As the Falcons ready for the NFL Draft in April, one of the most hotly debated topics among fans is what the Bird need most. The opinions are wide-ranging and rarely are in complete agreement on which direction Dimitroff and Co. should go first, particularly with the Falcons not owning a second round draft pick, barring a move by TD to get a 2nd rounder back for Tony Gonzalez last year. It can be argued that the Falcons can move on any number of paths and fill needs, as opposed to depth. The Birds obviously have several needs on offense, defense, and special teams, but the idea is to decide which areas need addressed the most. An argument for each position and which needs are biggest and most pressing as the Draft approaches (listed in alphabetical order):
Special thanks to ProFootballFocus.com, the definitive football stats website, and Unca’ Bob for turning us on to it…..
This one will probably be the most intense in terms of the direction the Falcons need to go according to fans. There are basically two schools of thought. One is that the cornerbacks were representative of one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL statistically and it needs a serious overall and immediate attention. The other school of thought is that once Chris Owens and Brent Grimes finally settled into the starting roles and became comfortable, they shined and showed that they possibly can be the starting corners of the future. Either way, Chris Owens looks to at least be one of the those corners and Grimes proved many doubters wrong, but many can’t get over his size at 5’9. Regardless of where they play, they are certainly will have a place in the rotation. Chris Houston is the biggest question mark of the off-season. Will he continue to get more time as a starter? Will he be moved to nickel, where his speed can be used? Or will he be released outright? Chevis Jackson had a decent year, but digressed some after his splendid rookie year. Tye Hill is also a big question mark as well, but will probably be afforded every opportunity in a full off-season with the Falcons. Many believed Brian Williams wouldn’t be re-signed, but Dimitroff led many to believe he probably would ink him again after good rehab reports. Although Owens ranks 46th, Jackson ranks 51st, Grimes 76th, Houston 82nd, and Williams 85th, a closer look at the stats reveals that Grimes ranked in the top 16 CBs in terms of the opposing QB Rating when throwing to his side.
Outside of cornerback, this is likely the position that will see some of the most spirited debate among fans. John Abraham will turn 32 years of age in May and will be playing in 1 of his last 2 years on his contract with the Birds. After an amazing year racking up 16.5 sacks in 2008, Abe seemed to have a down year in terms of sacks and went missing for a large stretch in the middle part of the season. Even though Abraham only collared 6.5 sacks in 2009, he was one of the higher ranked defensive ends according to other stats such as tackles, qb hits, qb pressures, and other statistics according to ProFootballFocus.com (the definitive football stat website). Abraham ranked 4th in terms of total defensive ends including defending both the run and pass. Kroy Biermann had 2 sacks in his rookie year, and vaulted to 5 sacks in limited snaps. Many believe that Biermann is the potential future at one of the defensive end spots, or at least deserves the chance next year. Lawrence Sidbury Jr. was extremely limited in his snaps, but his physical ability and upside seems limitless and could be an eventual starter. Chauncey Davis has proven to be a valuable backup, but missed on his big chance to take-over the starting role, but he does fill out the D-End spot and give a great deal of hustle, effort, and versatility in playing defensive tackle if needed. Comprehensive defensive end rankings from ProFootballFocus.com among 4-3 D-Ends. Abraham ranks 4th, Biermann ranks 14th, and C.Davis ranks 29th.
Although the Falcons didn’t get dominate pressure from the inside (Babineaux did have 6 sacks to himself though), lost Peria Jerry in the 2nd game, and Babineaux will likely see a multiple game suspension, Dimitroff is unlikely to spend another 1st round pick on a defensive tackle in consecutive years. Also considering that Babineaux was recently locked in with a long-term contract in 2008, assumption would have it that Dimitroff wouldn’t spend 1st round money on 3 defensive tackles. Jerry was playing very good before getting injured as well. Jamaal Anderson may have found a good position with his excellent size and playing the run well, especially if he can add some weight. Dimitroff’s steal of the draft appears to be Vance Walker taken in the 7th round. Walker didn’t have fantastic stats, but he stepped in the rotation and played extremely well, likely assuring his spot on the rotation. If the Falcons keep 5 defensive tackles on the roster, the battle will be between Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis. Johnson had a very good year filling in throughout the season and Lewis seemed slow from his recovery, but did get back in the mix. Using the same website, Babineaux ranked as the top defensive tackle in terms of overall production, Jamaal Anderson 37th (not enough snaps to register in stats), Vance Walker 59th, Thomas Johnson 61st, and Peria Jerry 90th (low due to lack of snaps).
This one’s pretty obviously not a need at all since Curtis Lofton is one of the core members of the Falcons defense and team, and is arguably the leader of the defense. One of the best young middle linebackers in the league, a tackling machine that will only get better and better as the years progress. Still needs to improve coverage and is no threat in terms of QB pressure (likely a product of the defensive), but clearly not a need since he was close to making the Pro Bowl this past year. Dimitroff may draft for depth, but has Peterson for another year to bridge the gap in an emergency. Whether Tony Gilbert will be re-signed after going on IR is a very interesting story to follow as well. Ranked 17th among middle/inside linebackers according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Perhaps the biggest and most pressing need this off-season, if for no other reason than Mike Peterson will turn 34 years old this summer. Peterson started off great and appeared to have a ton of gas left in the tank, but predictably wore down as the 16 game schedule played out. Stephen Nicholas had a pretty good year in his first one as a starter, collaring 3 sacks, being good in terms of rushing the QB and playing the run, but having weakness in coverage. Nicholas will probably only get better and appears to be manning one of the OLB positions for awhile. Coy Wire is an excellent special teamer and superb backup. Spencer Adkins has immense upside and has the coaches raving, but is still very raw and should be considered a backup until proving otherwise. Even though Peterson collared a high number of tackles, he only racked up one sack, and proved to provide no QB pressure, and was also a liability in the run game. Weakside linebackers usually are bigger playmakers in terms of rushing the QB since they don’t have a tight end to worry about. The stats may not be perfect, but ranking 50th out of 53 OLBs in any criteria is bad.
Like middle linebacker, this one is definitely not a need, at least not this year. Thomas DeCoud cemented himself as the leader of the secondary with a very good to excellent year in his first year as a starter. DeCoud ranked as a top ten safety and appears to be yet another steal by Dimitroff after learning the ropes his rookie year. Erik Coleman on the other hand had a strong year in supporting the run, but had a very poor year in terms of coverage. Coleman should expect a big battle from William Moore returning from IR. Moore looks to supplant Coleman next year in the starting lineup, but regardless of who starts, the Falcons are good at safety for the foreseeable future. DeCoud ranked 10th, but Coleman ranked 42nd among all safeties.
Using the cold hard data and arguments above, rank the Falcons biggest needs in terms of their defense. My weak attempt:
1) Outside Linebacker – Absolutely the biggest need and should be the highest on the Falcons radar when the 19th pick comes around in April. Sean Weatherspoon or Sergio Kindle would look great in a Falcons uniform, would add immediate play-making ability to the LB corps, and would pair with Lofton and Nicholas to form a young and deadly LB trio. Peterson will be 34 and was only a stop-gap anyway. Time to bridge the gap.
2) Cornerback – The Falcons will have a plethora of players on the roster competing for spots and competition should produce the best, but TD does need to add one more playmaker at cornerback to compete for a starting spot. Owens and Grimes proved to be potential starting corners, but its time for Dimitroff to add another one of his corners. CB Joe Haden will be long gone and all other potential corners are too big of risks. If Dimitroff could sneak back into the second round, Patrick Robinson, Perrish Cox, Kyle Wilson, and/or Kareem Jackson could be available.
3) Defensive Tackle – Tough call on this one and defensive end, but if Dimitroff could add another big body to compete for roster spot in the 4th round, for example, the defensive line could quickly go from being a big question mark and weakness to one of superb strength. Babineaux, Anderson, Jerry, and Walker should be the top 4, and a big battle could rage for the number 5 spot. Cam Thomas (330+ lbs) from North Carolina perhaps?
4) Defensive End – Likely where many fans will disagree. It is true that the Falcons lack a true pass rusher, Abe is coming off a “down” year, and the Jamaal Anderson DE experiment is over; but Kroy Biermann deserves every shot to be an every-down DE after showing excellent improvement in each year. Lawrence Sidbury Jr. has immense upside and could eventually take over for Abraham. Chauncey Davis is an excellent backup. As Falcon fans know all too well, defensive end is a huge risk in the first round. If Biermann and Sidbury Jr. aren’t the answer, than we know what to expect next draft, but they at least deserve a shot. Could unrestricted free agent, former Georgia Bulldog, and former Patriot Richard Seymour be a short-term fix?
5) Safety - Thomas DeCoud, Erik Coleman, and William Moore provides the Falcons strength at safety, at least for another year until we see what Moore’s got.
6) Middle Linebacker – Curtis Lofton is the leader of the defense and one of the best, young ILBs in the league. Could draft a backup, but nothing but a very late draft pick.
Discuss and rank what are the biggest defensive needs this off-season, as we approach Free Agency and the Draft. How wrong is my order of ranking of needs on the D side of the ball? Give your own rankings and opinions on what the Falcons need the MOST on defense, not necessarily what will happen in Free Agency and the Draft, but what SHOULD happen according to you.