Despite all their success, the Falcons still have a glaring hole that has yet to be successfully filled.
The offseason addition of two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the former New York Giants’ standout signed as an unrestricted free agent, figures to be a solid move by the Atlanta Falcons. But bringing in Umenyiora, the NFL’s 10th-leading sacker among active defenders, also magnifies one of the very few failures of the Arthur Blank-Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith triumvirate.
Yep, there’s a big doughnut hole in the middle of the trinity’s collective resume. And, no, we’re not alluding to the most conspicuous shortcoming: The failure to deliver a Super Bowl championship in the trio’s five seasons together. Instead, we refer to the bagel that has been the Falcons’ glaring inability to draft and develop a viable pass rusher over the past five years.
Make no mistake, Dimitroff, essentially the architect of the roster, has enjoyed an extraordinary run as general manager. Ditto Smith, a still-underrated coach who has piloted the Falcons to four playoff berths in five seasons (the franchise had never even posted consecutive winning seasons before his arrival), and who led the franchise to within one victory (10 yards) of a Super Bowl invitation last season. Indeed, of the 22 position players who started for the Falcons in the NFC championship game seven months ago, 15 were acquired under the Dimitroff-Smith tandem, and half of them were draft picks made in that stretch.
During that period, though, the Falcons were unable to draft and nurture a true pass rush threat. Thus, in part at least, the necessity to sign Umenyiora. And before that, to trade for John Abraham in 2006, although that wasn’t on Dimitroff’s watch. Need we mention the ill-fated 2011 free agent signing of left end Ray Edwards, who was added as the presumptive complement to Abraham, and who cost the Falcons nearly $4 million per sack – 3.5 sacks in 25 games – before his ignominious release after nine games in 2012?
None of this is intended, certainly, as an indictment of Dimitroff or Smith. They have been a superb pairing, no doubt. Instead, the lack of a young, home-grown pass rusher is simply a reality, one that has been all but overlooked in evaluating Dimitroff’s deservedly-ballyhooed draft acumen. It’s a fact that, in the five drafts previous to this April, Dimitroff tabbed 13 “front seven” defenders. Only one of them, five-year veteran end Kroy Biermann, ever managed five sacks in a season.
Not as rookies, mind you. Ever.
Osi UmenyioraThe Falcons hope that Umenyiora, who has notched 15 sacks over the last two seasons, is the answer to their pass rush issues.
Biermann collected a career-best five sacks in 2009. He’s never equaled that total, and never, in fact, had more than four sacks in a season since that sophomore campaign. None of the other defenders chosen by Atlanta’s talented current football regime since 2008 has ever posted more than four sacks in a single season.
A few more inarguable facts: Only twice in the past 10 seasons – with tackle Jonathan Babineaux in 2009 and end Patrick Kerney in 2004 – has a player initially drafted by the Falcons led the club in sacks. The last time Atlanta drafted and developed a true pass rush threat was with Kerney in 1999. Other than that, it’s been mercenaries who have been charged with pressuring the pocket. Abraham led the Falcons in sacks in five of his seven seasons. The last home-grown “edge” rusher to have more than six sacks for Atlanta was Kerney, with 6.5 in 2005.
And so the need for Umenyiora, a 10-year veteran who, at 31, is three years younger than the departed Abraham, who was released in the offseason and subsequently signed with Arizona. But the classy Umenyiora is also a player whose sack totals have decreased in each of the past two seasons, who notched just six sacks in 2012 (his lowest total since 2006), and who had demonstrated some signs of decline the past couple years.
In an effort to produce a more consistent rush, and create advantageous matchups, Umenyiora will be used as a stand-up linebacker/hybrid defender in some of the fronts that are being installed by coordinator Mike Nolan. And Babineaux, who has at least three sacks in five of the past six seasons, will move from tackle to end at times.
OK, so a home-grown pass rusher isn’t a prerequisite for a playoff team. No arguing that. But of the 20 defenders who collected 10 or more sacks during the 2012 season, 15 were with their original league franchises. Over the past three seasons, 39 of the 57 players who had double-digit sack totals were employed by the franchises with which they originally came into the NFL. Of the 11 other teams who qualified for the playoffs in 2012, not counting the Falcons, eight featured sack leaders that they drafted.
In the league, a team has to employ all available methods in terms of talent acquisition, and the draft is just one of those components. But drafting a rusher, and developing him, history has demonstrated, is considerably cheaper than getting one in a trade or via free agency, even in this time of blunted salaries for free agent pass rushers. And the ability to draft a pass rusher, and to have him in a team’s system from the outset of his professional career, has longer positive effects.
Easier said than done, choosing a young passer rusher, and having him flourish? Sure, it is, but it’s hardly impossible. Other clubs have done it. The Falcons, under their present football regime, clearly haven’t yet.
They are hopeful that rookie ends Malliciah Goodman (seven sacks in 2012) and Stansly Maponga (nine sacks in 2011) will buck the Falcons’ recent track record. And that second-year veteran Jonathan Massaquoi will improve. Said Smith: “Those (young) guys are going to play and get their chances.” For the Falcons to improve their sack numbers, the kids are going to have to come through, it seems.
The popular theory has been that, in addition to adding Umenyiora, Atlanta may have bolstered its pass rush through the draft, with the additions of Goodman from Clemson (fourth round) and TCU’s Maponga (fifth). But that hasn’t been the case of late. Only once, in 2008, have the Falcons ranked above the league season average in sacks. Never under the current regime has the club ranked among the top 10. Three times in five years, Atlanta has been 20th or worse. The NFL average in 2012 was 36.5 sacks per team, and Atlanta managed just 29, and Abraham had 10 of those. In the past five seasons, Atlanta totaled 153 sacks, and Abraham accounted for more than one-third of them.
No Dimitroff-drafted player has had more than two sacks as a rookie, so history doesn’t bode well for a guy making an immediate impact.
Some might argue Atlanta had few opportunities to select a pass rusher in the draft, or that circumstances dictated that the team address other positions as a priority. Such suggestions are disingenuous at best. First off, there are few positions in the NFL as critical as pass rusher, particularly given the way the game is played now. Second, Dimitroff has had a few shots at players who have emerged as pass rush threats, and he passed on them.
And we’re not talking just about in the first round.
In his first draft, 2008, Dimitroff chose cornerback Chevis Jackson in the third round, with the stanza’s fifth pick. Twenty-four slots after that, Detroit grabbed end Cliff Avril, one of the NFL’s premier young rushers, a guy who averaged 9.7 sacks over the past three years, was tagged a franchise player by the Lions in 2012, and who defected to Seattle this spring as a free agent. Jackson is currently not on a league roster. Dimitroff selected safety Schann Schillinger in the sixth round in 2011. Four picks after Schillinger went off the board at the No. 2 slot in the round, division rival Carolina snatched Greg Hardy, who had 11 sacks last year. The failure to take and develop a pass rusher even predates Dimitroff. In 2007, for instance, the Falcons passed on end Charles Johnson, who has 33 sacks for the Panthers the past three seasons, and opted for Laurent Robinson. The wide receiver lasted two seasons in Atlanta before being traded.
Guys like Charles Johnson of Georgia, end Michael Johnson (Cincinnati) from Georgia Tech, and former Bulldogs “edge” rusher Justin Houston (10 sacks for Kansas City in 2012), were all in Atlanta’s back yard. And the Falcons failed to get any of them.
The oft-cited contention of the Falcons’ brain trust is that young veterans such as Massaquoi (fifth round in 2012) have shown pass rush potential in camp and might develop into sack threats. And, true, Massaquoi, who had one of the team’s three sacks in the first two preseason outings, might yet emerge as a rusher. But the kind of promising rhetoric that is being afforded Massaquoi and others is eerily similar to that which regularly was employed with Lawrence Sidbury for a few years.
A fourth-round draft choice in 2009, Sidbury was chosen primarily for his pass rush potential. In four seasons with the Falcons, though, he never started a game, and totaled only five sacks in 48 appearances, before defecting to Indianapolis as a free agent in the offseason.
Nolan is a terrific and inventive coordinator, and perhaps, in his second season in Atlanta, he can manufacture more pressure than the Falcons did a year ago. But for the pass rush to improve in both the short- and long-term, the Falcons probably need to develop a young sack threat. And for all its brilliance under the current regime, that’s something the franchise hasn’t accomplished yet.
"what if there were no hypothetical situations?"