Coupled with their need to improve their offensive line, one could argue that the Falcons enhancing their pass rush is their second biggest key of the off-season.
The hope is that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with his experience running both the 3-4 and 4-3 will be able to bring some varied and multiple fronts to try and help confuse opposing quarterbacks and add more pressure. But at the end of the day you can’t just scheme your way to a good pass rush, you need good players that can provide that pressure.
The Falcons will first have to make decisions on two of their own free agents, which are John Abraham and Kroy Biermann.
Abraham was by far the team’s top pass rusher this past year, recording 9.5 sacks. But despite a drop-off in sack total from a year ago, Abraham was able to put more pressure on the quarterback this year and had his best season since 2008. He will be 34 when next season starts, and as has been the case the past two seasons he really is only a part-time player. With his age, the Falcons can probably only realistically expect Abraham, even as a situational player, to have perhaps one or two more good years left in him. It is similar to what happened with Leonard Little in St. Louis, who over the last two years of his career was able to combine for 12.5 sacks at ages 34 and 35 before he hung it up. With Abraham, it seemingly will come down to price. The Falcons should want Abraham back, but if he wants to be paid too much money to be a situational player, the team might opt to look at younger options.
Abraham’s departure will likely increase the odds that Biermann returns. Biermann after a strong start to the 2009 season, has disappointed each of the past two years. Biermann is an adequate defensive end that plays the run well, and is a decent pass rusher. But he’s clearly shown that he’s not the type of player that can consistently beat quality starting tackles, a skill that is necessary to be a starter at this level. So while the Falcons could want him back, they aren’t likely to pay him more than the average reserve salary.
If the Falcons plan to vary up their fronts by using more zone blitzes and dropping their ends more in coverage like 3-4 linebackers, then Abraham is their best option. Abraham is the only Falcons defensive end that has shown some comfort dropping into coverage, dating from his experience with the New York Jets in their hybrid scheme back in 2005. If that is the Falcons plan, then it could affect who they might look at on the open market. While the Falcons have stated clearly they intend to stick with the 4-3 scheme, they have been somewhat ambiguous about whether they intend to move to a 3-4 down the road. It could be a strong indicator if they target certain pass rushers on the open market that offer the versatility to play in either scheme. If the Falcons do pursue a free agent on the open market it will likely be at the expense of both Abraham and Biermann.
The top target in free agency will be Mario Williams. Williams is coming off a 5-sack season with Houston where he missed the final 11 games with a torn pectoral muscle. Williams played outside linebacker for the first time this year with the Texans in their 3-4 alignment, after years as a rush end in their 4-3. The transition was much more seamless than many expected. In 2010, Williams recorded 8.5 sacks despite playing the entire season with a sports hernia, before he had to be shut down for the final 3 games. But with the emergence of youngsters Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed (17.5 combined sacks) in Williams’ absence and his high price tag, the Texans may opt to move on.
The Texans aren’t expected to franchise tag Williams because it would mean a $23 million hit to their cap. But any team that targets Williams will likely have to pay him more. Williams potentially could challenge for the highest paid defender in the league. And he’ll likely push to exceed the guaranteed money that pass rushers like Elvis Dumervil ($43 million), Julius Peppers ($42 million), and DeMarcus Ware ($40 million) received in recent years. So while Williams would represent the right skillset the Falcons might be looking for in terms of a player with scheme versatility, it might take a contract that guarantees $50 million to sign him. And it just seems too expensive, especially if the Falcons intend to re-sign players like Brent Grimes and Curtis Lofton this off-season. Not to mention the Falcons are inching closer to offering Matt Ryan a large extension in the coming years.
Other top free agents would include Robert Mathis (Indianapolis), Cliff Avril (Detroit), Mark Anderson (New England), and Jeremy Mincey (Jacksonville), all of whom had 8 or more sacks this year.
Mathis, an Atlanta native, is still a very good pass rusher, but at age 31 he represents many of the same challenges and skillset of Abraham. He’s not an experienced coverage player, as according to Pro Football Focus, he’s dropped into coverage a total of 20 times over the past three seasons, compared to 152 times for Abraham. He is also not a very good run stopper, and like Abe would only be a situational rusher in Atlanta.
Avril is a young player that blossomed this year in Detroit and there is talk that the Lions could potentially tag him. But with the Lions, he’s used to playing in the wide 9-technique, something that the Falcons have not done much over the years. More than likely, if he was to play a bit more of a traditional rush end like the Falcons prefer, his production would dip from his 11 sacks this past year. But in terms of potential, Avril at age 26 offers the most. There is also talk that the Lions might tag him.
Anderson is a pure 4-3 rush end that has shined at times in a situational role over his career. But outside this past year (10 sacks) and his rookie season with the Bears in ’06 (12 sacks), he has been an inconsistent producer. He’s an unproven starter, and at 29 he might be a bit too old for the Falcons tastes.
Mincey is a late bloomer that had a nice breakout season with 8 sacks, following up a 5-sack season in 2010. . While Mincey is a solid player, he’s probably not much of an upgrade over the team’s current left end in Ray Edwards.
The Falcons best strategy may be to try and retain Abraham, and find another situational player to replace Biermann. That should allow them to save some money. Targeting players with a bit more experience playing in a 3-4 makes sense. Three names that jump to the top of list are Trevor Scott (Oakland), Matt Roth (Jacksonville), and Jason Hunter (Denver).
Scott looked like he was emerging as a quality pass rusher in 2009 with a 7-sack season. But the past two years he has disappointed. But he’s played both end and linebacker for the Raiders over the years, and is 28, roughly the same age as Biermann (27). He could be had for cheap due to his subpar production the past two years.
Roth has played in both schemes and was a disappointment this past year with the Jaguars as a 4-3 end. But he’s a good effort pass rusher that in a rotation alongside Edwards, Abraham, and Sidbury could work.
Hunter looked to be emerging in Detroit two years ago, but then was cut by the Lions in 2010. He was picked up by the Broncos, and has played both as a rush end this past year in their 4-3 and as a linebacker in their 3-4 the year before. He is an experienced left end that could push Ray Edwards, while Sidbury rotates with Abraham at right end.
Other options the Falcons could explore are ex-Dolphins like Philip Merling, Kendall Langford, and Ikaika Alama-Francis. Merling never developed as a 3-4 defensive end in Miami, after playing the 4-3 at Clemson. Returning to more of a 4-3 scheme might help him start to live up to his potential. Langford is one of the top 3-4 ends on the market, and should be in line for a nice contract. But if he were to land in Atlanta, it would likely be as a defensive tackle, the position he played in college. He’d likely work as a situational rusher. Alama-Francis is a good athlete, but has never developed into the pass rusher the Lions envisioned when they drafted in the 2nd round in 2007. He would be more of a camp body if signed by the Falcons.
The Falcons definitely have options if they choose not to re-sign either Abraham or Biermann on the free agent market. But given their recent expenditures on Ray Edwards, it seems more likely that if the Falcons decide to move on from one or both players they will target prospects in the draft in hopes of adding their next top pass rusher to succeed or replace Abraham.