With Abraham likely gone, Falcons eye replacements

For those who were holding out hope that the Atlanta Falcons might attempt to sign veteran defensive end John Abraham at a vastly discounted salary after cutting him back on March 1, that idea no longer appears to be a possibility. 

Citing “a person informed” of preliminary talks between the Falcons and Abraham, USA Today reported late on Monday that Abraham was not interested in doing so, despite interest on the Falcons’ end and what was described as a “big push” from inside the Falcons locker room. (That’s not exactly surprising news as Abraham was not only one of the Falcons’ longest-tenured but also among their most productive players on defense.) 

The fact that Abraham is unlikely to return means a couple of things for the Falcons at the crucial defensive end position.

The first is that newly signed defensive end Osi Umenyiora will likely end up playing about 85 percent of the snaps on the right side – perhaps even more, which is a much larger load than he has been accustomed to the last few seasons. 

On the left side, the Falcons are going to need someone to emerge from the battle among Cliff Matthews, a seventh-round pick in 2011, Jonathan Massaquoi, a fifth-round pick last year, and this year’s fourth- and fifth-round picks, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga. Players among that foursome also could end up spelling Umenyiora on the right side for a limited number of snaps each game. 

“I thought we got some guys with some size across the offensive and defensive line,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith told reporters on Saturday at rookie camp. “And I really like the way the guys run, across the board. That’s a good thing to have. You want to have big guys, you want to have guys who can run. I think Thomas and his staff have done a great job not only with the draft class but with the free-agent class as well. We’re going to have some good competition throughout the season. Different positions each year, it’s a different dynamic.” 

The last couple of years, the Falcons have not had much of a competition at defensive end, with Abraham on the right and Ray Edwards in 2011 and 2012 being signed to fill that left side, an experiment that ultimately ended unsuccessfully. With Edwards’ subpar performance and then the decision to cut him midway through last season, Kroy Biermann has had to take on an increased role at that spot. 

However, Biermann, who was drafted at 240 pounds but has bulked up to 255, has had trouble proving himself as a three-down player at that spot. Even in passing situations, when playing Biermann theoretically would be most ideal, he has managed only 6.5 sacks over the past two seaons. Still, the Falcons like his athleticism and versatility, especially in coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense. At times, Nolan disguised his defenses to such an extent that he would employ Biermann as a safety. 

Because of that athleticism and versatility, one possibility is that the Falcons could move Biermann to more of an outside linebacker role, especially when Nolan goes to 3-4 looks. The Falcons neither added a linebacker in free agency nor in the draft and yet the position seems to yearn for an upgrade. One way to upgrade that position would be to move Biermann to linebacker, especially with four young players drafted over the last three seasons to play end. 

Both Goodman and Maponga bring a good deal more size than Biermann. They are coming in at 276 and 265 pounds, respectively. Massaquoi is listed at 264 and Matthews is 268. 

One other possibility to upgrade either the left end or linebacker position remains: free agency. ESPN.com’s NFC South blogger, Pat Yasinkas, reports that with the Falcons having designated the cut of former right tackle Tyson Clabo for June 1, they will receive $4.5 million salary cap relief at that point. 

Not only will that enable the Falcons to sign all of their draft picks (Yasinkas reports the Falcons don’t even have enough cap room at present to do that), but it also could help them to sign a more proven player at one of those needed defensive spots. 

If not, an untested player is going to have to emerge on what is expected to be one of the best teams in the NFL next season.