Well... yesterday sure changed what I was going to write in this one. But the release of John Abraham makes it even more obvious that a change in scheme should at least be on the table.
Quick recap... the Falcons now have roughly $20 million of available cap space (no one knows the exact number yet, as the league has yet to finalize the cap). So we're swimming in cap space and should be ready to pounce on free agents like Osi, Freeney, SJax etc, right?
Well, not really. Thomas Dimitroff has openly said he wants Tony Gonzalez to return. That will take $7M+ of cap space. We still need to resign WillyMo. At the moment, we don't have a left tackle. And we also have other free agents to consider, such as Swagger Vance, RGGR, Chris Owens, the backup safety spot, one backup QB spot, and other pesky details like starting CB and RB.
And looking ahead to future seasons, the bar has been raised for top tier QBs.
So we've opened up some cap space, but we need every bit of it. We're not swimming in available cash. We certainly could sign a free agent DE, but we'd likely need to make yet more cuts to be able to afford it, and we'd be giving up hope on seeing TG and Grimes back in Falcons uniforms.
The key question: what are our personnel and cap needs to put together a good 4-3 defense, and what would we need to assemble a good 3-4 scheme?
This is Reason #2 to give either family of 3-4 some serious thought. Even before Abraham's release, there was a strong case that we were closer to having what we needed for a 3-4 scheme than we were to continue playing a 4-3. Predator's departure makes the gap unmistakeable.
What we have:
DE: Edwards is gone, Abraham is gone, and Sidbury is a free agent. We're down from six DEs at the start of the 2012 season to just three as of today. Kroy Biermann was a starter in 2010 but wore down as the season went along, finishing that season with 3 sacks. He's a solid DE in rotation and a possible starter if necessary. We also have Matthews and Massaquoi. And that's it.
For the 4-3: we'd need at least one top-tier starter to replace Abraham, and we've been wanting an upgrade at the other starting DE spot for years. Biermann is fine as a #3, and Matthews and Massaquoi provide the depth, but if we want to improve on defense we really need a new #1 and #2 DE. That's pretty much the show-stopper right there.
For the 3-4: you really want to lighten your load of the 4-3 DE types, and you want the ones you have to be capable of playing linebacker. Biermann is certainly a hybrid type and has spent a lot of time in coverage in both BVG's and Nolan's schemes. Before their drafts, Matthews and Massaquoi were both widely projected as likely to end up with teams wanting them to play LB in a 3-4.
DT: Plenty of bodies available now, but there may be major turnover next season. Vance Walker is a free agent right now and a likely priority for the team to resign. Babineaux, Jerry, and Peters are all entering their final contract seasons. Travian Robertson is a promising prospect, and Micanor Regis is a developmental hopeful.
For the 4-3: we're loaded at the 3-tech (or under tackle) spot, but a key question is whether we'd want to bulk up at the 1-tech. We haven't had a big run-stuffer since Grady Jackson left. Walker was our largest lineman last season at 307, and our other three mainstays in the rotation averaged 295.
For the 3-4: we've already seen Babs and Peters in action in the "hybrid" we used for run defense last year, so they should be up to the task at DE. The big question is whether we'd use a two-gap scheme or a single-gap scheme. A single-gap system would not require a large NT, but Mike Nolan is more likely to want to play a two-gap system.
In that scheme, the nose tackle lines up directly over the center. He has responsibility for defending both A-gaps in run defense, so he has to be able to shed the center to either side. You need a big, strong NT to do that. Robertson is certainly strong, but not all that big - and more importantly, not experienced. Pinning the entire scheme on him being ready to start would be dicey. He'd be okay for the #2 NT spot, hopefully bulking up a bit, but a starting caliber NT would be almost essential.
On the other hand, if we went with a single-gap scheme, Vance Walker would be almost ideal for the NT role.
A larger DT would at least be a wish list item in either system. If we get one, Babineaux and/or Peria Jerry might become casualties to make additional cap and roster space.
LB: we played the 2012 season with just five LBs on the roster and Pat Schiller on the practice squad. Our main backup, Mike Peterson, isn't likely to return. Our other backup is career project Robert James.
For the 4-3: SLB Stephen Nicholas was fine in run defense (and led the team in tackles), but was a liability in pass coverage. We also need to add depth. Ideally, we'd land a new starting SLB and make Nicholas the main backup in Peterson's place, upgrading our starting unit and providing quality depth in one move. We'd also need at least one more backup, with Schiller and James competing for a sixth spot on the roster.
For the 3-4: This would be the main area of defensive focus. We'd want an eight man group rather than five or six, but Biermann, Matthews and Massaquoi would at least compete to join the LB ranks. Moving Nicholas inside would help emphasize his sideline to sideline range for run defense while possibly masking his coverage issues. Akeem Dent played 3-4 ILB in college, so the switch should help him. The wish list would be one OLB with strong pass rush skills (Biermann?), one with coverage skills who could play inside or outside as needed, and a prospect for inside depth. Pat Schiller might fill that final spot.
The bottom line: for the 4-3, we'd need two starting caliber DEs, a strong side linebacker, additional depth at linebacker, and probably a 1-tech DT. For the two-gap 3-4, we'd need a starting NT, a starting caliber linebacker, and at least one additional LB. (For single-gap, resigning Walker would scratch the NT need.)
We're closer to having a functioning 3-4 than a functioning 4-3, and the list of needs for a 3-4 is far more draft and cap friendly than the needs for the 4-3.