Team Needs: Searching for the Next John Abraham at Defensive End

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

The pass rush of the Atlanta Falcons has been a problem area for a number of years.

Expectations were reasonably high that the Falcons could potentially upgrade their pass rush with the switch from defensive end John Abraham to Osi Umenyiora last year. Unfortunately, Umenyiora’s production wasn’t in the same ballpark as Abraham from the previous year. Falcon fans had to watch as Abraham put together a Pro Bowl season with the Arizona Cardinals, while the Falcons finished second-to-last in the NFL in sacks.

Upgrading that pass rush will likely be one of the team’s biggest priorities this offseason, alongside their needs on the offensive line. While the Falcons could opt to release Umenyiora due to the disappointing 2013 he had, it’s more than likely that they’ll retain him and move him into a situational role similar to what he had with the New York Giants prior to his arrival in Atlanta.

One reason to release Umenyiora is due to the presence of Jonathan Massaquoi, who midway through the year arguably started to play at a level on par with Umenyiora. Massaquoi wasn’t ready for the starting role that was thrust upon him last year due to the injury to Kroy Biermann, but as a situational player he could be a solid fit, and a much cheaper and younger one than Umenyiora. Of the young defensive ends on the roster, Massaquoi possesses the most upside and the teaching that new defensive line coach Bryan Cox could provide, could help bring that out of him in 2014.

Biermann is another player that the Falcons can count on to bolster their pass rush in 2013. He is coming off a torn Achilles that sidelined him for practically the entire season. While never a great pass rusher, his production as a pass rusher in previous years was pretty consistent and frankly, any little bit will help the Falcons.

The Falcons are also optimistic that 2013 rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stanlsy Maponga are able to contribute more as pass rushers in 2014. Goodman played well against the run, but contributed little against the pass. He has an opportunity to be a starter next year if he can improve enough and man the left defensive end spot. Maponga started to get reps down the stretch and would occasionally apply pressure. The team hopes that Cox can help develop these young players to get significantly more production from them next year.

But the best way the Falcons can improve their pass rush is by adding better players this offseason. There is a relatively deep free agency pool of pass rushers that could help the Falcons, allowing them to make a splash signing there. Unfortuately, the mistakes that were signing Umenyiora and Ray Edwards previously might deter the Falcons from jumping headlong into the water. But it would represent the easiest way the Falcons could upgrade their pass rush.

Another obvious way is via the draft, where the team is potentially situated at the top of the draft to get one of the premier pass rushers. The team has settled for mid and late-round pass rushers throughout the past six years that general manager Thomas Dimitroff has been calling the shots, and it’s time that changes. It’s very likely that if the Falcons don’t make a major move in free agency that they will use one of their top two picks on a pass rusher. It’s even possible that the team could do both, which would be a significant commitment to improving the pass rush.

Essentially as things stand today, the Falcons have a plethora of rotational players but no one that really can captain the ship as Abraham did for most of his Falcon career. It’s going to be paramount that the Falcons find that player this offseason, whether it’s a veteran or a rookie. Moving forward, that player is going to form the foundation upon which this team builds their pass rush in the future. And hopefully they won’t have as many missteps in the future as they have had in the past like with Umenyiora, Edwards, Jamaal Anderson, Lawrence Sidbury, etc.

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Aaron Freeman
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