Several Players will Be Looking for New Teams
Defensive line, a source of strength and competition? For the Atlanta Falcons? Surely, you jest. Well, that’s exactly what seems to be ready to play out this season as the Falcons head into 2014. The defensive line, specifically the defensive tackle position, has been a major source of weakness for a long, long time. That seems to be turned on it’s head this year and fans couldn’t be happier. A look at the defensive line players job security heading into 2014.
Two years of a Mike Nolan defense has had 10 slots available for defensive linemen. That has equaled 6 defensive ends and 4 defensive tackles. In both scenarios, it usually has at least one or two that have been able to swing between playing tackle and end. That swing DL has been Cliff Matthews the last two seasons. Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, and Travian Robertson have been locks the last two years, and Corey Peters was added when he was healed from his injury in 2012, and in that case they carried 5 DT’s. That can change this year since several players could be considered outside linebackers in more of a 3-4 scheme, such as Kroy Biermann, Stansly Maponga, and possibly Osi Umenyiora. It may be hard to predict this year with the stubborn refusal of Mike Smith to “commit to any base defense,” but it likely will look more like a 3-4 setup.
Like Jackson, Soliai was signed in free agency and immediately adds a long needed bulk to the Falcons DL. He received a 5 year / $32 million contract, but the key number to look at is his $11 million guaranteed. He’s currently 30 years old and will turn 31 at the end of the season. They have the option to keep Soliai for the entire deal, but at a minimum of 2 years / $5.5 million, that’s not very bad at all. It also will give them time to develop a large nose tackle to take over for him if they intend to stay in the 3-4. If we’re talking 2016, than Soliai might be in question, but now he’s a welcome lock.
If not for the new contract, Babineaux would obviously not be considered a lock and he really won’t going forward after this year. He signed a 3 year / $9 million contract, but only $4 million was guaranteed. Even though he’s still playing good and hasn’t shown a ton of slowdown, he will turn 33 years old in October and the 3 years probably represent a sort of “retirement contract” where the Falcons want to keep him until he decides to hang it up. He’ll definitely play this year and likely next, but it’s hard to see the longtime Falcon lasting until 35 years of age. He will probably be playing a lot of 5-technique in 3-4 looks and of course can slide inside if need be.
The second round pick from Minnesota could be considered a defensive end, but it’s likely he’ll be playing the same role as Babineaux mostly at the 5-technique in the 3-4, but after Soliai, he will likely be the biggest DT and could be called on to play nose tackle if need be and will probably move inside in a 4-3. He may not earn a starting spot right out of the gates, but he’s finally a future stud inside (hopefully) to build around going forward.
Peters was injured about as late as possible and it couldn’t have been worse timing for Peters, as he was approaching his first free agency. The Falcons did the right thing by Peters in bringing him back on a “prove-it” contract and for a pretty fair deal for 1 year / $1.6 million. Where it gets interesting is the fact that he doesn’t appear to have any of the money guaranteed, but he does have a roster bonus of just under $500,000. It’s conceivable that the Falcons may judge Peters as not being where he needs to be and parting ways with him, but the likeliest route is him being placed on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to start the season and they can make room for him when he gets well, the same as they did in 2012. The only issue is the the fact that the Falcons wouldn’t have any other bulk outside of Soliai and Hageman (318) and the rest of their DT’s would be under 300 lbs. If he’s healthy, he will be a lock, but that’s the issue at hand for 2014. Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons not giving Peters every opportunity to come back and for them to keep him considering he’s the only DT worth any value that they’ve actually developed in 6 years.
On the Bubble
It was a pleasant surprise when the Falcons didn’t lock up Jerry before free agency started. A few weeks passed in free agency and, sure enough, the Falcons just couldn’t kick their Jerry habit. At the time, fans weren’t terribly bothered because they had already re-upped Babineaux, signed Jackson and Soliai, and it was for barely above the league minimum (1 year / $895,000). Some did fear that it would prevent the Falcons going for another DT in the draft, but that was of course allayed when Hageman was taken in the 2nd. At this point, it’s really a win-win for the Falcons and it really does help to act as insurance for Peters health issues. Ultimately, this will come down to a numbers game and whether or not he can beat out not only fellow DT’s like Travian Robertson, but also the DE hybrids like Cliff Matthews and Malliciah Goodman to for that 5-technique backup spot. Right now it feels as though Jerry’s days are numbered, but he will likely win the battle to fill the spot if Corey Peters is put on the PUP list.
Outside Looking In
When bringing this topic up, the first player that most will think of is Robertson. He’s been the fourth option for 2 years running, but it seems as though his time might finally come to an end. He’s only managed to appear in 12 games (with a minimal number of snaps) and 4 total tackles. The thought is that since he couldn’t breakthrough in two years, and one of them being a lost trainwreck season, that he’s had his chance and is nothing more than a backup. However, he does weigh in a little heavier (304) than Jerry (295) and he could make a run for that 4th DT spot, especially if Peters isn’t ready to go. But it looks like it will be a very tough climb this year.
Needs a Miracle
The former Kentucky Wildcat signed on with the Falcons after the draft as an undrafted free agent. On the surface, it’s hard to believe that Rumph wasn’t drafted after having a pretty good career in the rough and tumble SEC (starting 48 games) and pulling down 15 tackles for loss and 7 sacks in the process. He does have his size working for him (6’3, 320) weighing in as the biggest DT outside of Soliai. But if we’ve learned anything about the NFL, it’s that undrafted free agents almost never make the full leap all the way up to the 53 man roster. There’s a great chance he could make it on the practice squad, but doubtful he’ll be the one as the last option with so much other competition. On the other hand, just ask Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu if it’s possible.