Having reviewed the offensive side of the ball, this blog will look at the defense and special teams.
Defensive Ends: John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis, Lawrence Sidbury, Emmanuel Stephens and Cliff Matthews
Lots of if’s among this group. Abraham is getting older and enters the last year of his contract. Biermann shows potential and needs to take the next step in his development to solidify his spot. Beyond that, Anderson has underachieved and may be in his last year with the team. Davis provides a solid rotational backup but is only signed through 2012. Sidbury has yet to really crack the rotation and get anything more than spot duty. This is the season that he’ll need to show something in order to stay a part of this group. Stevens is a practice squad/camp body type player at this point. The late round addition of Matthews will inject some youth and competition into the group. Biggest rumor is that the Falcons will make a serious run at Ray Edwards. If that’s the case, then I’d look for Biermann to move to the right side and replace Abraham in 2012 while working Sidbury and Matthews into the rotation. I do not expect Anderson or Davis to make a significant impact or stay in the near future.
Defensive Tackles: Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Vance Walker and Trey Lewis
Babineaux is as solid as they come but does turn 30 this season. Jerry must improve and play at the level he was drafted to play. He should be fully back from his injury this season and will show whether or not he’s part of the solution or not. Peters played quite a bit for a rookie and should continue to develop. Vance Walker is good rotational run stopper and should stay on board for quite some time. Lewis hasn’t regained his promising form prior to being injured and I question whether he will at this point. It’s my opinion that the key to our pass rush lies with the progression of Jerry and Peters not allowing opposing QB’s to step up and escape by scrambling or throwing.
Outside Linebackers: Stephen Nicholas, Mike Peterson, Sean Weatherspoon, Spencer Adkins, Coy Wire and Robert James
Nicholas may or may not return depending on free agency rules and demand. Peterson is not only at the end of his career but is also a free agent and may not return. If he does, it will likely only be for another season. Weatherspoon will be expected to step up and start this season and produce. Wire is a dependable backup in run support. Adkins has plenty of athletic ability and upside but seems relegated to special teams as does James. Newly drafted Akeem Dent may figure into this picture in some way although I’m not sold that he has the speed or ability to drop into coverage to play on the outside.
Middle Linebackers: Curtis Lofton, Akeem Dent and Bear Woods
Lofton is entering the last year of his contract and underwent double knee surgery. Regardless of what level of surgery it is, it’s a red flag. Lofton is very good against the run and has shown improvement against the pass. The question now is longevity. I’ve penciled in Dent as his primary backup but not sure that he really fits in the middle. Time will tell on what Dent becomes and what his role will be. While Woods has all the heart in the world, I’m not sure he has a place on the squad at this point. This is a position that seems to warrant attention in the next couple of seasons one way or the other.
Cornerbacks: Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Christopher Owens, Dominique Franks and Brian Williams
Robinson and Grimes are the no-brainer outside corners. What remains to be seen is who will be the nickelback. Considering that the Falcons were in nickel defense more than 50% of the time last season, the nickel has to be looked upon as a starter. As of now, Owens and Franks will most likely battle for that spot with a veteran brought in to compete as well. I don’t look for Williams to return as he is a free agent and at the tail end of his career. A bit puzzling that a corner wasn’t added in the draft but this could be a situation where there is heavy free agent action and 2 or 3 veterans signed to compete.
Safeties: Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, Shan Shillinger, Rafael Priest and Rafael Bush
As long as Moore stays healthy and pays his traffic tickets, the Falcons should be fine at safety for a long time to come. Shillinger provides adequate depth and very good special teams skills. Priest and Bush will most likely compete for a single reserve safety spot.
Kickers and Punters: Matt Bryant, Michael Koenen, Ken Parrish and Matt Bosher
Bryant and Koenen are ticketed for free agency. I believe Bryant will re-sign while Koenen is allowed to seek employment elsewhere. With a pick spent on Bosher, he’ll very likely be the next punter while Parrish serves as a camp body.
Most of the work for the Falcons in free agency will hinge on whether or not they feel the defensive end position is headed in the right direction and how many corners they want to bring in. As was the case on the offensive side of the ball, a lot will be determined by what the team does with its own free agents. I look for a defensive end, two corners and possibly a linebacker to be brought on board.