Some of the biggest storylines and questions regarding the Atlanta Falcons on their upcoming season have centered on the two lines, both offensive and defensive. The offensive line has generally been the more discussed of the two with new OL Coach Pat Hill likely bringing a new attitude and new schemes to Flowery Branch. Some in the national media have even said the Falcons have the shakiest left tackle situation in the NFL. Up to 3 spots are available for players to earn a spot in the starting rotation.
Regarding the defensive line situation, the area of defensive end has gobbled up much of the oxygen. Questions on who will make the team, where will they play, and what kind of looks they will be in under Mike Nolan have dominated much of the conversation. One part of the defensive line that hasn’t gotten a lot of airtime, but is just as equally important is the situation at defensive tackle.
Most believe the Falcons are in a pretty good position regarding the DT spot with longtime stalwart Jonathan Babineaux still locked in and Corey Peters just continuing his rapid improvement since being selected in the 3rd round in 2010. The backup spots seem pretty set with oft-injured Peria Jerry, superb rotational player Vance Walker, and 7th round draft pick Travian Robertson. The Birds also boast an extremely talented undrafted player in Micanor Regis. Things are just fine at DT, right? A closer look might confirm many beliefs, but it also might cause some worry. A look at the Falcons DT’s……..
One of the more shocking things that many fans may not realize is that Jonathan Babineaux is not only already 30 years of age, but that he’ll actually turn 31 in October of this season. Babineaux has been the supreme anchor for the Falcons and their fans for so long that perhaps many have just taken for granted just how long he’s been there. Babs has been a stud for the Falcons for a long time and the fact that he was drafted Lil’ Jimmy Mora should tell you how what an Atlanta vet he is. The former Hawkeye has been a beast at DT, becoming a full-time starter since Smith took over as head coach and racking up 14.5 sacks in that time with a high of 6 in 2009.
However, age and health seem to be taking their toll on the great Falcon DT. An injury kept him out of 3 games last year, but more importantly his production took a big dip in 2011. Babineaux only nabbed one sack last season and failed to generate much pressure despite having both John Abraham and Ray Edwards on the ends and promising Corey Peters next to him. Babineaux is under contract for the next two years and his cap hit balloons to $6.3 million in 2013. Corey Peters is well on his way to replacing Babineaux as the Falcons main DT stalwart and the former Iowa product will need a bounce back year to insure his permanent spot on the Birds DL. Like all the other players, Babineaux should benefit from new DC Mike Nolan. Verdict – Bounce Back Needed, but Time is Moving Fast
Most fans were in shock when they heard Corey Peters name called in the 3rd round of the 2010 NFL draft. Who? Why? The former Kentucky Wildcat quickly proved those doubts wrong as a rookie and looked even better in his sophomore season. He notched a sack in his first year, but proved to be even more valuable than just sack numbers alone. Peters looked good in run support as well as collapsing the pocket. If he looked good as a rookie, he looked even better in his second campaign, collaring 3 sacks and pulling down 33 combined tackles. He’s been everything Dimitroff and Co. had hoped for when they “reached” on him in the 3rd round a few years ago. Essentially, Peters has been a starter since day 1, notching every start except for two in his first two years.
Peters emergence has lessened the blow of Babineaux’s drop in production and looks to be the anchor of the future on the defensive line for a long time to come. The only slight worry is that Peters was held out of OTA’s and mini-camp with a foot injury. The former SEC player may be perfectly fine when training camp rolls around, but foot injuries can linger and Peters has definitely become the centerpiece to the Falcons defensive line. Verdict - Fans are Holding their Breath that the Injury Heals
There’s really not a whole lot that can or should be said that hasn’t been beaten to a pulp already over the last 3 years. Many complain about Sam Baker as being Dimitroff’s worst draft pick, but objectivity aside for many fans, he has produced in some capacity and started every game on an OL that went 13-3 and nabbed the NFC’s #1 seed. Jerry, on the other hand, stands as the biggest black eye on Dimitroff’s resume unless Jerry finally finds some form. Not only was Jerry drafted in the first round with a well-known injury history, but he would turn 25 as a rookie.
The Ole Miss Rebel had a good start in his first game and looked good only to go down with an ACL injury in his second game. Some thought Jerry may well be on his way back in 2010 where he didn’t earn a start, but did collar two sacks. Many than followed the assumption that last year (2011) would be his true “comeback” year. Jerry couldn’t supplant Corey Peters for a true starting spot and gave no indication of turning any corner or fulfilling his 1st round draft potential. Jerry is signed through 2013 and the good news is that the Falcons have already absorbed the brunt of his contract and he only counts $845k in 2012 and $905k in 2012 against the salary cap. Problem is, how long can or should the Falcons wait on their 1st round draft pick to have his “breakout” before they have to cut their losses and simply move on. Verdict - Seeing is Believing
When a discussion takes place on some of Thomas Dimitroff’s best draft picks, the usual names always come up: Matt Ryan, Sean Weatherspoon, Julio Jones, etc., but if one that should get mentioned at the very top in terms of value is Vance Walker. The Falcons GM took a chance on Walker in the 7th round in 2009 and the natural belief was that he would struggle to even make the roster. Not only has he made the roster every single year, but he’s become one of the best rotational players the Falcons have had the last four years. He hasn’t earned many starts and his stats won’t blow you away, but he has played an important role along the defensive line the last 3 years. Mike Smith has carried 5 DT’s on the active roster since becoming Falcons head coach and Walker has worked himself basically into a lock at this point.
Dimitroff paid the franchise tender for Walker paying him $1.26 million rather than risk losing him or even settling for a 7th round draft pick in return for him. Fact is, the former Georgia Tech prodcut is one of the more underrated players on the roster. He’s not the biggest name or had the highest stats, but he’s been a very valuable role player on a defensive line that has seen it’s share of underachievement (Jerry, Jamaal Anderson to name a few). Walker even pulled down 2 sacks last season. The question now is whether Walker can shed the “rotational player” label and become something more or just be good backup. Verdict - Walker Could Pass Jerry as 3rd DT
Speaking of Vance Walker, the Falcons GM took another chance on a defensive tackle with the 7th pick in this year’s draft. Robertson is a big defensive tackle at 6’4, but only 302 lbs. His frame could possibly even support 10-15 more pounds. Another SEC starter for several years, Robertson had some pretty productive statistics in his final two years in Columbia with 91 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks. Not bad for a defensive tackle.
While Robertson is not necessarily the big-bodied DT that many thought would be coming to Atlanta, he gives good depth to a position of need. Dimitroff was quoted as saying that Robertson could very versatile in playing a DT in a 4-3, but also a 5 technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense, which the Falcons have very few of. There’s a thought among some that the front office may decide to go with only 4 defensive tackles on the active roster, but given the injury issues of Babineaux, Jerry, and now Peters, that seems pretty far-fetched. Even though Robertson isn’t sure thing to make the roster, all signs point to him making the 53 man squad. Verdict - Make the Roster, but Only a Few Looks
The Miami DT is in a struggle just to make the practice squad, much less jumping from undrafted rookie all the way up to an NFL active roster. Regis does seem to hold some talent though. The Hurricane played in 46 career games with 112 tackles (52 solo), 5.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and three interceptions at Miami. Just the fact that he notched as many sacks as he did and pulled down 3 interceptions as a DT proves he’s got some athletic ability. Regis appears to be a great candidate to develop on the practice squad. Verdict - May have a Future as a Falcon, but Not in 2012.
Many fans thought that the Clemson Tiger was the perfect draft choice for the Falcons in the SECOND round, being able to not only form an excellent tandem with Corey Peters for the next 8 years, but also having the size to help the Falcons transition to the 3-4, Nolan’s defense of preference. The Falcons GM had a chance to take Thompson not once, but twice when they traded back in the 3rd round. Lamar Holmes was the pick instead and he’ll forever be compared to Thompson, at least for Bird Cage members. Verdict – Still Painful to Think About What Could’ve Been
Aubrayo Franklin is still out there as a big-bodied DT that could aid a 3-4 transition and there’s sure to be more available when cuts come down across the league. But if the words of Dimitroff are any indication, don’t expect any other defensive tackles to join the fray unless injuries become an issue. Verdict - Not Happening, Barring Injury
1) How comfortable do you feel with the Falcons DT situation?
2) Is DT a strength or weakness as currently constructed?
3) How much gas does Babineaux have left?
4) How much does Peters foot injury concern you?
5) Is this Jerry’s final chance for a breakout? Will it actually happen?
6) Can Walker be more than a rotational player?
7) Will Robertson make an impact or even the roster?
8.) Any chance Regis makes the roster jump?
9) Should TD have taken Thompson over Holmes?
10) Do the Birds need some outside help at DT?