The Atlanta Falcons’ need to upgrade their pass rush is something that has been explicitly stated by owner Arthur Blank and probably gave a slight boost to new head coach Dan Quinn during the hiring process.
Quinn, a former defensive line coach, is expected to take a major interest in trying to coax a bit more pass rush from the Falcons in 2015. The Falcons are likely to see dramatic turnover at the position, beginning with several players that were with the team in 2014 not returning, including Jonathan Massaquoi, Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi was waived last week, while Umenyiora and Biermann are impending free agents that may be allowed to walk.
That puts the Falcons current position with only a handful of players: Tyson Jackson, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga being the most experienced. The team also recently re-signed Cliff Matthews, who is expected to contribute in the defensive end rotation. But even Jackson is not completely safe and could be a post-June 1 release. At the very least, Jackson’s hold on a roster position may be tenuous even through the end of training camp.
If Jackson is retained, it’ll likely be to serve in the same capacity that Red Bryant once served under Quinn in Seattle, which is a two-down base end at left defensive end. Bryant primarily played the five-technique, meaning he was shaded over the offensive tackle, the same technique that Jackson played for years in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense before joining the Falcons last year.
He’ll likely be pushed by Goodman and Matthews for that role. Goodman also should fit well as a five-technique, but could potentially be an upgrade over Jackson given superior quickness and athleticism to play on the edge. But Goodman still needs to show growth in order to determine if he’s ready for a starting spot and at this point can only be counted upon to be a rotational body.
One player that could also be in the mix at that same position is Ra’Shede Hageman, who has similar skillset as Bryant, something I pointed out in my scouting report of him last spring. Like Bryant, Hageman has tremendous raw strength and power. And when the Falcons drafted Hageman, they envisioned him as a long-term option as a five-technique defensive end rather than an interior player. Bryant struggled early in his NFL career as a defensive tackle, but Quinn then moved him to defensive end in 2010, where he blossomed. Whether Hageman makes a permanent move to defensive end remains to be seen, but he could potentially offer something in the rotation at that spot should Quinn also see similarities between him and Bryant.
So the Falcons have the pieces to make due at the left defensive end spot. However, there is a massive void at the other spot where Stansly Maponga would be starter as things stand today. The only other players on the roster that could fit the bill are Tyler Starr and Jacques Smith, two raw, still developing edge-rushers that spent their 2014 rookie seasons inactive or on the practice squad.
While Maponga has potential to develop, at best he’s probably looking at a situational role in the Falcons’ defensive line rotation. Maponga has a good first step, but needs to continue to develop better technique and a stronger array of pass-rush moves.
Instead of relying on Maponga to take that next step, one can expect the Falcons to make upgrading this spot a massive priority this offseason. It’s something the team is likely to attack early both in free agency and the draft.
First, the Falcons need a starter to fill the right defensive end spot, or “LEO” position in Quinn’s defense. In Seattle, this role was primarily filled by Chris Clemons over the years, but by Cliff Avril after Clemons’ departure in 2013. The role of the “LEO” is filled by a smaller, athletic defensive end that has the ability to rush both with his hand in the dirt and standing up, typically because he’ll line up in space and use his speed to get upfield quickly.
The Falcons could potentially find a similar player on the veteran free-agent market. Players such as Brian Orakpo, Jerry Hughes, Derrick Morgan, Jason Worilds and Brandon Graham all have experience playing defensive end in a 4-3 as well as 3-4 outside linebacker, and thus could fit the bill as potential LEOs. Any one of those free agents would represent a massive upgrade over the likes of Maponga.
Another potential role the Falcons may try to solve this offseason is finding another edge-rusher that can platoon with the base end at the other spot. During his days in Seattle, Bryant was often taken off the field in passing situations and replaced by another edge-rusher. The Falcons also don’t have that player on the roster.
What form that player takes will be interesting to see. There are two potential templates: Bruce Irvin and Michael Bennett. In the case of Irvin in 2014, he played strong-side linebacker in the team’s base package, but then moved to defensive end in their nickel sub-packages on passing downs. If the Falcons target such a player, then it would probably make sense to look for them in the draft. A potential first-round target like Vic Beasley would be an ideal fit in such a role.
If the Falcons are looking for another version of Bennett, then that player will take the form of someone that can split time both as a defensive end and defensive tackle. Bennett’s role in Seattle included playing mostly defensive end, but often flipping inside to defensive tackle to allow the team to get as many pass-rushers on the field at the same time, comparable to how the New York Giants famously used Justin Tuck throughout his NFL career.
Such players aren’t easily come by, but there is one potential free agent that could fit the bill for the Falcons: Baltimore’s Pernell McPhee. McPhee played outside linebacker and defensive end in the Ravens’ hybrid defensive fronts, but also kicked inside at various times to be featured on the field alongside edge-rushers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, comparable to how Bennett was used this past year in concert with Avril and Irvin.
Not only could the Falcons seek to add one of these big-named free agents, their need at the position is so dire that they could also try and add a couple of smaller signings to bolster the rotation and replace sub-package players like Umenyiora and Massaquoi. A player like O’Brien Schofield, who Quinn coached in Seattle, could be a potential fit in such a role.
Even if the Falcons are successful in addressing many of their immediate needs at the position in free agency, it would stop them from adding more youth and developmental upside in the draft. Most suspect the team’s top pick will be used on a pass-rusher regardless of how free agency goes down. It’s a draft class laden with several high-level pass-rushers and it’s likely the Falcons will try and add one early when the time comes.
Because of their huge need at the position, it should shock no one if the Falcons make three or more additions at the position by the time the offseason ends. The Falcons hope by attacking the position with multiple signings and/or draft selections, they can substantially revamp the defensive end position, taking it from the team’s bigger weakness to one of it’s biggest strengths.