Falcons’ free-agent moves could reflect transition to 3-4 defense
With the Monday announcement that Mark Collins has been promoted to outside linebackers coach, it looks like the Atlanta Falcons will transition to a primary 3-4 defensive alignment this fall.
This is particularly significant as the NFL’s so-called "legal tampering period" ends at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and teams can start signing free agents following the end of the three-day negotiation period.
For one, it could give Atlanta a bit more urgency in trying to re-sign free-agent defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, with the Falcons coaches and front office favoring the way he handled the end position in a three-man front.
But at 32, Babineaux — possibly the Falcons’ best defensive player last year — could be in demand on the open market.
The durable Babineaux, entering his 10th season in the NFL, has only missed six games in his career. It’s possible the Falcons could learn from their decision last year to cut defensive end John Abraham — owning to age — just months before Abraham enjoyed a Pro Bowl campaign (11.5 sacks) with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.
It also could explain why the Falcons asked Osi Umenyiora to take a pay cut, according to FOX’s Mike Garafolo. Umenyiora (7.5 sacks last year) apparently struggled with the idea of standing up at times, as opposed to the three-point stance he implemented during his career as a 4-3 defensive end with the New York Giants (2003-12).
Moving to a 3-4 — defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s more traditional base front — also could help to explain why the Falcons are not in contract negotiations with defensive tackle Peria Jerry (first-round pick in 2009), according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jerry had 3.5 sacks last year — not bad for a defensive tackle — but is a 4-3 tackle. The Falcons already re-signed defensive tackle Corey Peters last week; so, if they’re moving to a 3-4 and want to keep Babineaux, the club wouldn’t a glut of 4-3 tackles.
Which brings us to the next and biggest point: As a 3-4 group, the Falcons would need a legitimate nose tackle. Head coach Mike Smith has made it a priority to control the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense. One way to do that is by signing an effective 3-4 nose tackle — the kind who requires a double team by the offensive line.
One free agent who fits that mold is Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai, whom Nolan coached when he was the Dolphins defensive coordinator and ran a 3-4. According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the Falcons are "very aggressively pursuing" the 30-year-old Soliai (6-foot-4, 340 pounds), entering his eighth NFL campaign.
With Nolan running the Miami defense in 2011, the Dolphins finished top 10 in the league. New Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox, a member of the Dolphins’ defensive staff three years ago, presumably has a prior working relationship with Soliai.
The Falcons have a tendency to go with players — or coaches — that members of their organization have worked with before. Recent examples include the hiring of Cox and new offensive line coach Mike Tice, who worked with Smith in Jacksonville (along with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter). In turn, Atlanta has already signed offensive lineman Gabe Carimi, who worked with Tice in Chicago.
If the Falcons cannot sign Soliai, who could demand a big contract, a fallback position could be Packers D-tackle B.J. Raji, although he’s reportedly close to terms with Green Bay on a new contract. The 6-foot-2, 337-pounder, a former Matt Ryan teammate at Boston College, is 27 and has remained injury-free during his career. Raji has played in 76 of 80 possible games during his career.
On offense, the line also is the major consideration. According to the National Football Post, citing league sources, the Falcons will have an "extremely high degree" of interest in Kansas City Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah.
The 25-year-old Asomah was drafted in 2010 (third round) by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs general manager. He also profiles in a way that’s attractive to Atlanta’s front office: In college, Asomah was Illinois’ male athlete winner of the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor in 2010 for attaining "the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work."
According to the AJC, the Falcons are in contract negotiations with center Joe Hawley, who could retain his position as the starter. Guard/tackle Mike Johnson has reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with Atlanta, as well.
This year’s salary cap will rise to $133 million (up $10 million from 2013), leaving the Falcons with more than $25 million cap room. This is due, in part, to the previous cuts of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas.
More cuts are likely in the coming days and weeks, a list that might include safety Thomas DeCoud.
The Falcons also might need to make moves at running back and tight end, plugging in the holes of the recently retired Jason Snelling and Tony Gonzalez. That is, unless they feel Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round rookie last season, is ready to handle Atlanta’s starting tight end slot.
And if the Falcons defense transitions to a 3-4, they might need another middle linebacker to go with Paul Worrilow, unless they think Akeem Dent is up to the task.