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.