Even though free agency will stretch until the beginning of the season and all the way through, the major rush is over and the Falcons are surely done with the big spending, basically because they have no more money. Atlanta’s team did a good job of keeping their own in Tony Gonzalez, Sam Baker, Garrett Reynolds, and William Moore. They even added one of the best running backs of the past decade in Steven Jackson. Interestingly, only one of those resides on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, the two represent an antithesis of one another. On one side, you have an offense that is laden with Pro Bowlers, future Hall of Famers, and seems ready to suit up if the game were tomorrow. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Steven Jackson look as good as any offense in the NFL, at least on paper. And that’s not even mentioning Jacquizz Rodgers, Chase Coffman, Jason Snelling, and perhaps Harry Douglas (or a better slot receiver). The offensive line is as steady as it’s been in 5 or more years and Dirk Koetter appears that he’s only getting started.
The defense might as well be on a different team, or in another universe for that matter. They kept William Moore, and that’s about where the consistency stops. Dunta Robinson will play for the Chiefs next year. Vance Walker will suit up for the Raiders. Lawrence Sidbury will wear the white and blue for the Colts. John Abraham and Brent Grimes feasibly could come back, but they appear ready to go elsewhere also. The Falcons look to have at least 3 new starters in 2013, and that number could rise to even more. They evidently have no intention to keep CB Chris Owens either. Jonathan Babineaux is the only starter that remains from when Smith and Dimitroff took over in 2008. Fans may have thought changes were coming on defense, but the overhaul that appears ready to take place is pretty striking. A look at what seems to be on the horizon……..
Some changes were expected and certainly warranted, but many fans are still a little unsettled at what’s on deck for 2013. Of the players that made up the defensive roster in 2012, many of them are either with other teams (Walker, Sidbury, Robinson), still unsigned free agents (Abraham, Grimes, Owens, Chris Hope), likely retiring (Mike Peterson), or out of the NFL altogether (Ray Edwards). If roughly half of the roster is made up of defensive players (around 25), that would represent over a third of changes on the roster on one side of the ball. Some of it may have had to do with finances, as the Falcons look to put themselves on a good financial footing.
Not paying Dunta Robinson $9 million was pretty much a no-brainer (even though the Chiefs signed him for half that). And while John Abraham was the Falcons best pass rusher, it also seems hard to justify paying a defensive end who turns 35 in a few months almost $6 million. Some will argue that Tony Gonzalez will be 37 and is set to receive that same amount, but one is still a Pro Bowler at the top of his game and the other is on a fairly rapid decline. Edwards was obviously cut mid-season due to not only having a terrible attitude, but also actually being terrible on the field. Lawrence Sidbury and the coaching staff never saw eye-to-eye for some reason, but seeing that the Colts signed him for what a practice squad player makes ($715k / 1 year) makes one wonder if the Falcons may have cut ties too early. Not keeping Mike Peterson or Chris Hope won’t shock anyone, as they are aging vets.
Brent Grimes is still unsigned, but took visits to both Miami and Cleveland and doesn’t appear likely to stay in Atlanta when all is said and done. The only two that are curious are Vance Walker and Chris Owens. Neither were barnstorming All-Pros, but both were excellent role players that added a ton of depth and versatility to the team. Not only that, but they were just the kind of player that Dimitroff usually keeps (Reynolds this year; Douglas, Biermann last year), when he drafted them and they’ve shown some good production and potential. As mentioned earlier, many of these moves aren’t really surprising when you look at them individually, but collectively, they represent a pretty sudden and major shift.
One of the big reasons that many assume a major overhaul is coming is that the Falcons already had all 7 of their draft picks for the first time in years. News that the Falcons received 4 compensatory draft picks a few days ago only reinforces that fact. This is brings up memories of what they did in 2009, when they spent all but one of their draft picks on defense. To say the least, that’s a fairly mixed bag looking back 4 years later. William Moore just made the Pro Bowl and is one of the new franchise leaders on defense. It’s no secret that Peria Jerry is Dimitroff’s worst draft pick to date, but he’s still on the roster. Chris Owens is still an unsigned free agent. Lawrence Sidbury is in Indianapolis. William Middleton never made the Falcons roster.
Spencer Adkins was cut last year, and Vance Walker just signed with the Oakland Raiders. Actually, when you break it down, it looks like a pretty terrible draft. Easily the Falcons GM’s worst. William Moore was a great pick, but when only one player makes an impact 4 years later and only one more is still on the team, that’s not a great batting percentage. Maybe Dimitroff simply wants another crack at a rebuild and sees his opportunity to do just that. The former Patriots assistant may not be perfect, but one of his very best traits is fixing his previous mistakes and he appears primed to make that happen again. There’s no way that 11 new players will make the final roster in 2013, so this really does look to be the most competitive off-season to date on defense.
Another intriguing factor in the potential defensive makeover is the influence of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan was hired on January 17th of last year, and even though it’s not weeks before the season starts, any new hire who wants to be successful will take an initial wait-and-see approach to evaluate the talent on hand before they start fully implementing their systems or making any big changes. Although he likely had some influence on free agency and the draft, it’s nowhere near the level of input and sway he’ll have after a year of up-close evaluation of the players, the defense’s strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses.
It appears that after many drafts, off-seasons, and free agent signings, Mike Nolan will be the beneficiary of a chance to remake an entire defense. No disrespect to Brian Van Gorder, but Mike Nolan represents a different opportunity that existed in 2009. Nolan is a seasoned defensive coordinator and generally regarded as one of the best in the business. He’s been successful anywhere he’s gone as a defensive coordinator. Brian Van Gorder had only been an NFL defensive coordinator for a year at that point in 2009, and only worked as a linebackers coach in Jacksonville a few years before that.
Nolan may not have done a great job as head coach, but he did oversee some pretty good draft choices in that time that he surely had some input into. Patrick Willis, Dashon Goldson, and Manny Lawson on defense were taken in Nolan’s time as head coach. The offensive side of the ball saw them take Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, Delanie Walker, and Adam Snyder. This is by no means saying that Nolan gets all the credit for those draft picks, but he’s at least experienced drafting players that would either become Pro Bowlers or excellent role players.
The Lochness Monster, Sasquatch, and the possibility of Extraterrestrial life are some of life’s great mysteries. Add the question of whether the Falcons will primarily run the 4-3 defense or finally convert to the 3-4 to that list. First of all, every team runs some sort of hybrid, especially Mike Nolan. He was seen running the 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5, and even the 3-3-5 at times last season. The question isn’t about all the exotic packages, but more about what base the Falcons will run.
Even though defenses can theoretically run any scheme at anytime, there is a definitive difference between having the 4-3 or the 3-4 as your base. The 4-3 under Mike Smith has relied on quick and penetrating defensive tackles who usually weigh a good bit less than most NFL DT’s and certainly way less than 3-4 nose tackles, who can range anywhere from 305 lbs all the way up to 350+ lbs. Smith’s 4-3 has relied on premiere defensive ends to get off blocks and, in many cases, double-teams.
John Abraham has done a masterful job considering he’s had zero help from the other side and not much from his DT’s. 4-3 linebackers haven’t been used much at all in rushing the passer, or at least effectively anyway. No linebacker has totaled more than 3 sacks (maybe 4) in any of Smith’s 5 seasons as head coach. Considering the Falcons front office and coaches are having the same conversations 4 years later after their first “defensive rebuild” in 2009, clearly it hasn’t worked very well. Many want the Falcons to move to the 3-4, but feel they don’t have the personnel to correctly run it, at least yet.
They surely don’t have any DT anywhere close to being a run-stuffing, space eater. The closest is Corey Peters, and he hardly strikes anyone as the answer as a 3-4 NT. In a rotation perhaps, but not as a full-fledged starter. There’s some belief that they have a few players who can work as 5-technique defensive ends, where they can hold the point of attack and take on potential double-teams. Jonathan Babineaux showed his versatility last year in being able to play both defensive tackle and end. These DE’s range anywhere from 275 all the way up to 320+ lbs, depending on scheme. Travian Robertson comes to mind as a possibility, and maybe Peria Jerry as well. One many thought could fill that potential role was Vance Walker, who just left for the Oakland Raiders. Perhaps Cliff Matthews could, but he seems more like a rush OLB than a 5-technique.
Corey Peters may be the answer there if he can return to full-health. The bottom line is that they need serious reinforcements for either base they choose to run. There’s a few options at linebacker, but not many. The most obvious is to see Akeem Dent go back to a 3-4 ILB that he played at UGA under Todd Grantham. He showed a lot of progress overall last year and seems to only be getting better. Sean Weatherspoon would seemingly take over the other inside linebacker position, being able to stop the run, rush the passer, and cover.
They may have starters, but no depth.The outside, rush linebacker position gets a lot more interesting. Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, and maybe Cliff Matthews seem like a good fit here with their ability to get after the QB, but also cover some in space. Biermann and Massaquoi were both projected to be 3-4 OLB’s when they were drafted. Cliff Matthews was a 4-3 DE in college at South Carolina, but he’s shown good enough athleticism to merit consideration out there. They let Lawrence Sidbury go to none other than a team recently converted to a 3-4 in the Colts.
…….Rest of post coming soon.