After assessing some of the Atlanta Falcons’ upcoming needs on the offensive side of the ball yesterday, let’s turn our attention to what directions the team might be heading into in 2016 on defense. As stated previously, this is a mere glimpse into the team’s immediate future as the Falcons look to improve a roster that despite an impressive 6-3 record currently in 2015, has shown itself to be far from a finished product by it’s play over the past month or so.
Let’s break things down position by position.
Nine games into the 2015 season the Falcons currently rank 31st in sack production with a mere 10 sacks. While sack numbers can misrepresent the productivity of an individual player, it rarely does so when applied to entire teams.
Therefore it’s clear that the Falcons will need to upgrade their pass rush in the upcoming season to maximize head coach Dan Quinn’s defense. Given that the scheme calls for minimal blitzing, it’s pertinent that the team can get pressure with just four players. Right now the Falcons aren’t doing that effectively, making it a priority that they try to achieve that goal in 2016.
Things will start on the outside where Vic Beasley and O’Brien Schofield are the team’s two primary edge-rushers. While Beasley still has tremendous upside as a pass-rusher, he’ll certainly need more help than Schofield is providing. Schofield has spent the bulk of his career as a situational pass-rusher and reserve, roles he’ll likely return to in 2016 should he be re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. Schofield’s familiarity with the scheme coupled with solid production in run support makes it a likelihood that he’ll be brought back, but again the Falcons would like to add another piece to the puzzle that can push him towards the bench.
Ideally the team could find a “Michael Bennett type” of end that can play on the outside in the team’s base defense, but slide inside to tackle in their nickel sub-package which would allow Schofield to still contribute at end in those situations. But such players aren’t exactly easy to come by and the team may settle for any competent edge-rusher that can be considered an upgrade over Schofield either in the draft or free agency.
Also at defensive end the team has Kroy Biermann, Tyson Jackson and Malliciah Goodman. Biermann is a free agent that might return on a modest one-year deal since he does add decent depth and run-stopping abilities to their rotation. But if the team is successful in upgrading the starting spot and thus relegate Schofield to the bench, then Biermann becomes increasingly expendable.
The Falcons will have to decide whether Jackson’s $6.35 million cap hit in 2016 is too high for such a one-dimensional player. Jackson has performed admirably in the team’s base package so far this year, but that’s a hefty price to pay for a soon-to-be 30-year old end that is currently ranked eighth among the defensive line rotation in playing time. Presumably the Falcons should find an option at that position that can be nearly as capable against the run but also provide much more as a pass-rusher.
That player could potentially be Goodman, but based off his limited playing time in 2015 that doesn’t appear likely. Goodman will have seven more games to prove his merit, but unless he can earn significantly more time, he’ll likely only be seen as a rotational piece that might be on the roster bubble entering the summer.
Another potential in-house option to replace Jackson could be Ra’Shede Hageman, who has comparable strength and power to Jackson but with better quickness to pressure quarterbacks more consistently. Hageman currently plays inside at defensive tackle in the team’s base package, but could potentially be kicked outside to end given his similar playing style to ex-Seattle Seahawks and Quinn protege Red Bryant, who made a similar move back in 2010 to great success.
The decision to move Hageman to end would be made easier if the team finds another option at defensive tackle in their base package. Two possibilities already exist on the roster in Jonathan Babineaux and Grady Jarrett. Babineaux currently mans a spot in the team’s nickel sub-package on the inside and could see a change in roles next year thanks in part to Jarrett’s emergence. Babineaux is blessed with the ability to be both effective as a pass-rusher and run-stopper, making him a versatile asset to have along the defensive front even considering his lofty age of 34. Babineaux’s cap hit next year is a modest $2.67 million, which is low enough to believe that he’ll be kept for another year. It’s likely that only retirement will prompt his exit from the team in 2016.
Should that occur, the team already has his potential replacement on the roster in Jarrett. Jarrett has seen an increasing amount of reps as 2015 has progressed, suggesting that he’ll be in line for a bigger role in 2016. That could come as the team’s primary interior rusher in their sub-package, but he’s also been surprisingly effective as a run-defender so far in 2015 as well. Thus like Babineaux he could also become an effective rotational option in their base package as well. Having both Jarrett and Babineaux next year should give the Falcons much needed flexibility on the interior should they need to shuffle things around.
Another defensive tackle that the team will have to make a decision on after the season will be veteran nose tackle Paul Soliai.Soliai will be 32 next year and carries a cap hit of $6.9 million, which could prompt his release. As it is with Jackson, despite a good year stuffing the run, that cap hit will be a tough pill to swallow for a player that is only getting reps in roughly 40 percent of defensive snaps. There is no obvious in-house candidate to replace him on the roster besides practice squadder Joey Mbu, who would be making an unrealistic jump from the practice squad to becoming a key part of the team’s rotation.
Given the lack of obvious in-house options behind him, Soliai might have higher odds of returning to Atlanta next year than Jackson. But the Falcons could potentially find a better option on the open market in free agency. Notable names include Brandon Mebane and Haloti Ngata, although one wonders if the Falcons would prefer a younger, cheaper option to build around long-term.
The Falcons will also be compelled to make a decision on whether to re-sign defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn in free agency as well. Clayborn has provided a nice boost to what little pass rush the team generates and has had a mild renaissance as an interior rusher rather than playing the end spot he manned for four years in Tampa Bay. However Clayborn is somewhat one-dimensional since he’s shown to be significantly less effective when trying to rush from the edge and has never been a reliable run-defender throughout his career. Essentially Clayborn’s role is somewhat restricted to be a situational player in sub-packages. While the one-year, $3 million deal he signed this past offseason is fairly cheap given his role and value, he’ll likely be seeking a much more lucrative long-term deal in the spring. It remains to be seen if he’s quite earned that given some of his limitations, but that won’t truly be determined until the entire 2015 season plays out.
Given the importance of this position group, it’s probable that the Falcons could address holes both via free agency and the draft. One thing that is promising is that the Falcons already have several pieces to work with and it’s only going to be about supplementing things to transform into an extraordinary unit in the years to come.
This position saw a significant free-agent overhaul this past offseason, which is unlikely to occur two years in a row. The Falcons did not draft a linebacker last year, instead opting to bolster this position with veterans like Justin Durant, Brooks Reed, Philip Wheeler and Allen Bradford. It’s unlikely the team will go down that same path again in 2016, thus leading them to turn to the draft to try and upgrade this group.
An upgrade is certainly needed as the limitations of this position group have too often been exposed in 2015. Durant is the best of the group, but turns 31 at the outset of the 2016 season and has dealt with durability concerns throughout his career. His $3.42 million cap hit in 2016 should keep his roster spot relatively safe but things could become a lot more tenuous come 2017.
Adding an athletic, young linebacker that can be mentored by Durant for a year would be a great decision by the Falcons. Should the team do so, it’s likely he could be plugged in immediately at middle linebacker where he could push Paul Worrilow for a starting spot.
Worrilow at times has been a functional starter in the middle, but has done little over the past year and a half to indicate that he’s a long-term option there. He will be a restricted free agent after 2015 and thus is a near certainty to return to the team in some capacity next year. The only question is whether that is as a starter or reserve? Should the Falcons make a major addition in the draft, Worrilow at the very least gives them a nice fallback option should said rookie prove unready for the NFL limelight. He also has the versatility to play backup to Durant as well and ultimately might prove to be a more effective player at weak-side linebacker rather than in the middle. After all when Worrilow first started turning heads as an undrafted rookie in 2013, it came when he was filling in for an injured Sean Weatherspoon on the weak side, not the middle.
Reed’s job should be relatively safe given the fact that his 2016 base salary of $2.5 million is already guaranteed for injury and will become fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster in mid-March. While the Falcons could stand to upgrade over Reed at the strong-side linebacker spot in free agency or the draft, there is little incentive to do so given that it’s the least important of the three starting spots and doesn’t require a significant investment. Not to mention that the presence of Nate Stupar behind Reed gives the team a potential in-house candidate to replace Reed in 2017 when it’s likely the veteran could get released. Like Worrilow, Stupar is a restricted free agent after this year which should mean that he’s poised to return in 2016 where he can hope to continue to show the versatility to back up all three spots, especially the strong side where he filled in admirably for an injured Reed early in 2015.
Wheeler and Joplo Bartu’s futures have yet to be decided. Wheeler flashed potential in the team’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers last week and has at various times been a productive stopgap starter for several teams since entering the NFL in 2008. If he’s re-signed as a free agent, it’ll depend on how the rest of 2015 plays out for him. He could give the team another solid backup behind Durant and potentially compete for a starting spot should his play continue to impress.
Bartu is a restricted free agent and it doesn’t really hurt the Falcons to bring back the athletic linebacker to see if he shows improvement in 2016. At the very least he gives the team another adequate body to compete for a reserve role in camp.
Between Durant, Worrilow and Reed, none of the Falcons current starters are guaranteed to be on the roster beyond 2016. Thus it makes a ton of sense for the Falcons to start building towards the future by making a significant addition via the draft. A player like UCLA’s Myles Jack, who has a history with Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich makes a ton of sense for the team to target early, but he won’t be the only option that the Falcons could seek next spring. In the end, the Falcons’ goal will be to find their version of Bobby Wagner that can become the anchor of the unit for years to come.
The selection of Jalen Collins in the second round of last year’s draft was a major move for the team’s future and thus likely means that cornerback won’t be a significant priority for the team this upcoming offseason. Collins will be entering his second year in 2016 and there are hopes that he’ll make a significant leap forward after a less-than-promising first summer in the NFL. He’ll likely be penciled into the nickel cornerback spot that he’s currently occupying barring a major setback over the next two months.
Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are poised to remain the team’s starters in 2016, although there’s a chance the latter could be pushed if there is significant growth by Collins through the remainder of 2015. But both starters are locked into their current contracts through the 2016 season, meaning that the Falcons won’t be prompted to make a long-term decision at the position until 2017.
Given the large sums of money that cornerbacks often receive on the open market, it appears unlikely that the Falcons can keep both Trufant and Alford when that time comes. Should also Collins be closer to solidifying a starting spot by then, it should essentially make one starter expendable. Between the pair, that would almost certainly point in Alford’s direction given that Trufant is already among the league’s best corners in his third year.
Again those type of decisions really won’t have to be made until 2017 and are not in the purview of a 2016 breakdown. However that doesn’t mean the Falcons won’t be looking to supplement their depth at cornerback next year. Should the team lose one of their top three corners in 2017, it would be ideal to have someone already on the roster ready to slide into the vacated spot.
That could be Akeem King should he show significant growth between now and the end of 2016, but based off his preseason performance that day appears to be a long way off for the 2015 rookie. Phillip Adams could be another option, although he’ll be a free agent after 2015. Adams has been at times a competent journeyman reserve in the NFL, but his play in 2015 makes him better fit as a fourth corner than a potential nickel replacement for Alford in two years.
The Seahawks organization made it a regular habit to draft corners in the latter rounds every year and it’s possible Quinn could bring the same tradition to Atlanta. If not, the team could potentially target free agents like ex-Seahawks Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane among others to supplement and upgrade their depth next year.
In the Falcons secondary, the safety position probably requires more immediate attention rather than corner. Ricardo Allen will be an exclusive rights free agent after this season, indicating that he should have at least two more years to play in Atlanta before the Falcons are compelled to make a decision about his long-term future. While Allen has been impressive considering that he’s in his first year at a brand new position, he’s yet to show enough to really solidified a role as a long-term starter. Instead it’s likely that the Falcons won’t pass on the opportunity to upgrade the free safety position in the offseason should it arise. That could come with an early draft selection or if the right free agent comes along.
The other safety spot however might be a more pressing concern depending on how the remainder of 2015 plays out. William Moore will turn 31 next May and also carries a $6.65 million cap hit in 2016. The team will have to make a decision on whether the oft-injured veteran is worth that price tag. If yes, then it buys the team only one more year before they will have to find his replacement. If no, then adding a starting strong safety becomes an immediate offseason priority.
Kemal Ishmael and Robenson Therezie are two competent young reserves, but it would appear to be a large leap to go from where they are currently midway through 2015 to being penciled in as starters heading in 2016. Instead, Moore’s release would likely prompt the team to seek an immediate replacement in free agency with also an eye towards the draft if the right prospect comes along.
Charles Godfrey is set to hit free agency and probably won’t be re-signed barring a major uptick in production over the second half of 2015.
Like the defensive line and linebacker, it’s very likely that the Falcons will make at least one significant addition to their safety corps this upcoming spring. The unanswered question is whether not the team is looking for an immediate starter or a developmental option to stash for later down the road.
The Falcons are good at punter since Matt Bosher received a five-year extension a year ago that should keep him in Atlanta through 2019. However there are growing concerns about the long-term future of kicker Matt Bryant. His contract runs through the end of 2017, yet he will turn 41 next offseason. Bryant has missed a few more kicks than usual this year and the old adage is that Father Time remains undefeated. Eventually Bryant will lose his stuff, but whether that will come in the calendar year of 2015 has yet to be determined. If that does happen to be the case, then expect the Falcons to start from scratch in 2016 with a group of young kickers rather than targeting a proven option in free agency.
As noted in discussion of the wide receiver position, the team’s return duties remain less than definitive given the tenuous hold that Devin Hester has on a roster spot beyond this season. If Hester is released in the offseason, then it’s likely that Nick Williams, Eric Weems and Justin Hardy will get the first cracks at replacing him. But one can surely bet that the Falcons will try to add more competition into the mix via the draft or undrafted free agency. If Hester is kept, then the Falcons should be good to go for 2016 in the return game, but that season also marks the final year of Hester’s contract. So it makes sense to try and find his eventual replacement in 2017 at some point in the draft or undrafted free agency.
Like Bosher, long snapper Josh Harris also received a contract extension last season, keeping him on the roster through 2018 and making that spot of no concern.
As far as this unit goes, the Falcons may wind up making minimal changes based off how things play out in 2015. But if they do address it, it’ll likely come in the form of going younger in the hopes of securing some long-term options.
What are you thoughts on how the offseason could potentially play out for the Falcons in 2016 on the defensive side of the ball? Please leave a comment giving your take…