When one man goes down, another must step up.
By now, the news of the cuts to Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson and John Abraham has resonated through Falcons nation. While the Turner cut - and to a lesser extent, Robinson - were somewhat expected, the Abe cut caught many people by surprise. At this point, it seems likely that Abe will find another team - even if he will be 35 this season. So, with Abe out the door, where the do the Falcons turn for a pass rush? I think the answers may already be on the roster.
Before we delve into each of these guys, let's remember back to a statement that Mike Nolan made when he first came to the Falcons. As he put it, he'd much rather have 10 guys get 4 sacks than 4 guys get 10 sacks. As a philosophy, what Nolan is really saying is he wants the pass rush to be unpredictable. And let's be clear: the 3-4 base allows you to be far more unpredictable than in a base 4-3.
To me, the Abraham release was the clearest sign we've received that this team is going 3-4 sooner rather than later. While we don't yet have a true 1 technique tackle (NT), there are a few we can target in the draft or free agency. Our existing 3 technique guys - like Walker, Peters and Babineaux - all played decently at the 5 (3-4 DE). That means our pass rush will now come from guys at OLB. In a 3-4 base, your OLB can be smaller than a standard 4-3 DE, as they use a combination of speed (burst) and good hands/moves to get to the QB. As it happens, we have a few guys that are better fits at OLB than at 4-3 DE. That's why I think they will be the "next man up."
Our fifth round pick last year, Massaqoui is an intriguing player. At 6'2" and around 265, he's a much better fit at OLB than at 4-3DE, though the latter is what he played in college. While his 40 time was less than impressive ( between 4.7 and 4.9 ), his initial burst is good. He's also powerful and has good hands and does well with lowering his pad level to power through linemen. In his limited snaps in 2012, he was lined up at 4-3 DE, which is not the best use of his size/speed. With a full off-season to prepare for play a 3-4 OLB, Massaqoui may finally get a chance to see the field more frequently.
Snagged in the 7th round in 2011, Matthews initially looked like a practice squad player at best. While he played in the SEC, he was not seen as a dominant force. As the scouting report shows, he was also projected as a better 3-4OLB than as a 4-3DE, needing to add weight to play the latter. As with Massaqoui, Matthews doesn't have game changing speed, but does show good burst and has violent hands attached to long-arms. This guy was built to get to the QB.
Another fifth round pick back in 2008, the story with Kroy is virtually the same. He's better built for OLB than he is for a 4-3DE. Lacking elite speed, he does have good burst and has a very high motor. He's already shown tremendous flexibility, as Nolan loved moving him all around the field. While he's technically listed as a DE, he didn't often rush the QB with his hand on the ground. The fact that Kroy is still on the team while Abe has left has convinced many people that we're definitely going 3-4.
It's stunning, but most of the DEs we have on our roster are all guys that originally projected better as 3-4 OLBs. For those wondering why these guys may not have seen the field as much, this could be one of the biggest reasons - they simply weren't good fits at 4-3DE. But now that our best 4-3DE is gone, we may have no choice but to go 3-4 to fully take advantage of the players already on our roster.
The key this off-season will be getting a true "lane-clogging" tackle to lineup at the 0 or 1 spot. Assuming we can find that player (or players), we may already have the pass rushing pieces on the roster.
What do you think? Will these players finally break-out in 2013?