It's a relatively small free agent pass rusher class this season, particularly if you're a 4-3 team. Barring the release of a few good players, there are essentially five guys headed for the open market who could make a difference for the Falcons.
Let's face it: The Falcons need to upgrade the pass rush. Peria Jerry suddenly showing up would contribute toward that, and it's possible that getting Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews more snaps would do the same. Ultimately, though, they have to add at least one more pass rusher to the mix. It's impossible to count on several players drastically improving at the same time, after all.
The five players I'm about to list are all defensive ends and range from superstars who could single-handedly transform the team's pass rush to situational rushers who could give the Falcons a boost as part of the rotation. I'm hoping one of them will be wearing red and black by the time the 2012 season rolls around.
Hit the jump with me for the full list.
Mario Williams: Obviously the crown jewel of the free agency class. Super Mario is just 27 years old, has nearly 60 career sacks, single-handedly provided the pass rush for the Texans over the first several years of his career and has only injuries standing between him and immortality as one of the best pass rushers of his era.
The downside? He's going to be mighty expensive, and the Falcons will be competing with other teams for his services.That's really just about it, though. Super Mario is a once-in-a-decade kind of talent at defensive end, and the Falcons would have to be fools to not explore the possibility.
Getting him is the one home-run, slam-dunk, hat-trick signing the Falcons can make this off-season. Nothing short of injury will keep him from upgrading the pass rush and putting the fear of God into the rest of the NFC South. If the team can make it happen, they should make it happen.
John Abraham: A proven track record of success, loves Atlanta, knows the coaching staff and players and still looks like he has enough in the tank to be a difference maker. That's The Predator.
The downside here is considerable. Abe is asking to be paid about $12 million a season, a huge sum for a pass rusher entering his mid-30's. He wants a multi-year deal, also tough for a guy who is 34 years old this season. And if any kind of market materializes for him, the Falcons can forget getting him back for cheap.
As much as it pains me to say it, Abe should really be viewed as a fallback option if the Falcons chase a guy like Mario Williams and come up short. If he doesn't find the market he's looking for, the team might be able to bring him back on a reasonable one-to-two year contract. Either way, they're going to have to let him test free agency.
Jeremy Mincey: A rotation guy through and through. Mincey's 28-years-old and has 15 sacks in four seasons, though he's been a full-time starter for only one year. In 2011, he piled up eight sacks and showed off a good motor and a willingness to help out against the run. That's encouraging.
The problem here is a lack of track record and the simple fact that Mincey doesn't profile as a dominant pass rusher. He'd be an awesome fit as a platoon partner with Kroy Biermann & The Kids, playing the bulk of snaps there and ceding when tired or when the Falcons want Sidbury's speed or Biermann's coverage ability on the field. The upside is that he'd cost a lot less money than the first two guys I've listed.
If the Falcons whiff on Williams and don't want to wait for Abe, Mincey's a solid choice. Just don't expect him to be a savior.
Mark Anderson: Arguably the second-or-third highest upside guy here, with the potential to pile up better sack numbers than Mincey. Anderson had 12 sacks in his rookie season way back in 2006 and had 10 last year for the Patriots, playing in all 16 games. He's also on the right side of 30, if just barely, clocking in at 29 in May.
So why am I putting him below Mincey? Because Mincey started for a full 16 games last season and can be vicious against the run. Anderson, meanwhile, has not started more than two games in a season since 2007 and is purely a pass rusher. He'd give the team and lift and would come cheap, which are points in his favor, but he's not a complete player by any stretch of the imagination. Biermann would get quite a bit of run against the run in this scenario, with Cliff Matthews possibly seeing more snaps as well.
Ultimately, the Falcons need to decide their priorities. If it's purely to boost the pass rush and add a guy to the rotation, they should pick Anderson. If they want a more complete player who won't need to be rotated out as frequently and offers more against the run, they're better off chasing Mincey.
Andre Carter: Part of the Patriots' surprisingly effective pass rush in 2011, Carter also piled up 10 sacks and 22 pressures, which led the team. He also started 14 games, missing two with a season-ending injury. Overall, he was a mighty effective player, which I did not see coming at all.
The problem with Carter is chiefly one of age. He'll be 33 years old in May and has a nasty habit of alternating effective seasons (10 sacks in 2011, 11 in 2009, 10.5 in 2007) with pretty anemic ones (2.5 sacks in 2010, 4 in 2008, 6 in 2006). The Patriots have shown some interest in bringing him back and Carter wants to go back to New England, so the Falcons would likely be competing with them for his services.
If the Falcons think they can get him on a short-term deal and know he's healthy, he's definitely worthwhile. He just carries considerable risk.
So those are the five players I could see the Falcons signing out of free agency this off-season. Which one do you prefer?