Kroy Biermann is gone for the year. We've wiped our tears away, Mike Nolan has removed his veil of mourning and it's time to start thinking about who replaces Kroy.
The Falcons will have to get a little creative to fill the void left by Biermann. While Duff Man wasn't an elite player, he could rush the pass, play the run and drop back into coverage from either defensive end or linebacker, and he chipped in on special teams when asked to. That kind of versatility isn't easy to replace, even if individual players might be better at one of those tasks than Biermann.
Let's look at the potential options.
The obvious choice, really. The Falcons will still be kicking their defensive tackles out to DE at times, and many have suggested that the Falcons could even move a linebacker up to the line at times. Those possibilities could chew up some snaps, but at the end of the day someone is going to need to start at defensive end opposite Osi Umenyiora. Massaquoi seems the obvious choice.
Mass was a pick I was enthused about coming out of college, as he had the makeup of a quality pass rusher. He barely played his rookie season and there were some grumblings about his progress before training camp began, but everything we've seen from him since has been a positive. In preseason and the regular season, he's turned his limited snaps into opportunities and has graded out well as a pass rusher per Pro Football Focus.
Ultimately, that's what you'll get from Mass: A potentially lethal pass rusher, a quality athlete and someone who isn't going to be a major asset against the run right now. The best case scenario is that he surprises, turns up solidly against the run, drops back into short zone coverage when asked upon and acquits himself. The chances of Mass being an upgrade on Biermann as a pass rusher would seem to be pretty good, though I'm not penciling him in for 8+ sacks just yet.
Mass is the likeliest because he's got quality upside, a year in the system and he's a good enough athlete to do a few different things. The fact that he's a mild unknown shouldn't scare you that badly, and I think he's the obvious choice.
Goodman has enormous potential. He's got size, speed and power to spare, and he's already shown a frightening ability to get into the backfield and blow up run plays. Why, then, is he not the favorite to start?
Because he's not ready. Watch Goodman in the Rams game and you'll see a player who has all the physical tools you could possible want from an LDE but none of the polish. His timing is off, he's overshooting gaps at times and he doesn't yet have the technical ability necessary to be a true asset as a pass rusher. He's learning and he'll have some fantastic plays this season, but taking on the bulk of the snaps right now is a dicey proposition.
As a run-stopping reserve and a player the Falcons need to grow into something special, he'll get his snaps. Just don't expect him to be the starter in name or snap counts.
Matthews quietly got back in the game Sunday against the Rams after suffering a neck injury, and I'm cautiously forecasting him to be available against the Dolphins. The argument for starting him is a simple one: You know what he can do.
Matthews is a run-stopper, a technically sound player and someone who can occasionally surprise you as a pass rusher. That's a pretty great skill set for a seventh rounder, and the fact that he's capable of kicking inside means he's got that coveted versatility. The argument against starting him is that he's a known quantity, a solid and useful player who doesn't offer the upside of Mass and Goodman. Starting him reduces the number of snaps available for those two, and I have to believe the Falcons want to see what they can do.
These three guys are likely to platoon at the position to some degree. I'd put the split at roughly 60-20-20 for Mass-Goodman-Matthews, if I had to guess today. Unless the Falcons sign a...
A Free Agent
The wild card here. The Falcons will probably sign someone to add depth to defensive end or linebacker with Biermann gone for the year. If they add a true reserve end or a linebacker, it probably doesn't affect what I've written above that much. If they sign someone who is going to push to start, the calculus changes.
There's not a lot out there. Guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Richard Seymour still have something in the tank, but age and positional fit are a challenge here. The Falcons ideally would replace Biermann with someone has has at least a fraction of Biermann's versatility, and neither Vanden Bosch nor Seymour really offers that. Seymour can play inside and out, true, but you're not going to ask him to drop back into coverage.
One potential fit: Mark Anderson. The journeyman 30-year-old still is a useful player who runs hot and cold as a pass rusher and has some athleticism left, so he could be a useful addition to the rotation and someone who unofficially "starts." Again, though, the options already on the roster are a better bet to turn into something better.
Look for the Falcons to add a useful piece, but Mass is my pick. Who's yours?