Rich McKay trades for John Abraham from the New York Jets, giving up the 15th overall draft pick. Falcon fans are salivating at the opportunity of seeing two Pro Bowl defensive ends across from one another and quite possibly the best defensive end combination in the NFL with Patrick Kerney manning the other side. Abraham battled through injuries in his first year as a Falcon and the much ballyhooed chance of seeing them play together was sadly a missed opportunity for the most part. The Falcons let Kerney hit the free agent market and onto Seattle, where he made the Pro Bowl and became an All-Pro and that was the last time that the Birds had a legit pass rush on both sides of the defensive line. Since then, it’s been John Abraham producing the pressure all by himself and an assemble that have combined for not very much at all on the opposite side.
Abraham had a solid year in 2007 with 10 sacks, a record year in ’08 with 16.5 sacks (and a Pro Bowl snub), a dip in ’09 with 5.5 sacks, and bounced right back to form 13 sacks and a well-deserved Pro Bowl invite and All-Pro recognition. So sad he’s gotten ZERO help on the other side. The trials and tribulations on the other DE side are well-documented. The most well-know of course is one Mr. Jamaal Anderson, who was taken #8 overall in the NFL draft. No need to pour salt in wounds here, but let’s just say that it’s safe to call JA#98 the B-word (at least at DE). He notched 0 sacks as a rookie starting all 16 games, totaled 2 sacks in 2008 starting 15 games, got a ½ sack in 2009 starting 13 games, and got 2 sacks this year rotating between DT and DE. In case you didn’t break out your calculator that would be a smashing 4.5 sacks in 60 games played. Ouch.
Then came the hope that Chauncey Davis may get a chance to prove himself as a full-time starter (and getting paid as such – 4 year, $14 million). After getting 4 sacks in 2008 in only one start, some thought Davis could challenge to be the answer at the other DE spot. The answer is 2 sacks in 2 years since (1 in ’09 and 1 this year). Nope. Then came the second homegrown hope with Kroy Biermann. All eyes were pointing for a great year for Biermann to explode on the scene. After collaring 2 sacks as a rookie in limited time and then packing on almost 20 pounds in the off-season, KB#71 got 5 sacks as a rotational player. His debut was less than stellar with only getting 3 sacks. While both players are excellent role players and great guys to have on the team, they haven’t shown they can handle the full-time duty (even though Biermann has plenty of upside and a fantastic work ethic).
The final hope came as a lightning fast defensive end project from Richmond. Considered a huge steal in the 2009 draft, Lawrence Sidbury was thought to be the next great Falcons defensive end and a perfect protégé of Abraham. Only time was needed to develop. His national title performance as a senior is stuff of legend. After playing all 16 games as a rookie, grabbing a sack, and even recovering a touchdown, Sidbury’s potential was limitless. This year followed that hope with a loud and deep thud. Sidbury barely graced the field at all, playing in only 6 games mostly on special teams and being inactive for most of the season. There’s still a chance that Sidbury may be that guy, but it’s hard to believe that if he were that close that he wouldn’t get any reps in his second year.
John Abraham (since 2007) – 45 sacks
Anderson/Biermann/Davis/Sidbury (combined) – 21.5 sacks
Obviously, something needs to change and there are three ways the Falcons front office can take: spend some dough in free agency, draft a defensive end in the 1st round, or develop and hope.
Ray Edwards – 6’5 – 268 –Age: 26 – Minnesota
Could be one of the biggest free agent defensive ends to hit the market this year assuming there even is free agency. Edwards youth, play-making ability, and production will make him a highly sought after free agent. He has started 58 games for the Minnesota Vikings and been the full-time starter opposite Jared Allen for the last three years. Has been solid, but hasn’t had eye-gouging numbers after starting on the opposite side of a perennial Pro Bowler (2008 – 5 sacks, 2009 – 8.5 sacks, 2010 8 sacks). Can he be expected to come here and do any better with Abraham? And would that even be worth taking a risk on since the Falcons have Biermann and Sidbury to develop?
Charles Johnson – 6’2 – 275 – Age: 24 – Carolina
The former Georgia high school and UGA product may not even make it to free agency if the Panthers either re-sign him or place the franchise tag on him. In only 18 starts over the last 4 years, Johnson has notched as many sacks as all four Falcons defensive ends combined (21.5) and put up a staggering 11.5 on one of the worst teams in the NFL this year. Fans would think it a no-brainer to bring the Georgia boy back home (who also played under one Mr. Van Gorder at UGA), but it seems highly unlikely the talent starved Panthers will want to part with Johnson.
Mathias Kiwanuka – 6’5 – 265 – Age: 27 – New York
The 5th year man out of Boston College may be a logical choice for the Falcons and definitely could be available since the Giants already have Osi umenyiora and just drafted Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round last year. An immediate red flag goes up with his injury trouble and how he has had issue staying on the field, but when healthy he has shown good production. In his only full season of starting, he registered 8 sacks. In only three games this year (starting in just one), Kiwanuka was able to manage a stout 4 sacks before a herniated disc in his neck sidelined him for the rest of the year. Would the Falcons be willing to pay up a hefty amount of money who mirrors Jerious Norwood: oozing with potential, but never on the field to show it?
There are several other free agents available, but these seem to offer the most immediate impact and could provide a long-term answer at defensive end. Others such as Cullen Jenkins or Shaun Ellis seem to fit the 3-4 scheme much better or are too close to the 3-0 mark.
Drafting a defensive end in the first round is one of the riskiest positions there is in the NFL. The draft has way more first round busts or average production than they do immediate impact players. Defensive end has one of the deepest learning curves of any position in the NFL. For every Julius Peppers that can come in and make an immediate impact, there are ten times as many (ahem) Jamaal Andersons, Jarvis Moss’, Vernon Gholstons, Derrick Harveys, Aaron Maybins, Larry Englishes, and Marcus Spears as there are Julius Peppers. Even most great DE’s, such as Mario Williams, don’t even produce as a rookie. Can the Falcons afford to wait another 2 to 3 years on a defensive end prospect to arrive? All four DE’s taken in the first round last year (Brandon Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul, Derrick Morgan, Jerry Hughes) combined for 9 sacks and even that number is skewed because Pierre-Paul made up half that with 4.5.
Aldon Smith – 6’5 – 260 – 4.7 Forty – 5.5 Sacks – Missouri
Extremely raw talent who has only played two years of college after redshirting. Collared 29 tackles for loss and 17 sacks in two years, but only 5.5 in his final year. Probably projects more as a 3-4 OLB.
Adrian Clayborn – 6’4 – 285 – 4.75 Forty – 3.5 Sacks – Iowa
A fifth year senior who’s best year was as a junior, where he registered 20 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks. Followed that up with a weak 7 tackles for a loss and only 3.5 sacks as a senior. Doesn’t project as an elite pass-rusher in NFL.
Ryan Kerrigan – 6’4 – 263 – 4.8 Forty – 12.5 Sacks – Purdue
A true senior who has been extremely productive in his final two years taking in 43 tackles for a loss (26 as a senior) and 23.5 sacks (12.5 as a senior). May not be an elite pass rusher, but could project to great all-around defensive end.
Cameron Heyward – 6’5 – 288 – 4.9 Forty – 3.5 Sacks – Ohio State
Local product and son of former Falcon Ironhead Heyward. Has physical tools, but very low production in terms of sacks (3.5 as a senior). Could be much more suited to play base end in a 3-4. May be an overall good defensive end, but not the sack artist the Falcons need.
Allen Bailey – 6’4 – 285 – 4.75 Forty – 7 Sacks – Miami
A rare specimen in terms of pure physical tools and probably has immense upside, but his tackle for loss totals (11) and sacks (7) aren’t eye-popping and most definitely will need a decent amount of time to develop. Could play either the 3-4 or 3-4, but can Falcons wait for several more years on development?
Robert Quinn and Da’quan Bowers expected to be long gone by #27
As you can see, there’s not too many routes that seem as sure-fire as just signing a Julius Peppers that was out there last year. Many of the players coming out in free agency will either be franchise tagged if they’re already good-to-great and the rest have potential and “good” production, but will be hard to justify throwing a ton of money towards. Taking a defensive end in the first round is a losing proposition, especially late in the first round. Can either of the previous routes be any better than developing your own players? It’s a big risk and something that we as fans just aren’t privy to in terms of development and what the coaches think can happen next year. Kroy Biermann certainly has the work ethic to get there and was very close to many sacks last year. His hustle and gritty play will have him in the mix for a long while as a Falcon, even if not as a true starter. Perhaps it all clicks for him next year with another intense off-season regiment.
Lawrence Sidbury is the true wildcard in this equation. He will be entering the “golden third year” for defensive ends where it all comes together for many players. Charles Johnson, for instance, rarely played as a rookie, hit 6 sacks in year 2, dipped back down to 4 sacks, but then blew up for double digit sacks in 2010. It’s hard arguing the same for Sidbury at this point though because after showing tons of potential as a rookie he went missing. Is it logical to assume he can go from not even being active in most games to being the conclusive answer at defensive end? We’ll know one way or another how they feel about Sidbury after free agency is over.
So many paths to fixing defensive end and hardly any sure things. All routes have their own rewards and risks. Free agency could give immediate help but will cost money and no guarantees there. The draft is a landmine for defensive ends in the 1st round, but you never know when you hit the next Peppers or Tamba Hali. Even though Biermann and Sibury haven’t given a ton of production to being the final answer, defensive ends seem to “blow up” more than any other positions from one year to the next. So what SHOULD the Falcons do?
-What’s your overall thoughts on entire DE situation?
-Where does fault lie at DE (excluding Abraham of course)?
-Simply put, what would you do if you were TD?
-Is free agency the answer?
-Of all the FA’s who would like the most?
-Who would be the most reasonable FA DE to get?
-Are there other FA DE’s that were missed?
-Should the Falcons draft a DE @ #27?
-Do the Birds finally have to fix DE in draft, even if time development is needed?
-If drafting, who would you take? Why?
-Should the Birds put their stock in Biermann and Sidbury?
-What happened to The Sidbury Promise?
-Could Biermann or Sidbury be ready to blow up next year?
-Without a major improvement at DE, can Falcons be legit in ’11?