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Team Needs: Defensive Tackle A Priority Due to Injuries and Free Agency
February 4th, 2014
The potential is high for turnover at defensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Mainly because the team has all three of its primary players headed towards free agency.
It is likely that the Falcons will be able to retain at least one of the guys, with Corey Peters topping the list. Peters suffered a torn Achilles tendon at the end of the season, and while that might put the start of his 2014 in jeopardy, it probably enhances the chances that the Falcons re-sign him. The injury will likely eliminate a number of potential suitors in free agency and thus allow the Falcons to bring him back at a more modest salary than previously expected. Peters had a strong 2013 campaign prior to his injury, standing out as a run defender and occasionally as a pass rusher. He really found a home as the team’s nose tackle in their hybrid defensive scheme, due to his ability to hold leverage at the point of attack. While his injury may limit his effectiveness in 2014, there is good reason to believe that the 25-year old Peters still has plenty of good years ahead of him.
The player that is likely to be next on that priority is Jonathan Babineaux, although there could be complications in his return, namely salary. At 32 years of age, Babineaux is nearing the end. And similar to the situation with John Abraham a few years ago, the Falcons don’t want to be in a position to overpay a player that may only have one or two more years of solid production left. But everything suggests that the Falcons are definitely open to re-signing Babineaux, and the only potential sticking point is compensation. Babineaux once again seemed to defy time by having a solid, but unspectacular 2013 season. He is still the team’s best interior pass rusher due to his disruptive capabilities. There is good reason to believe that with a reduced role, his production should stay steady if not improve. Babineaux simply was forced to play too many snaps in 2013 and his ideal role would be a situational player with half the workload.
That potentially leaves Peria Jerry as the free agent out in the cold. But Jerry is helped by the fact that he’ll likely get very few nibbles in free agency and could be re-signed on the cheap. Jerry has certainly been a disappointment as a former first-round pick in his NFL career, but did show improvement a year ago as a regular starter at left defensive end. Jerry was arguably on par with Babineaux as the team’s best interior pass rusher last year, but struggled against the run. He too needs to see a reduction in carries if he’s to be used effectively.
Even if the Falcons are successful in retaining all three of their free agents, they are still in need of help at the position. Peters’ injury means that the team should be looking for another nose tackle that can fill in in case he’s slow to return to the field in 2014. Thomas Dimitroff has already discussed the team’s desire to add girth to the lineup up front, and it’s a safe assumption that he is referring to that position. The team could add a veteran that would be more capable of logging reps early in 2014 rather than a rookie that may take some time to grow. Travian Robertson is currently the team’s top backup at the position, but struggled to earn playing time last year and could be on the roster bubble next summer. The same could be said of Cliff Matthews, whose transition from defensive end to tackle did not pay many dividends in 2013.
If Babineaux departs, the team will definitely need to find someone that can be that disruptive force on the inside. It’s more likely that player will come in the draft where the Falcons can add a young player that they can grow with. Even if Babineaux stays, finding a young heir apparent that he can show the ropes to for a year or two makes excellent sense. Ideally that player could be as versatile as Babineaux, able to play the three-technique as well as five-technique, roles that the veteran has held the past two years in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme. Adding such a difference maker that could help collapse the pocket on the interior could be a huge boost for the Falcons, and if the team is successful in upgrading their edge pass rush, can give them a pair of complementary bookends for years to come.
As things stand right now, essentially the Falcons have one defensive tackle that they can hang their hat on as being a contributor beyond 2014: Corey Peters, and his contributions in 2014 may be minimized due to injury. That makes defensive tackle an underrated need, indicating the Falcons really need to hit the ground running this offseason by shoring up this position.