Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 11 Paul SoliaiI’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 11th-ranked player: defensive tackle Paul Soliai.
To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 69/100
Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 63/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 14 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3
While Soliai is a two-down player, the simple reality in the NFL is that every team needs a couple of players like that. Certain players that can be really effective against the run, something that Soliai is capable of being. It’s why Soliai could find a role with 31 other NFL teams and could start on roughly two-thirds of NFL teams because most teams still employ base personnel that is geared towards defending the run.
For the record however, I’d also like to state that I think the 3-4 nose tackle is one of the more overrated positions, at least in terms of overall value in today’s NFL. Many people believe that the 3-4 nose tackle is the essential piece to making a good 3-4 defense, but history clearly disagrees with that. While nose tackles like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton were great on past top New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers defenses, respectively, it was instead ends like Richard Seymour and Aaron Smith that really were the lynchpins to both of those defenses’ successes. The same holds true today, with top 3-4 defenses usually having a dominant end (e.g. J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson, etc.) rather than a dominant nose tackle (e.g. Earl Mitchell, Isaac Sopoaga, Dan Williams, Damon Harrison, etc.).
There certainly was a time when the conventional wisdom that having a good nose tackle was true, but that wisdom stems from an era of the NFL where running the ball was still the norm. In today’s NFL, most teams pull their nose tackles off the field in passing situations, which are also now the majority of plays, thus decreasing their value.
It was one of the main reasons why I wasn’t too thrilled when the Falcons elected to give Soliai a $33 million contract this offseason. While Soliai is probably one of the premier nose tackles in the league, that might not be saying as much given the aforementioned decreasing value of the position. Most NFL teams are plugging and playing with middle and late-round talent.
However, Soliai will help the Falcons beef up their run support and will be primarily tasked with keeping blockers off inside linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. While that might not be as valuable as it was say a decade ago, it still holds value especially playing in a division where teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay operate run-based offenses.
While Soliai’s reps will be sporadic at best in obvious passing situations, he’ll provide occasional pressure up the middle. He has had a knack for dominating lesser players, as he absolutely obliterated Cleveland Browns guard Oniel Cousins in Miami’s 2013 season opener. When he faces such lesser players, he’ll be able to take advantage and collapse the pocket with his power and bull-rushing strength.
Another thing I noticed about Soliai last year was his tendency to wear down in the second halves of games. His effort and quickness took a bit of a dive as games wore on, and it’s another reason why the Falcons will have to rotate him heavily and try to keep him fresher.
But Soliai can be a good player for the Falcons in the short-term. The nature of his contract makes it so that his long-term prospects in Atlanta aren’t nearly as bright. His cap figure in 2016 will be pushing $7 million, which may be hard to justify for a two-down player approaching age 33. At that point, Soliai will either need to be clearly one of the league’s most dominant interior players or hope that the Falcons have not properly groomed a suitable replacement in the intervening years to make him expendable. Both are possibilities, but in all likelihood the Falcons may only get two years out of Soliai.
According to premium website Pro Football Focus, Soliai has only graded among the top 10 defensive tackles versus the run once in his career. That was during Mike Nolan’s first season in Miami in 2010 as their defensive coordinator. For Soliai, if he can approach a similar level this year, it will help his case to stick beyond 2015. If not, then you can expect the Falcons to move on sooner rather than later.