Atlanta Falcons Free Agency 2015 Preview: Pass Rusher


Whoever the head coach or GM is heading into the 2015 offseason, I don’t doubt that the Falcons will bring in a new DE/OLB that can get after the passer. The Falcons have struggled mightily generating pressure this year and have recorded just 11 sacks which ranks 31st in the league, a number which has been inflated by playing the porous Buccaneers’ offensive line.

Fortunately, this is as good of a year as any to land one. The draft is loaded with edge rushers and the Falcons have plenty of cap room for a superstar signing. Don’t be surprised if they do sign a superstar and also spend a high pick on one. Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann are both hitting free agency and their outlook as Falcons look murky.

As Mike Smith has infamously said in the past many times, sacks are overrated. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Drives which feature a sack surrendered by the offense results in a score just 7% of the time, compared to the average of 25%. What Smith was getting at was that pressures are also very important too. The numbers from PFF back that up, as in 2013 the league wide average passer rating under no pressure was 96.9 but plummeted drastically to 60.7 when under pressure.

Sacks prevent scores while pressure forces inefficiency from the quarterback.

Sacks and pressures are both extremely important. Sacks prevent scores while pressure forces inefficiency from the quarterback. What the Falcons need is a player that is skilled at generating consistent pressure while also being able to turn them into sacks. Leaving aside the draft for now, who is it that the Falcons could target in free agency? There are a lot of names out there but who has been productive beyond the sack stat?

Using data from PFF, the following players are among the league leaders in both pressure rate and sack rate so far in 2014:

The left hand side are players that primarily play in the 3-4 while the ones on the right are 4-3 players. The players in italics find their contracts expiring at the end of the season.

What James Harrison has been turning his snaps in to at his age is phenomenal but we can scratch him off the list. He was already brought out of retirement this year. Even if he plays another season, it’s not going to be for a team that doesn’t wear yellow.

Justin Houston is in every definition a superstar. If he’s not the marquee free agent, then he’s 1b to Ndamukong Suh‘s 1a. His production matches the hype. A young and ascending player, he’s had 23 sacks over his last 20 games and 3 straight double-digit sack years. He will only be 26 years old in March, giving him further leverage in contract negotiations. You could argue he’s already the best 3-4 OLB in the game. Houston is going to get paid big and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees over $12M a year. He will be expensive but I have no doubt he will be magnificent and live up the contract.

Unfortunately, I do find it unlikely he will actually hit free agency. The Chiefs aren’t exactly overflowing with cash but if the worst comes to the worst, I expect them to cut Tamba Hali and use the $9 million saved to franchise tag Houston. I’d be very shocked if this doesn’t happen actually. The Chiefs even made contingency plans last year in case of this and drafted Dee Ford pick with their 1st pick.

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Jerry Hughes was once considered a draft bust after being mostly anonymous in 3 years with the Colts but he found new life in Buffalo and has turned into one of the top pass rushers. Coming out of the draft, he was described as being a less than ideal fit for the 4-3 and would take a while to adapt. That never happened with the Colts although Hughes did start coming out of his shell in 2012 when the Colts moved to a 3-4 and he recorded 4 sacks in a part-time role. He really turned things on the year after with the Bills in their hybrid scheme, notching 10 sacks. This year, he hasn’t slowed down and has 7.5 sacks through 10 games.

One might point to the defensive linemen Hughes is currently playing with and that is a valid point. Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams are all tremendous players. Nonetheless, I still believe that Hughes’ talent is his own and he should be a target for the Falcons. I don’t think it’ll be a Ray Edwards-esque fiasco again. I predict he’ll get about $8 million a year and I do think he would provide good value. He’s not Justin Houston but he would instantly be the best pass rusher on the team and perhaps even the best defensive player. He’s proven the last two years he can be very productive.

The final name is Brandon Graham who has had an odd NFL career so far. He’s always had very impressive efficiency numbers, generating a whole lot of pressure for the amount of time he sees the field. He’s never managed to get a firm hold on the starting job though and is frequently reported to be involved in trade discussions seemingly every single offseason. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly he doesn’t play more when he produces. He might not be very good in practice or in the classroom. He might not play his assignments very well. Whatever the problem is, it’s still hard to argue against the pressure he generates from either the 4-3 or 3-4.

With the lack of sacks and starting time in his career, Graham could become one of the bargains of the offseason. Robert Ayers is “quietly” having a productive year after “quietly” having a productive year last season too. Ayers was 9th in pressure rate among 4-3 DE in 2013. He is currently 1st this year. Graham is 1st in pressure rate and 4th in sack rate among 3-4 OLB this year. Both are part-time players that just produce. Ayers signed a 2-year, $4 million deal which could rise up to $6 million. Even if he hits the maximum value of contract, that is still a lot of bang for buck. If Graham can be had for a similar deal, it would be very foolish to not sign him and perhaps it would be a good idea to pair him up with someone like Jerry Hughes and freeing up the draft.