to point to a protracted lockout this off-season, which will preclude any form of free agency from occurring. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume (although it might be more along the lines of pretending) that free agency does occur this off-season. But we still won’t be even sure what type of free agency occurs. Will it be the free agency of a year ago where only players with six or more years of experience were allowed to test the open market as unrestricted free agents? Or will it feature like it has for most of the past with fourth-year players allowed to hit the market? I don’t know, but I present two possible options in either case.

If it’s the former and only players with six or more years are available, then the Falcons options will be much more limited. But there is one player that shoots to the top of the list in such an event and that is Tennessee Titans free agent Jason Babin. Up to now in his career, Babin has been a journeyman. Originally a first round choice of the Houston Texans in 2004, he had three mediocre years there before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2007. Since then, he’s played for the Seahawks, Chiefs, Eagles, and was picked up by the Titans this past off-season. Well he managed to lead that team with 12.5 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl bid.

Babin was essentially the player that the Falcons were hoping Biermann would be this year as the starting left end. Both are listed at the identical size according to NFL.com (6-3/260), and Babin not only was able to provide pressure for the Titans, he also was a solid run defender despite his lack of ideal size.

The question is whether the limited supply and high demand will drive Babin’s asking price too high. And given that Babin is set to turn 31 in May, it may be a smarter move for the Falcons to try and develop Biermann, who is five years Babin’s junior. Concerns of whether Babin is a one-year wonder who benefited from the tutelage of respected position coach Jim Washburn (now with the Eagles) also can be raised.

The other big name that could hit the open market is Minnesota Vikings pass rusher Ray Edwards. Edwards is only coming off his fifth year in the league, and will need the old rules of free agency to apply in order to test the market. Otherwise, he’ll be a restricted free agent, and would likely require the Falcons to give up a high draft pick (first round?) to acquire. Edwards is a bit more proven than Babin, coming off 8.5 and 8 sack seasons, respectively. As far as comparisons go, Edwards is similar to Abraham due to his quick first step and ability to challenge the edge. They are also of similar size, both at 6-5 with Edwards being listed at 268 pounds, 5 pounds heavier than Abraham. Edwards has played almost exclusively left end since the Vikings picked up Allen, but has the sort of burst that teams tend to target in right ends. Not to mention, Edwards is mediocre when it comes to playing the run, the same reputation that Abraham had when he first joined the Falcons.

One issue with Edwards that teams must address is whether or not he’s a guy that is overly benefiting from the presence of Jared Allen opposite him. Edwards isn’t a huge playmaker besides his sack numbers. He’s only forced 2 fumbles in the past three seasons. Stripplng the QB is often a hallmark of top pass rushers. Typically right ends get more strips than left ends because they are often attacking the quarterback’s blind side, but even a premier left end like New York’s Justin Tuck has 11 forced fumbles in the past two seasons. From 2004-08, Abraham totaled 21 forced fumbles. The past two years, that number has dwindled to 3. A simple statistical comparison seems to suggest Edwards is more akin to the Abraham that has played the past two years, that by most accounts has been a significantly diminished form of the dominant player that played in New York and his first few years in Atlanta.

Edwards celebrated his 26th birthday earlier this month, so he’s still young with room to grow. When the Falcons acquired Abraham via trade, he was weeks away from his 28th birthday. One could hope that picking up Edwards, he could fill an immediate niche at left end opposite Abraham, and down the road could shift to the right side as his heir apparent and long-term replacement. Hopefully by then, Biermann could have developed enough where he could be “Babin-esque” as a more productive left end.

But the question the Falcons will have to ask is whether Edwards is worth it. Even if he’s allowed to test the open market under the old free agency rules, he’s not going to come cheap. And if the Falcons are forced to give up a draft pick such as a No. 1, is the money they spend on Edwards a better value than the money they would spend on a less proven commodity in the draft?

So the Falcons have to decide whether or not they look to the draft to address this area, going with a much less proven option, but one with probably more long-term upside since quality draft picks are easier and cheaper to retain for longer periods of time than incoming free agents.

Does a prospect like Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, or Aldon Smith intrigue the Falcons enough to pass up on a premium free agent like Babin or Edwards? Or will the labor strife make the decision for the Falcons?

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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