Falcons' defense still needs a lot of attention

March 19, 2013

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have been proficient at re-signing offensive players. Meanwhile, the defense continues to sport gaping holes, some of which keep getting bigger.

On March 1, the Falcons cut three high-profile defenders, including right cornerback Dunta Robinson (91.1 percent of the snaps — second most on the unit last year) and right defensive end John Abraham, who played 71.6 percent of the snaps.

On Monday, defensive tackle Vance Walker, the Falcons’ seventh-round pick in 2009 out of Georgia Tech who worked out very nicely, reportedly signed a one-year deal with Oakland worth $2 million — a sum far too rich for Atlanta in these cap-constrained times. Walker ranked third among the team’s defensive linemen in sacks, logging 52 percent of the snaps. (Peria Jerry, the team’s first-round pick the same year it drafted Walker, played only 48.5 percent of the snaps.)

In addition, cornerback Brent Grimes, who started all 29 of his games with the Falcons the previous three seasons (2010-12), one of which included a Pro Bowl invite, remains a free agent. Grimes reportedly has visited both Miami and Cleveland, but has yet to sign a deal.

Since free agency began, the Falcons’ moves on offense have vastly outnumbered the defensive ones: They announced tight end Tony Gonzalez was returning instead of retiring, re-signed left tackle Sam Baker and signed free-agent running back Steven Jackson to replace former starter Michael Turner (released on March 1).

In terms of who's left on the defensive line, tackle Jonathan Babineaux played 82 percent of the snaps and Kroy Biermann played 66.7 percent at left defensive end — with the majority coming after the Falcons cut Ray Edwards last November. Corey Peters played 42.5 percent of the snaps, after missing the first six games due to injury.

And there's Jerry.

Essentially, the Falcons defender are down 2 1/2 starters from last year’s unit with about $5.2 million left in cap room. At this point last year, general manager Thomas Dimitroff faced similar criticisms for not bolstering the defense in free agency, before upgrading the secondary with a sign-and-trade deal with Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel (surrendering a 7th-round pick.)

In five years with Atlanta, Dimitroff has blossomed into the one of the league's top executives, and therefore, deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. A lot of questions could disappear if the Falcons signed a starting corner — whether it's Grimes or someone else.

Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield (a three-time Pro Bowl selection from 2008-10) remains on the market at age 34. Former All-Pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha is also available in free agency, but would he take a discount, similar to Steven Jackson?

Then there's Adam (formerly known as Pacman) Jones, who has helped clean up his image in Cincinnati under the watch of head coach Marvin Lewis, a close friend to Falcons head coach Mike Smith. Would Atlanta take a risk on bringing the Georgia native back home, even though he could find trouble in familiar haunts?

We won't get into the long-shot ideas of signing former Falcon DeAngelo Hall or possibly trading for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Meanwhile, the other NFC title contenders for 2013 have upgraded at both sides of the ball. Seattle traded for wide receiver Percy Harvin and signed defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. San Francisco added wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive end Glenn Dorsey.

It’s an arms race right now in the NFC. Put another way, it's as if the Falcons spent all their time at the gym building up the upper body to look good at the beach, while neglecting their skinny legs. Maybe they're gun-shy from the mistake of luring Edwards from the Vikings a few years ago. Maybe they prefer to put all of their focus on the draft.

The problem with that: It puts a lot of pressure on draft picks to perform like veterans — and it will put even more pressure on Dimitroff and his staff to get the picks right.