Vivlamore reporting from Falcons training camp.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Ray Edwards is one letter away from becoming the player the Falcons envisioned would transform their defense.
It takes just an ‘L’ to change Big Pay Ray into Big Play Ray.
The end, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract last season, struggled with knee problems last season. He required surgery before and after a disappointing 3-1/2 sack season. Edwards, and his position coach, said he is close to being 100 percent healthy and ready to make a difference.
“It’s getting there,” Edwards said after a recent training camp practice. “It’s still a process. I’m only a couple months out of knee surgery but it’s getting there.”
Defensive line coach Ray Hamilton said Edwards has looked “really healthy the past three or four days.”
Edwards (6-foot-5, 268 pounds) had 29-1/2 sacks in five seasons with the Vikings, 16-1/2 his last two years, before joining the Falcons as a free agent. He also had 139 tackles and 41 assists. Plagued by the knee issues last season, Edwards played in all 16 regular-season games with 26 tackles and nine assists.
“Frustrating, very frustrating,” is how Edwards described his first year in Atlanta. “Not being able to hit the gym like I wanted to. That’s my thing. I’m a workout guru. I wasn’t able to work my legs and get the muscle back to where I wanted to be able to produce how I normally produce.”
Edwards insists he is ready to return to his old self – an impact player – and he’s starting with a haircut. Yes, a haircut.
He reported to training camp sporting a Mohawk. However, the transformation is about more than a look. Who knew a choice of hairstyle could mean so much?
“That’s my thing now,” Edwards said. “Everybody has their own hairstyle. This is my hairstyle. I wore it in Minnesota as well.
“I’m just getting back to being me. I put a lot of pressure on myself last year coming to a new team, trying to prove myself, trying to prove myself and my contract. Now, I’m going to go out there and have fun and hopefully it rubs off on the guys and it shows the kind of person I really am.”
John Abraham and Edwards, with $6 million salaries this season, are the second-highest paid members of the Falcons defense behind Brent Grimes’ $10.281 million. Edwards’ deal was far from one of the largest for a defensive end in the NFL. The Bills gave Mario Williams a six-year, $100 million contract this offseason, including $50 million guaranteed.
Hamilton said that in addition to his health, Edwards had to learn the Falcons defensive system and it took some time for him to become comfortable. In Minnesota, Edwards solely played the left side with Jared Allen on the right. He had to switch sides last season as the Falcons looked for a favorable matchup for Abraham.
With a new coordinator this season in Mike Nolan, the scheme remains largely the same with some tweaks. Edwards had the benefit of a full offseason to fully adapt.
One tweak will be to use ends Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury and Abraham from a standing position to take advantage of their speed rush.
“You know James Bond ‘A License to Kill?,’ Hamilton said. “We call it a ‘License to Stand Up.’ You’ll see Abraham, Sidbury and Biermann do it. We haven’t given [Edwards] a license yet. …
“He does all the pass rush stuff and all the run stuff. He’s a big, strong guy. It’s just a matter of getting him to be mobile in our system a little bit more.”
Job No. 1 for Edwards is to stop the run. He will keep his hand in the dirt for now.
“I’m a run-stopper defensive end first, that’s how they look at me, so I get there and stop the run and make plays there,” Edwards said. “When I get my chance, I’ve got to capitalize on the pass [rush].”
The unique Edwards, who is flashing a smile more during this camp, is not getting caught up in the pressure to live up to his contract or the accompanying expectations. Off the field, he continues as an underwear model, which he calls his “fun job.” He also has a clothing line, True Ink, which features T-shirts with inspirational sayings.
It is football first. He is eager to show what a healthy Ray Edwards can do.
“Stay tuned,” the 27-year-old Edwards said. “God willing, I stay healthy and do what I need to do. I’m definitely putting the hard work into the season and hopefully it shows out on the field.”
- Chris Vivlamore