Greetings! As the 2013 NFL season approaches, it is time to take a deeper look at what to expect from the Atlanta Falcons. In the third of a nine-part preview, we’re glancing at a defensive line that will be without John Abraham for the first time in years. Let’s go.
To fill the void of the aforementioned John Abraham, the Falcons inked Osi Umenyiora to a potentially lucrative deal. Umenyiora is a pure pass-rusher with tremendous upside, and he is well-known around the league with good reason. For reference, the 31-year-old has three separate seasons with double-digit sacks in the league (peaking with 14.5 in 2005), and he has posted 6+ sacks in 9 consecutive years. On the other hand, he is getting up there in age, and there are whispers that an already persistent issue of being one-dimensional will only grow as his body breaks down a bit. For me, I loved the move, but the Falcons are relying heavily on a guy in his 11th season, and that is ambitious.
Alongside Umenyiora, the Falcons are trotting out Kroy Biermann as a full-time starter. Frankly, just typing that sentence doesn’t bring a great deal of excitement, but it’s also not a knock on Biermann. He’s been a contributor for the past five seasons in Atlanta, and he’s a quality pass-rusher when he’s kept fresh. The downside to that is that he’s now profiled as a legit starter instead of a rotational guy, and I’m not sure we can expect more than 5-6 sacks from the left side this year.
Behind the Umenyiora/Biermann duo, it’s a bit of a mess. Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi return as the “primary” backups, but neither guy posted a sack last season. They both appeared semi-regularly in the rotation, but the lack of tape on each guy is troubling, and neither guy has a big-time track record of explosiveness. Keep an eye on rookie Malliciah Goodman, however, as the former Clemson product could see time. He’s probably limited as a pass-rusher, but with both starters being pass-first guys, his value as a monster against the run (at nearly 280 pounds) could be valuable.
After the defensive ends (eesh), this one is a bit easier to tackle.
In my opinion, Jonathan Babineaux is the best player on the defense for the 2013 Falcons. That is a bit of a controversial opinion with guys like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore around, but his value is extremely high in this defense. Stats can’t do any defensive tackle justice, but it is Babineaux that defenses key around on the interior, and he’ll be crucial in freeing up rush lanes for the outside guys. In his career, Babineaux does have 22.5 sacks (usually between 3-4 per season), so he is capable of pass rush, but he is more valuable for his disruption skills. It’ll be vitally important to keep him healthy and productive this year.
The other tackle spot is updated by the pleasant surprise of Corey Peters. Peters was a 3rd-pound pick in 2010 out of Kentucky, but he really emerged in 2011 as a contributor, and if it wasn’t for a foot injury last season, that would have likely continued. The 300-pound monster is in a contract year this year, and if he can show flashes of the promise he displayed when healthy, the Falcons will be just fine at defensive tackle.
At defensive tackle, the Falcons actually depth that has contributed in previous seasons. Peria Jerry is known for being an unquestioned bust as the Falcons’ #1 pick in 2009, but he could actually provide some value as a rotation guy. He played the best football of his career in 2012 (not a high bar, but still), and he is still young enough at 28 years old to show more progress. Travian Robertson made the team last year despite the low status of being a 7th-rounder and appeared in 7 games. Jerry has a long injury history, and with Peters’ issues from last year, it isn’t a stretch to see Robertson on the field for considerable time in 2013.
I’m probably higher on this group of tackles than most people, but with Babineaux as a top-end guy at the position in the NFC and Peters poised for a breakout in a contract year, this group will carry the defensive line. The Falcons will still lag behind the Bucs for “best” in the NFC South at defensive tackle, but the gap won’t be terribly large.
Stay tuned for part 4, when we pivot to the special teams.