How Should the Atlanta Falcons Address Their Defensive Line This Offseason?

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How Should the Atlanta Falcons Address Their Defensive Line This Offseason?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Given that the Atlanta Falcons are 3-9 with four weeks left in the regular season, it's time to open the floor for more discussion about some of the decisions that they will have to make in 2014. 

Last week, we took a look at the Falcons' situation along the offensive line and explored the team's options for upgrading its talent at offensive tackle, guard and center.

This week we move to the defensive side of the ball to analyze Atlanta's situation at defensive tackle and defensive end, and to preview some of the players who will be available at each spot in the draft and via free agency.

Let's begin our analysis at defensive tackle.

 

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

CURRENT FALCONS DEFENSIVE TACKLES

Jonathan Babineaux (pending 2014 free agent), Corey Peters (pending 2014 free agent), Peria Jerry (pending 2014 free agent), Travian Robertson and Adam Replogle (practice squad)

 

NOTABLE 2014 DRAFT PROSPECTS

Louis Nix (Notre Dame), Timmy Jernigan (Florida State), Anthony Johnson (LSU), Dominique Easley (Florida), Kelcy Quarles (South Carolina), Will Sutton (Arizona State), Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota)

 

NOTABLE POTENTIAL 2014 VETERAN FREE AGENTS

Henry Melton (Bears), Linval Joseph (Giants), Vance Walker (Raiders), Paul Soliai (Dolphins), Lamarr Houston (Raiders)

 

ASSESSING THE FALCONS' NEED

With Atlanta's top-three tackles scheduled to hit free agency, defensive tackle could very well end up being the practical-need position that cornerback was to the Falcons last offseason.  The team will probably emphasize re-signing Corey Peters over Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry because of Peters' age entering next season (26), and the way he's produced this year when healthy.

If the team does re-sign Peters, they're still going to need to bring in another big-bodied defensive tackle to back him up if they determine that Travian Robertson isn't the guy.  Asking Peters to take on double-teams for a whole game without the benefit of taking a series or two off eventually takes its toll. Perhaps adding a veteran like Linval Joseph or Paul Soliai could help the team keep a fresh run-stuffer on the field at all times.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Beyond that, if we assume that the team will let Babineaux and Jerry walk, there should be an opportunity for the Falcons to upgrade their talent at defensive tackle with a couple of younger, more disruptive one-gap tackles. 

Babineaux has been one of Atlanta's better players over the years, but there isn't a whole lot of upside in bringing him back with a new contract and counting on him to be the same player he was in his younger days.  Peria Jerry showed signs of life earlier this season, but does Atlanta really want to risk making a long-term commitment to him?

Florida State's Timmy Jernigan could be a name to watch come draft time, along with Raiders free agents Vance Walker and Lamarr Houston.  Houston is intriguing because he's athletic enough to play multiple positions along the defensive line. 

A lot of the talk about Atlanta's inability to generate consistent pressure focuses on the team's defensive ends, but there's a lot to be said for being able to get pressure up the middle from your defensive tackles too. 

If Atlanta isn't able to find a way to get better at defensive tackle this offseason, it may not matter who the team brings in at defensive end.

 

 

DEFENSIVE END

CURRENT FALCONS DEFENSIVE ENDS

Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann (injured reserve), Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga

 

NOTABLE 2014 DRAFT PROSPECTS

Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), Anthony Barr (UCLA), Vic Beasley (Clemson), Michael Sam (Missouri), Kony Ealy (Missouri), Stephon Tuitt (Norte Dame), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech)

 

NOTABLE POTENTIAL 2014 VETERAN FREE AGENTS

Lamarr Houston (Raiders), Jared Allen (Vikings), Michael Johnson (Bengals), Greg Hardy (Panthers), Justin Tuck (Giants), Michael Bennett (Seahawks)

 

ASSESSING THE FALCONS' NEED

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Osi Umenyiora has been a disappointment for the most part, and none of Atlanta's young defensive ends have shown that they are more than rotational players at this point in their careers.  Malliciah Goodman probably has the most upside from the young group because he's developing nicely against the run.

Atlanta simply cannot go into 2014 counting on Umenyiora to be its top pass-rusher.  Many fans are eager to see the team select South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in the draft, but Atlanta may play itself out of position to take Clowney by winning a couple of more games down the stretch.

If that happens, players like UCLA's Anthony Barr (who may be versatile enough to play in a hybrid-Kroy Biermann-type role), Clemson's Vic Beasley and Missouri Tiger teammates Michael Sam and Kony Ealy may enter the conversation.

I would think that the Falcons would want to avoid the veteran-free-agent market this time around since Ray Edwards and Umenyiora (to a much lesser extent) didn't live up to expectations. But if Atlanta does look to add a veteran-free-agent defensive end, Michael Johnson and Michael Bennett may be low-risk, high-reward-type options.

 

CONCLUSION

The Atlanta Falcons have lost too many games along the line of scrimmage this season to come back with the status quo along their offensive and defensive lines.  Indeed, figuring out how to protect their own passer and pressure their opponent's passer may be the two biggest issues facing the Falcons this offseason. 

If you think drafting Jadeveon Clowney would solve all of Atlanta's issues along the defensive line, you may end up being upset next year.  Clowney is a special talent that the Falcons would be fortunate to get, but Atlanta would still need to infuse more talent into this defensive line in addition to Clowney if this is going to be an elite group.

The inability to generate consistent pressure from the front four has ailed this team in each of its playoff runs under Mike Smith.  This offseason, the team will have an opportunity to completely revamp its depth chart at defensive tackle since its top-three incumbent players at that position are all in their contract years, and it may be in position to select a couple of impact pass-rushers on the outside with its first three draft picks.

If the Falcons want to return with a vengeance in 2014 while playing in a division with the Saints, Panthers and a Bucs team that's suddenly improving, they'd better handle this pending defensive line makeover correctly.

 

 

All Contract Information is via Spotrac.com

 

 

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