Abraham will turn 35 before minicamp. The only player older than Predator that is expected to return in 2013 is kicker Matt Bryant. At that age, the probability of him missing time due to injury or suffering a decline in production can't be ignored.
So why is that a reason to consider changing to a base 3-4?
Because the team hasn't matched that sack total since then. We have changed head coaches twice, general managers once, and defensive coordinators three times. And absolutely nothing that any of these people have done over the last six years has improved the pass rush.
2007: to replace departed free agent Patrick Kerney, new head coach Bobby Petrino decides on young, inexperienced Jamaal Anderson to be the cornerstone of the defense of his new franchise, and makes him an instant starter.
The Falcons also draft small school DT prospect Trey Lewis. Petrino picks up his former Louisville defensive lineman Montavious Stanley off of waivers. The Falcons then add DT Tim Anderson for depth in midseason and the late Jesse Mahelona as a late season injury replacement.
We all know the results: JA98 has a dismal season, sacking fewer quarterbacks than Jessica Simpson.
DC Mike Zimmer makes Trey Lewis a starter in midseason, and Petrino cuts Grady Jackson. Almost immediately, both Lewis and Rod Coleman suffer season-ending injuries, making Jonathan Babineaux a starter.
Coach Booby skips out after having done more damage to Atlanta in 14 weeks than anyone since General Sherman. Thank you Arkansas for getting him out of town before he could do any more harm, and also mondo thanks to Jerry Jones for helping make it happen.
2008: The Smith/Dimitroff era begins. New GM Thomas Dimitroff cuts Rod Coleman, resigns Montavious Stanley and Tim Anderson, and signs defensive linemen Rashad Moore, Kindal Moorehead, and Simon Fraser as part of a huge March free agency spree. After seeing the Falcons use Simon Fraser inside (in the Justin Tuck pass rush role) in minicamp, The Sporting News lists Fraser as a projected starter.
The Falcons do not draft a DT or even sign a significant undrafted free agent at that position. The only DE drafted is Kroy Biermann.
In interviews, Dimitroff notes that the free agent linemen have solid ability to penetrate into the backfield and get to the quarterback, and that signing them in March gave him the ability to go in other directions in the draft.
Moore is an obvious bust in training camp, and the team resigns Grady Jackson and picks up Jason Jefferson off of waivers, releasing Moore, Montavious Stanley and Tim Anderson. Babineaux becomes a full time starter, with Jackson as the starter next to him. Babineaux gets a five year contract extension in November, locking him in through 2013.
Fraser proves to be a waste of a roster spot, and Jefferson and Moorehead are ineffective. A year later, none of them are on the roster. In fact, none of them (or Rashad Moore) ever play another game in the NFL.
2009: The Falcons allow Grady Jackson and starting linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking to depart via free agency. They sign prospect Thomas Johnson and resign backup DE Chauncey Davis to a four year, $14 million contract.
After signing LB Mike Peterson, there's still an opening for another starting linebacker and a nose tackle. The Falcons heavily scout LB Clay Matthews, including having him in for a private workout. Instead, they pass on Matthews and draft 24-year old DT Peria Jerry from Ole Miss.
Why would the team choose a sub-300 pound three-tech to be its new one-tech? You guessed it... In post-draft interviews, Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff and Les Snead all rave about his ability to attack the gap, penetrate into the backfield and get after the quarterback. They drafted him to help the pass rush.
The Falcons devote seven of their eight picks from that draft to the defense, including adding DE Lawrence Sidbury in round four, pass rush specialist LB Spencer Adkins in round six and DT Vance Walker in round seven. Late in the season, Thomas Dimitroff explains to team announcer Wes Durham in a TV and radio interview that the plan to rebuild the team centered around starting off with two very strong draft classes, and he feels the team's 2009 draft was an outstanding one.
Jerry bangs up his knee in a strange accident in practice, missing training camp and preseason. He gets banged up again in the season opener and is unable to finish the game. In week two, he is hurt again - and much more seriously. He spends the season on IR and is limited in 2010. Prospect Thomas Johnson becomes a starter, and Vance Walker gets called up from the practice squad to fill the roster void.
With his new contract in hand, Chauncey Davis delivers a whopping one sack. Sadly, that exactly doubles the sack total of starter Jamaal Anderson.
The team's sack leader? Jonathan Babineaux, with six. Babs finishes the season on a low note though, with an arrest that would land him a one game suspension to start the 2010 season.
2010: Fans are clamoring for the team to land a top DE during the offseason, especially given that due to an impasse between owners and the NFLPA, 2010 is to be an uncapped year.
In interviews, GM Thomas Dimitroff explains that there are many ways to improve the pass rush, and that the Falcons were focusing on developing the younger, promising DEs (Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, and veteran Chauncey Davis).
He notes that you can also improve the pass rush by getting better in the secondary. To that end, the team signs free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson to a $57 million contract. Dimitroff also comments that improving the pass rush from the interior of the line is also a big factor, and that Peria Jerry returning from IR should have a tremendous impact in the upcoming season.
The Falcons add LB Sean Weatherspoon and DT Corey Peters in the draft. In the usual round of post-draft appearances, Dimitroff comments that there was a big run on DTs in rounds two and three. That forced him to take Peters a round sooner than he had hoped, but he is adamant that all of the players the Falcons landed were exactly the players they had hoped to get. He's thrilled with the team's draft class (which also included Dominique Franks and Shann Schillinger in the secondary, plus Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley and Kerry Meier on offense).
The results: the team has an outstanding season, going 13-3 and landing the #1 seed in the NFC. But the pass rush still isn't entirely there, with the team racking up 31 sacks.
It's not a bad total, but it's still fewer than the 37 they managed in the 7-9 season that got Jim Mora fired. And the disturbing stat - those 31 sacks included only 18 by players not named John Abraham.
2011: A crazy offseason brings the NFL's first work stoppage in decades, though it results in a grand total of one exhibition game lost. But it wreaks havoc on offseason plans, as the draft ends up coming months before free agency.
The bizarre offseason is hard on developing prospects, as there is no minicamp, no official OTAs, and undrafted free agents can't be signed until right at the start of training camp - which comes only a week before the start of preseason.
The new CBA also brings the return of the salary cap - and the cap is much tighter than it had been in 2009. Some salary has to go.
Jamaal Anderson's contract has an escalator clause based on playing time that increased his salary to $3.5 million. Adios, JA98. Chauncey Davis has one sack per season since signing his new contract, which would give him a $3 million base in 2011. Hasta la vista, baby.
Their departures make room for the new savior of Atlanta's pass rush, free agent defensive end Ray Edwards.
In a lesser move, the team adds free agent DT Carlton Powell for depth, replacing Trey Lewis, who had never been the same after wrecking his knee twice. Powell in turn is dropped to the practice squad in midseason to make room for John Parker Wilson on the main roster.
The results: the pass rush improves a little more, with 33 sacks by the defense including 23.5 by players other than Abraham. Four other players rack up at least three sacks. The downside: one of those other players (Edwards) is already gone, and another (Sidbury) may not return next season.
2012: Welcome aboard, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
The team opts not to resign DT prospect Carlton Powell (though the team's official web site strangely continues to list him on the roster through the end of OTAs). The big free agent acquisition of the offseason is linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who gets hurt and misses the season.
The draft brings two defensive line prospects, fifth round DE Jonathan Massaquoi and seventh round DT Travian Robertson. Massaquoi takes the roster spot of a linebacker, as the team only carries five LBs on the roster. Robertson becomes a fifth DT, replacing Powell.
Ray Edwards' poor play quickly costs him his starting job, with Kroy Biermann taking over that role. Edwards' poor attitude costs him his roster spot in midseason. His season stats: 9 games, 4 starts, 9 total tackles (6 solo, 3 assist), 0 sacks.
Mike Nolan adopts a three-DT line formation (essentially mixing in a form of single-gap 3-4) in midseason to help the run defense. It works.
The results: an outstanding season, with a 13-3 record and the third NFC Championship Game appearance in franchise history. But the defense actually took a step back in terms of yards allowed, and the pass rush also took a step back - 29 total sacks, and only 19 by players other than Abraham.
Nolan had famously commented before the season that he'd rather have ten guys with four sacks each than a couple of guys with a lot of sacks. Other than The Predator, his only four sack man was Kroy Biermann, with exactly four.
None of the other DEs notched a sack, nor did DTs Peria Jerry or Corey Peters, who split the season starting next to Babineaux.
The brightest spot in the pass rush this year: Vance Walker stepped up. Swagger Vance played half the team's defensive snaps as the main backup DT in rotation, playing solid run defense and racking up 3 sacks. He's a free agent now, but fortunately he has openly said he'd like to return with the Falcons.
The bottom line: it's not easy to improve the pass rush. Jamaal Anderson was a highly touted prospect, and his draft selection was widely praised at the time. Signing Chauncey Davis to the four year, $14 million contract seemed like a great move.
Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff, Brian VanGorder and Les Snead had many offseason meetings and concluded that Peria Jerry would have more of an impact than Clay Matthews. In Dimitroff we trust, right?
The team tried developing prospects at DE, then went for the big impact free agent at DE. Neither move worked. And we still haven't had double-digit sacks from a DT since Rod Coleman, whose release was one of the very first moves by our current regime.
That's reason #1 why the team's braintrust should strongly consider switching to the 3-4. It's not easy to upgrade a defensive line into a serious pass rush threat. At least not for us. Absolutely nothing that anyone has done to generate a pass rush in our 4-3 scheme has worked since 2006.
We have put ten draft picks (including two first rounders) and multiple free agent signings (including one premier free agent) into the defensive line.
And yet John Abraham is still our only impact pass rusher. And he'll be 35 in May.