Falcons: Dan Quinn and Rebuilding the Front Seven

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Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee (90) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals defeated the Ravens 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Free Agency

Perhaps the greatest FA signing the Seahawks made is Michael Bennett. He plays all over the defensive line, and his impact is devastating at every position. He usually lines up at 5-tech as the strongside DE which he handles fine despite his less than ideal size thanks to his stoutness at the point of attack. When the Seahawks want extra run defense, they will put Bennett in the Leo spot and bring in a more typical 5-tech. On passing downs, he will often move inside to 3-tech or even 1-tech. As you probably already get, Bennett is very versatile and very valuable to the Seahawks.

Fortunately, there is a similar style of player in FA who I assume Quinn will be very interested in and that’s Pernell McPhee of the Ravens. Like Bennett, he is similarly stout despite a smaller-than-prototypical size and his unusual quickness and power coming off the line makes him difficult to handle for all offensive lineman. It’s easy to envisage him playing a similar role to Bennett. He finished the season 3rd in pressure rate among 3-4 OLBs per ProFootbalFocus statistics. McPhee and Tyson Jackson can rotate at 5-tech, depending on down and distance which is similar to what happened when the Seahawks had Red Bryant.

Next along the line is the 1-tech, who sometimes plays face up against the center in a 0-tech alignment. They are responsible for defending the A-gap and to tie up the center. Paul Soliai is the Falcons’ such player. While he is a solid player, he isn’t outstanding. Nevertheless, he isn’t a liability so the Falcons can make it though a season with Soliai as the starter. If the Falcons believe an upgrade is needed, they could opt to delve into free agency again for Dan Williams. They will also need depth, so re-signing Corey Peters is a real possibility or they will look into the draft.

With the need for outside pass rushers, I feel like that will be the priority before interior defenders

Next is the 3-tech who sees mainly 1-on-1 matchups with a guard. He is also the interior rushing presence on passing downs. Currently the Falcons fits for this role are Jonathan Babineaux and sophomore RaShede Hageman. If they re-sign Corey Peters, that’s another body that can play here. If the Falcons want to go big, they can shell out for Ndamukong Suh. Other cheaper possibilities include Nick Fairley and Stephen Paea. With the need for outside pass rushers, I feel like that will be the priority before interior defenders and the Falcons may stick to what they’ve currently got.

Finally on the defensive line is the Leo. The Leo has to be able to burst into the backfield quickly on passing plays and is usually the #1 pass rush threat the defense relies although this wasn’t nearly as true with the Seahawks the last two seasons thanks to the presence of Bennett, Avril and Irvin. Jonathan Massaquoi is the closest thing the Falcons have on the roster but it would be a gamble to go into the season with him as the #1. Instead, the top Leo candidates in free agency are Jason Pierre-Paul and Jerry Hughes. Both guys fit the mold as they’re very quick off the snap and can get into the backfield in a flash. The each have multiple double-digit sack seasons in their young careers and would be excellent additions. O’Brien Schofield is certainly someone Quinn may bring as he has familiarity with his defense.

The SAM could be a traditional SAM who doesn’t rush the passer much or the new age SAM that primarily attacks the line of scrimmage whatever the down, with a few coverage responsibilities mixed in. In 2013, Quinn had the SAM playing the traditional role while in the 2014, he played the attacking role to make up for the lack of no established Leo rusher. This leads me to believe we will either get a Leo or an attacking SAM. I think getting an attacking SAM that can play DE on passing downs would be the most cost effective option. The Falcons don’t have anyone on the roster so will look to free agency. Brian Orakpo I feel fits that role perfectly but the injury concerns are very real. I don’t see how Jason Worilds wouldn’t have a seamless transition either.

Dec 21, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds (93) reacts after recording a sack against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 20-12. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the traditional SAM (which I’d treat similar to any of the LB positions as I believe the SAM/MIKE/WILL positions are slowly becoming unified in the pass-centric league), the FA class is a bit lacking. The Falcons have Sean Weatherspoon who must be high on their re-signings list. Aside from him, there’s question marks. Paul Worrilow, Prince Shembo and Joplo Bartu don’t inspire confidence. The top FA linebackers are flawed players such as Rey Maualuga, Brandon Spikes and Justin Durant. Malcolm Smith also has familiarity with Quinn and he could be brought along to help the team. I really don’t expect Rolando McClain to leave Dallas but he should be well sought after if he does test the waters. Look for the Falcons to add a new face at LB along with Sean Weatherspoon.

That about really sums up the front 7. I didn’t even mention Cliff Avril, who is used as a rotational run defender and as the team’s pass rushing ace. He has been their best edge rusher who primarily rushes wide from the left in sub-packages. The free agent that quickly comes to mind to is Brandon Graham. I mentioned McPhee earlier being 3rd in pressure rate, the two players he’s behind are Brandon Graham and Justin Houston. A low key signing to play in a similar role would be Derrick Morgan. He provides a steady amount of pressure and while he hasn’t exactly lit up the NFL with 3 straight seasons of 6 sacks, he is still a solid core player.