The Atlanta Falcons may find themselves in a somewhat desirable position for a change regarding defensive end. After being one of the most problematic areas for the Falcons since the Birds had both Patrick Kerney and John Abraham, there’s a slight potential it could be an area for improvement in 2012.
While there’s no guarantee that defensive end will finally yield production, there certainly will be competition for starting and rotation spots this year. The hope with most fans is that Mike Nolan will want to use several different players and defensive ends and find ways to incorporate many of them in different schemes, blitz packages, and paths to get after the QB and disrupt the backfield.
In the past, the Falcons have usually carried only 5 defensive ends and 5 defensive tackles. That could change this year, but it still looks to be one of the more intriguing stories in preseason and if they stay with only 5 defensive ends, someone may be on the outside looking in. A look at the candidates and their likely roles in 2012……
One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the off-season was seeing John Abraham, basically the only pass rush for the Falcons the last 6 years, come back. Most believed that Abraham would want to max out for one last contract and head to the highest bidder. Initially, it seemed as though it was a hopeless venture as the free agency deadline began. Abe said he took less money to stay in Atlanta and finish his career as a Falcon, another indication in and of itself that this franchise is on the up and up. His new contract cements him as the top lock
Abraham recently turned 34 years of age and has shown some signs of slowing down, but considering that he’s had basically no help in rushing the passer, his stats and ability to affect the game is unquestioned. With the addition of Mike Nolan and a more aggressive scheme, Abraham should be a major beneficiary. #55 may take on the role as mentor and pass-rushing specialist as the new defensive coordinator starts a heavier rotation.
He signed a 3 year, $16.72 million dollar deal that includes escalators and roster bonuses. With Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann, and maybe Lawrence Sidbury beginning to take much of the run down load-share, Abraham will be the Falcons top passing rushing specialist who will rush mainly from a 3 point stance, but shouldn’t be counted out as being a standup rusher. Roster: Lock; Role: Starter, Pass-Rushing Specialist
Some are already calling the Ray Edwards signing a bust, which seems pretty unfair after only one year in which he battled injury recovery. Many forget that Ray Edwards didn’t get a max contract and was believed to be a homerun signing for Dimitroff at the time for the value he got him for and being the second best DE free agent on the market last off-season. Edwards obviously had a down year stat wise, but he was hardly the only one to underachieve on defense, an undercurrent running throughout Brian Van Gorder’s helm as defensive coordinator. Specifically, Edwards mentioned how complex the scheme was in Atlanta compared to the one he had in Minnesota (perplexing to fans considering how ridiculously soft that scheme appeared to be). Those who say that he should just be dumped need to know that the Falcons are financially committed to him for at least two more years.
Edwards was never a top flight defensive end on the level of a Dwight Freeney or Julius Peppers, and his contract reflected that ($6 million compared to $12-13 million a year). Edwards is a good and solid #2 defensive end that has the potential to really flourish under new DC Mike Nolan and all the help he’s likely to see in rushing the passer (Abraham, Sidbury, Massaquoi, and Spoon among others). Edwards was still good against the run last year and if he can get back his pass-rushing prowess, it could really lead to a boon for the Falcons defense. Edwards will be a starter and it will be interesting how he’s used to rush the QB. Being one of the bigger DE’s on the roster could see him play some 5-technique in a 3-4 defense as well as a true DE in a 4-3. Roster: Lock; Role: Starter, Versatile DE
This one is a very interesting signing. Biermann has been a fan favorite due to his versatility, work ethic, and leadership on the team. He signed a pretty reasonable deal for 3 years at $9.15 million. He may not have had the best of luck becoming a full-time defensive end, but he’s proven to be an invaluable rotational player and definitely shown his athleticism the last two years with two interceptions and touchdown runs. Biermann will likely continue his role as a good rotational player, possibly being in on run heavy downs and occasionally staying in to rush the passer.
The big question will be whether or not he stays exclusively at defensive end or tries his turn as an outside linebacker in Mike Nolan’s new scheme. Many believed Biermann to be more suited for an OLB in a 3-4 when he was at 241 lbs when he came out of Montana. The big question is whether he could play in space and cover. The rotation will be very interesting with the Falcons committed to John Abraham, Ray Edwards, Lawrence Sidbury, rookie Jonathan Massaquoi, and possibly even Cliff Matthews. It only seems to make sense that some of the ends will be working at OLB or some of them will be dropped from the roster. Roster: Lock; Role: Rotational DE, Potential 3-4 OLB.
Sidbury’s a big question mark for his year. He’s flashed some major potential in the limited amount of time he’s gotten snaps. In fact, he notched 4 sacks in 206 snaps and has shown his excellent pass-rushing skills the last few years. Sidbury remains an enigma. For whatever reason, he just hasn’t seemed to be utilized correctly since his arrival in Atlanta. He got a sack and touchdown as a rookie and basically went missing in 2010, failing to even make the gameday active roster several times. He played half the amount of snaps that Edwards and Biermann did, yet out-produced them both in sacks. Most believe that Sidbury has not been utilized properly by Smith and former DC Brian Van Gorder.
Some think that Sidbury could be the perfect weapon for Mike Nolan and his new aggressive scheme, being able to play with his hand on the ground as a defensive end or maybe a pass-rushing specialist as a rush OLB in a 3-4. He surely seems to have the athletic ability for the transition. The Falcons were thought to be set at defensive end, but the drafting of Jonathan Massaquoi definitely brings all possibilities back into the equation. Roster: Likely a Lock; Role: Pass-Rushing Specialist, Big Candidate for 3-4 OLB.
If Sidbury is a big question mark, than Cliff Matthews is the ultimate great unknown. Like Sidbury, Matthews showed some flashes in preseason only never to be heard from again. Many fans may not know that Matthews actually is one of the lighter defensive ends on the roster at 6’4, 257 lbs. Thought to possibly hold potential on lining up as a 5-technique, he actually would be closer to being a standup OLB, possibly like Biermann and Sidbury. Matthews looked really good in preseason, and of course wasn’t seen in the regular season (another seeming example of the Falcons failure at developing players).
Matthews definitely will be on the bubble with the drafting of Jonathan Massaquoi. If the Falcons decide to carry only 5 defensive ends, Matthews likely be on the outside looking in. It would be a shame for Matthews seeming potential to go unrealized and be gone from the roster, which is why many think the Falcons may keep all 6 defensive ends with Nolan’s propensity to use a heavy rotation. Roster: Bubble
When the former Troy player’s name was called for the Falcons in the 5th round, fans were pretty puzzled. The Falcons were already committed to Ray Edwards and then re-upped both John Abraham and Kroy Biermann in the off-season, not including potential-laden Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews. The Falcons may be adopting the Giants strategy of never having enough players who can get after the passer, one that has worked pretty darn well for them.
Massaquoi was an excellent pick in the 5th round and has vowed to get back to his junior year weight and form, one that saw him notch 76 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, and 13.5 sacks. Massaquoi is a welcomed addition to a team in severe need of pass rushing help in the worst way. It’s hard to believe that Massaquoi won’t make the teams considering almost all of Dimitroff’s draft picks make the active roster. What his exact role will be or where he’ll be in the defensive end pecking order is yet to be known. Like Sidbury, Biermann, and Matthews, Massaquoi could get some looks as a 3-4 OLB. Roster: Slight Bubble; Role: Pass-rushing specialist.
Nzegwu was rated as one of the top undrafted free agent signings by several draft sites. It’s a very long shot for Nzegwu to make it onto the active roster with all the talent in front of him, but he does have good size and speed and seem to be a very good candidate to develop on the practice squad. Roster: Practice Squad; Role: Development
1) What will the Falcons defensive end rotation look like in 2012?
2) What SHOULD the Birds DE rotation be like?
3) How many DE’s should the Falcons keep?
4) Will Sidbury’s talent finally be utilized under Mike Nolan?
5) Is Cliff Matthews on the bubble to miss the Falcons roster?
6) Will Jonathan Massaquoi have any impact as a rookie?
7) Should any of the candidates get looks at outside linebacker?
8.) What’s your prediction for sack totals for each player?