Unlike a lot of positions on the Falcons roster, the defensive tackle spot is relatively settled. The Falcons are very likely to return both starters in Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. Vance Walker is a restricted free agent, but is also a fairly safe bet to return under a one-year tender. The one player currently on the roster that is on the bubble is Peria Jerry.
Jerry, as a former first round pic,k is being paid highly but the Falcons have yet to really get a substantial return on their investment as far as his on-field play goes. Jerry flashed some ability early in the season but then was fairly quiet the rest of the way. According to Jeff Schultz of the AJC, Jerry carries a cap hit of close to $2 million this year. It’s not very expensive, but the Falcons could opt to part ways with him.
But I would be somewhat suprised if Jerry is released this off-season. My reasons are: 1) The cap savings would not make a huge difference, 2) Jerry got a lot of praise last summer from teammates and coaches for making some strides in camp, likely indicating the powers that be believe the needle is pointing up, and 3) The Falcons seemed to give Jamaal Anderson probably one more year than he deserved as a former first round pick, and he wasn’t even one of their selections. With Jerry, who is one of the “their guys” it’s likely he’ll get a fourth year too.
At the very least, I would expect the Falcons to bring Jerry back to camp for one more summer and have someone try to push and compete for his spot and try to improve the rotation on the back-end.
Another interesting development is with the introduction of Mike Nolan as the new defensive coordinator, would the team target a bigger physical run defender that can play a bit more of a nose-tackle role if the team does choose to employ some hybrid 4-3/3-4 looks. That player is currently missing on the roster, with Vance Walker coming the closest.
It’s unlikely the Falcons would target a big name or higher priced free agent, since it’s no safe bet that any addition would even beat out Jerry for the job. So that probably leaves guys like Paul Soliai and Aubrayo Franklin, guys that once played under Nolan in Miami and Baltimore out of the mix. Not unless either were willing to come to Atlanta cheaply. But there’s always a premium on good 3-4 nose tackles on the open market.
Other former defensive tackles to play under Nolan include Kelly Gregg, Howard Green, and Marcus Thomas. Gregg is now 35 and considering retirement. Green, listed at 340 pounds, is definitely a widebody and a journeyman player that last played under Nolan in 2002 in Baltimore alongside Gregg. But he’s also up there in age, as he just turned 33 in January. Thomas fell in the ’07 draft due to character issues, and coupled with the fact that comments this past summer didn’t seem to indicate that he was particularly thrilled with his days under Nolan in 2009 likely mean he would be a longshot to come to Atlanta. Although he would offer that scheme versatility as a player that is adept at the 4-3, but also capable of filling in a 3-4.
Other options could include Derek Landri and Nick Hayden, two players that the Falcons worked out last September. Landri ultimatley returned to Philadelphia, where according to ProFootballFocus.com, he was their fourth highest rated defensive tackle as he finished the year with 21 tackles and 2 sacks. Apparently, his contributions against the run were a big reason why the Eagles porous run defense improved down the stretch.
Hayden ultimately signed with Cincinnati late in the year as a replacement for the injured Pat Sims. He had 2 tackles in 2 appearances with the Bengals. Both are former Panther players, thus the Falcons familiarity with them and Hayden could certainly be had on the cheap. Landri might be able to propel his solid performance in 2011 to a more lucrative deal or perhaps a starting gig elsewhere.
Speaking of Sims, he could be an option if the Falcons are looking for a 4-3 widebody to help plug the middle. He’s been a part-time player for the Bengals over the years, ultimately serving more as a reserve this past year since the Bengals tried to get Geno Atkins more involved. He finished the year with a broken ankle which landed him on injured reserve. Atkins emergence likely will leave Sims looking elsewhere for his next employment.
Trevor Laws, is a young player that will turn 27 in June. He was a player that might have been on the Falcons radar in the ’08 draft had they not moved up to take Sam Baker. He was surpassed largely by Landri this past year with the Eagles, but flashed potential in 2010 with a 4-sack season as a reserve.
The Falcons could also target Washington’s Kedric Golston or Jacksonville’s C.J. Mosley, both having experience playing in both the 3-4 and 4-3. Golston is a Georgia native, and has past experience as a starter for the Redskins. Mosley has spent the majority of his career as a reserve player, but has had his moments in spot duty.
Regardless of whether the Falcons opt to go the veteran free agency route, or try to target depth in the draft or the undrafted market, you can expect the team to try and bolster the competition at this position come next summer.