Finally, it looks as though the NFL owners and players may be putting their greed to the side and using their brains regarding this lockout. With the potential of actual time and money being lost right around the corner, it appears that (at least according to reports) something may actually get done towards mid-July. Of course nothing is set in stone just yet, but encouraging news nonetheless. One of the first pieces of information to come out was the idea that free agency would go back to previous rules where any players that have accrued at least 4 years in the league would become unrestricted free agents.
The big criticism from media talking heads is that the Falcons failed to address their pass rush through the draft (even though they fail to mention that NONE of the prospects would likely have an immediate impact in their rookie year), and the chance of getting one of the better defensive ends prospects would immediately enhance a team that is prepared to win now in this first window with several players reaching their primes or downsides of them (McClure, Abraham, White, Turner, Gonzalez).
Two of the biggest names that have been bandied about are former UGA and current Carolina Panthers DE Charles Johnson and Minnesota DE Ray Edwards. Although Johnson has played four years in the NFL, the Panthers put a first round tender on him which may or may not hold up, but it makes the likelihood somewhat smaller. So that leaves Ray Edwards as the main guy that many have talked about for quite some time now (our main man Falcons guru D. Orlando Ledbetter even went ahead and penciled him in as a Falcons starter in 2011). So that of course leads to our question of the post: Should the Falcons ante up and lock down Edwards as soon as the lockout is lifted or should they pass on him in favor of getting someone like Tamba Hali, Mario Williams, or Charles Johnson next year? The case:
2006 – 2 Games Started – 10 Tackles – 3 Sacks – 2 PDef – 0 Forced Fumbles
2007 – 11 GS – 30 Tackles – 5 Sacks - 2 PDef – 4 FF
2008 – 15 GS – 54 Tackles – 5 Sacks – 3 PDef – 1 FF
2009 – 16 GS – 51 Tackles – 8.5 Sacks – 2 PDef – 1 FF
2010 – 14 GS – 37 Tackles – 8 Sacks – 2 PDef – 0 FF
It’s a no-brainer. The Falcons have relied entirely too much on John Abraham being the sole source of a pass rush for entirely too long. The Falcons haven’t gotten consistent pressure from the other side of the defensive end spot since Abraham became a Falcon way back in 2006. Jamaal Anderson famously didn’t work out, Chauncey Davis couldn’t make the jump to starter, Lawrence Sidbury couldn’t even make it on the field after some flashes as a rookie, and Kroy Biermann still has hope, but he definitely regressed after becoming a full time starter.
The Falcons drafted Cliff Matthews in the 7th round, but he will definitely take some time to develop. Biermann may still be the answer, but the fact remains that Abraham will be retiring sooner rather than later and the Falcons will need TWO defensive ends to become productive since someone opposite of Abraham and will be needed and someone will be needed to replace Abraham.
Edwards has prototypical DE size at 6’5, 268 and has had extremely good production (if not eye-popping) and has steadily progressed since breaking into the league. Edwards just turned 26 this year and is only now just hitting his prime. He can pair with Abraham until he decides to hang up his cleats while also working in a rotation with Biermann to see if he can make the big jump in his second full year as an exclusive starter while hopefully not being involved on special teams.
Abraham can be rested and saved for being a pass-rushing specialist where he excels the most while prolonging his energy and career as a whole. Even though Edwards would probably get the “official” nod over Biermann in terms of starting, his arrival wouldn’t mean that he closes off Biermann’s potential to make the jump, especially given Dimitroff’s propensity to give draft picks time to develop and produce. Coach Mike Smith firmly believes in rotating his defensive lineman and keeping them fresh, so a rotation of Abraham, Biermann, Edwards, and either Davis or Sidbury would give excellent depth and an extremely complementary set. It would also allow time to see what they have in Cliff Matthews as well.
A Great Situation
The criticism will come that he was only a product of a line that included 3 Pro Bowlers in Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams and that his total of 8 sacks was extremely low considering who he was playing with. While that may be true from one perspective, the opposite is also true in that there is only so many sacks to go around and that if Allen or the Williams DT’s hadn’t got there first, than Edwards could have had more sacks (remember how many “close calls” Abe had in 2009 that translated into sacks in 2010?). One final point to see is that Edwards will be coming into a great situation for many reasons.
Not only will he be coming to a team that is ready to win now, but he also comes in not having to be “the guy” right off the bat, much like the situation Julio Jones will be in. He already has an All-Pro, Pro Bowler in Abraham who just came off one of his best seasons in the NFL. Edwards can come in and work in a great rotation, produce, and eventually can replace Abraham after he decides to hang up his cleats.
Need for TWO DE’s, Not One
Keeping in mind that the Falcons will need TWO defensive ends in the near future, Edwards just makes too much sense. The Birds have failed to address the other defensive end spot for far too long and if they want to take the next step in this first window that is closing fairly quickly, they must get a pass rush from the other side. Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis have proven not to be the answer, Sidbury has way too much unknown and risk surrounding him, and Biermann may make the jump, but betting your franchise on that fact is too great a risk as Abraham nears retirement.
Ray Edwards likely would give the defensive line some jolt, but the question is whether or not he will be worth the high amount of money it will take to sign him. The need is well-known that someone has to produce in terms of pass-rushing other than John Abraham. He has carried the sole burden for far too long. At issue is not necessarily whether the Falcons need more pass rush, but whether Edwards is the answer the Falcons seek. Edwards was the beneficiary of an absolutely stacked defensive line in Minnesota. He shared the DL with 3, count’em THREE, Pro Bowlers who combined for an astounding 12 Pro Bowls collectively.
A Product of Other Pro Bowlers?
Edwards sack numbers are decent, but even with the outstanding trio of Allen, P. Williams, and K. Williams, he was never able to get above double digit sacks. That is a major cause for concern when you’re about to sink the house for your next franchise DE, one who will be complementary to Abraham only for a few more seasons, but really be the heir apparent to Abraham. The larger point is, do the Falcons elect to sign a defensive end just because everyone says they should?
Some of the criticism can be directed at Mike Smith and DC Brian Van Gorder for their extremely predictable and vanilla play-calling on defense. They rarely blitz and when they do, it’s predictable enough for even the general fan to see what’s coming. It’s hard to believe they drafted Sean Weatherspoon with the first pick in last year’s draft to simply cover and Stephen Nicholas has shown he can get after the passer when needed. William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, and even Curtis Lofton have shown that they can get after the QB when needed.
Lack of Big-Bodied DT’s
Another thing to consider is the fact that Atlanta doesn’t have the big-bodied DT’s like Minnesota had. Pat Williams pushed all of 317 while Kevin Williams pushed all of 311. Surely, this played a big part in Edwards ability to not draw double-teams and have many one-on-one matchups, not to mention the perennial Pro Bowler Jared Allen on the other side. Most all of Atlanta’s DT’s are definitely under 300, with only a few barely over the mark.
Another point is whether or not Edwards would be a better option than spending the money elsewhere. Are the lapses and poor performances solely responsible for the pass rush? It’s the chicken and egg argument with many here, but the cornerbacks often gave up wide swaths of turf to receivers many times even when there was good pressure. Shouldn’t the Falcons make sure to re-sign Stephen Nicholas, Brent Grimes, and possibly go after a cornerback instead? Many believe the Falcons should go after Nnamdi Asomugha, the undisputed best player in free agency, and the Falcons could definitely work through rotations of Biermann, Abraham, Davis, and Sidbury.
Spend the Money Elsewhere
That’s assuming of course that Grimes would accept the nickel back role, which would be an issue itself. Even if they decided to pass on Asomugha due to their high investment in Dunta Robinson, they could elect to go after a slightly lesser cornerback, but still an excellent defensive back who could come in to compete for a starters position and definitely take the nickel back spot. Players such as Carlos Rogers, Chris Carr, Fabian Washington, or Paul Oliver could add a much needed boost to the secondary. Finally, 2012 looks to be ripe with much better options having at least a chance at Mario Williams, Charles Johnson, and Tamba Hali who have proven they can soar into double-digit sack territory.