The Atlanta Falcons don’t have as pressing a need at defensive tackle as they do at defensive end, but it’s a possible that remains in flux moving forward.
That is largely to do with questions over the long-term statuses of veterans like Jonathan Babineaux and Paul Soliai and the immediate ones of Ra’Shede Hageman and Corey Peters.
Both Babineaux and Soliai appear to be in the Falcons’ immediate plans for 2015 and for good reason. Babineaux should see less snaps at defensive end under new head coach Dan Quinn and return to his role as the team’s primary option to provide interior pressure at defensive end. Soliai will have the opposite role, helping stuff the run as a two-down player at nose tackle.
However, both players are essentially aging rotational players. Babineaux will turn 34 in October, while Soliai will turn 32 by year’s end. Babineaux is signed through the 2016 season and due to that advanced age may not see the end of his contract. Soliai is signed through 2018, but given that his cap hit reaches $6.9 million in 2016, he probably is a good bet to be released to start next offseason barring a really strong 2015 campaign. At the very least, he’ll have to re-work his contract following this year to be more in tune with being a role player.
It’s probable that the Falcons could be looking to replace one or both next offseason. And thus it makes perfect sense for the Falcons to try and get a jump on things this offseason if need be. Given their advanced ages, it probably makes the most sense to target young prospects in the draft rather than older veterans in free agency.
If so, replacing Babineaux will probably be the harder task given this draft class being light on the sort of one-gap penetrators similar to Babineaux. However, there are a much larger number of guys that fit the run-stuffing wide body that Soliai has been over the years.
Two potential options already with the team are Hageman and Peters. But as suggested earlier, Hageman could be a candidate to move to defensive end in Quinn’s scheme and Peters is an impending free agent.
Hageman certainly has plenty of upside, but by all regards is a developmental project in the NFL. The new coaching staff can’t be convinced of what they have in him at least until they get into spring and summer to see for themselves. The timing of which will occur after the team has made its offseason decisions and plans in free agency and/or the draft. So right now, the Falcons may not be able to indulge in the possibility that Hageman could be a firm candidate to replace anyone, including Babineaux, in the immediate future.
Peters is set to hit free agency, and there has thus far been little indication that he’s a top priority to be retained by the current coaching staff. Peters is a better fit than Soliai to play the nose tackle position in Quinn’s scheme, a role that Brandon Mebane has held for years in Seattle. It’s the exact same role that Peters played in 2013 that saw him playing the best football of his NFL career.
But there may be a bit of sour grapes on his part, since an injured Peters was forced to accept a very modest one-year deal from the Falcons last offseason to just see them splurge on free agents like Soliai and Tyson Jackson. Especially given that Peters outproduced both players during 2014 despite missing all of training camp recovering from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered at the end of 2013. It’s possible that Peters feels that now is his opportunity to land a lucrative long-term contract, and the Falcons may not share that opinion.
If so, then all the signs point to the Falcons needing to add some depth at the defensive tackle position to bolster their rotation. At this point, Babineaux, Soliai and Hageman all firmly sit atop the depth chart, but it’s unknown if any of them besides perhaps Hageman figure into their long-term plans.
Should the Falcons lose Peters, they could attempt to add a low-level free agent to bolster the rotation even further, but it seems likelier that the team will wait until the draft. Then Quinn can specifically target the type of player his scheme calls for, instead of trying to make do with holdovers from a previous regime. But given the team’s other more pressing needs, it’s unlikely to be a high priority and may wait until the middle or late rounds.
Given the priority that the Falcons are expected to give the defensive end position this offseason, it may result in making do at defensive tackle this season with the goal of having a comparable overhaul in 2016.