While we'll be talking about ends today, this is not the end of our whirlwind tour through the Falcons roster. Nope, we're just getting started on the defensive side of the ball, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
When we last visited the land of breakdowns, bigskee was leading us on a tour through the offensive line. This time around, it's prolific commenter LetsGoFalcons who will be leading us into the lair of the defensive ends. His format's a little different than the one we've been following in the past, but it's chock full of information, so I think you'll all enjoy it a lot. He'll be joined by the laconic brickcheney and myself, as we chop our way through this breakdown. Intrigued? Of course you are.
For everything John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and more, join us after the jump.
When looking at the Falcons production over the past couple of seasons, it's not difficult to see where one of the lowest areas of production has been. Since the loss of Patrick Kerney to free agency in 2007, the Falcons defensive front has struggled to maintain consistency in getting after opposing quarterbacks. In 2004, the Falcons led the NFL in sacks with 48 in one season. Over the next 2 seasons, largely due to Kerney, and then to John Abraham in 2006, the Falcons consistently ranked in the middle of the pack in sacks (14th in 2005 and 2006). However, with Kerney's departure in free agency, and the arrival of the underperforming Jamaal Anderson in 2007, Atlanta has failed to achieve a consistent pass rush (30th in the god-awful 2007 year and 26th in 2009 with a good year of production in 2008).
I choose the phrase "consistent pass rush", because the unit at times shows promise. Certainly with the Comrade Dimitroff and Coach Smitty's arrival we saw a jump in production at sacking the QB. The Falcons were ranked 11th in the NFL in 2008 in bringing pain on the quarterback, thanks largely to a big season for John Abraham, who racked up 16.5 of the team's 34 sacks. However, it became apparent in 2009 that this defensive line was too reliant on "The Predator". With Grady Jackson getting up there in age, the Falcons needed to add some zip at the point of attack, which led to the selection of Peria Jerry in the first round of the 2009 draft. Jerry would be lost for the season in only the second game, a real shame considering the promise the D-Line showed against Miami the week before (4 sacks). Even though new prodigies Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann had flashes of brilliance, Abraham's production trailed off and the Falcons fell back into the bottom third of the league in sacks.
It is difficult to parse the Falcons issues at defensive end without also mentioning their issues at cornerback. Both were serious contributors to the Falcons problems on defense. Last year's Falcon squad had a difficult time getting off the field, in large part to their ability to stop the pass on third down. Whether the primary issue was the inability to rush the passer, the lack of experienced coverage corners in the secondary, or a combination of the two, it became glaring that the Falcons had two things to address in the offseason: (1) an experienced coverage corner, and (2) a productive pass rushing defensive end to pair with Abraham. In neither situation was there an issue with young promise. As stated, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury showed flashes of their talent, and Brent Grimes and Chris Owens came on late in the year. But without consistent everyday contributors at those two positions, the Falcons had no stability, and that resulted in a collapse in Pass Defense, which ranked 28th in the NFL last season.
The Falcons moved quickly in free agency to address the first issue, signing the top free agent corner on the market in Dunta Robinson, and bringing back veteran Brian Williams, who had stabilized the unit to a degree until his loss to injury. With that aspect solidified, the Falcons can turn their attention to the second issue; finding a defensive end who will make tackles shudder in fear. However, the Falcons talent at defensive end wasn't completely bare to begin with, and the Great Comrade has done an admirable job building some back-end and situational depth at the position. Below is a break-down of where the defensive end position stands.
John Abraham- "The Predator" really needs no introduction. When healthy, Abraham is one of the most fierce pash rushers in the league. Since entering the league in 2001, Abraham has posted more than 10 sacks in a year 5 times, and came awfully close to a sixth with 9.5 sacks in 2004. As we all know, in 2008, Abraham had a staggering 16.5 sacks, tops amongst defensive linemen. Some say he's lost a step after a disappointing 5.5 sacks last season. While I'm of the opinion (and Jake Long of the Dolphins is too), that he still has some gas left in the tank, he isn't getting any younger, and he certainly can't withstand a double-team on every passing down. Additionally, injury concerns force the coaching staff to use him somewhat sparingly, which hinders our production from the defensive end spot. He's the alpha dog, but he really needs some help.
Kroy Biermann- Biermann, a.k.a. Beerman/Duffman/General Montana Grizzly Badass, shows a lot of promise as a situational pass-rusher. A hard-working kid from a smaller school who overcomes stigmas like the tackles he blows by, he perhaps has shown the greatest knack for getting to the QB, coming in second in the season in sacks with 5.5. Biermann provides a valuable piece to the defensive line rotation and still has a lot of promise in his young career.
Lawrence Sidbury- Sidbury was touted by many as the steal of the 2009 draft. An athletic defensive end from FCS school Richmond, Sidbury demonstrates tremendous agility for the position. His patented "spin move", while not as effective on NFL lineman, was dynamo in the FCS leagues. Sidbury has a ton of upside, but is a bit of a project. Still, he is another valuable piece of the defensive end rotation, and has nowhere to go but up.
Chauncey Davis- Chauncey Davis is a slightly underrated player at the defensive end position for the Falcons. Davis has played in every game for the Falcons since his selection in the 4th Round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Davis is not a starter quality defensive end, but he provides a nice threat off the edge, which earned him a reward in the 2008 off-season in the form of a contract extension. Only 1 sack this past season was cause for concern coming off a 4 sack season the previous year.
Jamaal Anderson- I'm not typically one to hate on the players of the team I support, because I try to see the value in everyone that we pick up. NFL GMs aren't morons, for the most part, and they don't act on something by drawing a name out of a hat. This is the case of Jamaal Anderson, whose tremendous physical talents were too tantalizing for the Falcons to pass up at the 8th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. Jamaal flat out hasn't panned out. His role last year changed from full-time starter at defensive end to running-play defensive end, passing-play defensive tackle. With only 2.5 sacks in three years, Anderson simply hasn't demonstrated an ability to get to the quarterback on the professional level. As a result, Anderson provides some versatility along the defensive line, but that's about it.
When looking at the defensive ends, the common trend is that they can be great situational players. In addition, they all provide value as depth at a position that is crucial in the NFL. However, the need for a durable and talented defensive end to play the majority of downs is glaring. Abraham, for all his gifts, cannot be on the field every minute with his injury concerns. The Falcons need an anchor defensive end to make Abraham and our rotation of fresh legs optimally effective. As a result, don't be surprised to see the Falcons address this position somewhere in the 2010 draft.
John Abraham: I'd like to read you an excerpt from The Casual Fan's Guide To Assessing Football Players, specifically the entire chapter on pass rushers.
"Chapter 6: Pass Rushers -- How many digits appear in his sack total? If fewer than two, complain."
Thankfully we're better than that. Even though sacks are the only pass-rush stat officially sanctioned by the stats-industrial complex, we have our supple minds and sufficient data to round out the real story of Abraham's '09. As we've noted before, Abraham was still one of the best pass rushers in the league last year. Period.
Think of it like this: do you really think the average defensive line coach gets in his players' ears about lacking impressive sack statistics? Of course not. The pass rusher's job is to disrupt the passer. Forced incompletions and solid pops are almost as good as sacks.
Yes, Abe has lost a step. Sure, in the next year or two his big salary will likely cause us to start talking about Comrade disappearing him for great continuance of alcohol-bird revolution! But old man Father Abraham at 90% is better than the average pass rusher at 100%.
: Possibly the most imposing kicker in NFL history, Duffburger also moonlights as a versatile defensive end. He scored at least one sack, knockdown, or pressure in 14 of 16 games last year, despite playing fewer than half of our defensive snaps. This means his high pass rush totals weren't just a product of exploiting a bad matchup or two; instead he brought it every week no matter who he drew.
His special teams work (the tackling part) demonstrates his superior open-space tackling and suggests he has the athleticism for fine pass coverage. Since we know we'll be stuck watching him drop into coverage, we can take solace in the fact that he's not bad at it. Would be ideal if he were capable of adding muscle without sacrificing too much quickness.
Chauncey Davis is decent at tackle football. For a run-first end he doesn't make as many tackles as you'd like, as he seems to be relatively blockable. He was one of our four best pass rushers last year and committed no egregious gaffes.
Chauncey Davis: C+
Sid provided our sole highlight of the Mike Vick Bowl by sacking Donovan McNabb. His season was what you'd expect from a fourth-rounder who wasn't predicted to start. However, I think he'll start within the next two years.
Hopefully Double A's new team will be able to unlock his potential.
Jamaal Anderson: D
Dave the Falconer writes:
The little defensive line that could kept chugging along in 2009, doing nothing spectacularly, but nearly everything competently. That's great, sport!
Even if the defensive line isn't upgraded through the draft, I'm going on the record now with my belief that it's going to look better in 2010. A healthy Peria Jerry can only help the interior pass rush, which will open things up on the wing for John Abraham, who went from freakish lineman to savvy veteran in a single year, and Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury opposite him. You want specifics, though, don't you? You greedy bandages.
DE John Abraham, Starter: Abe is slower these days. He doesn't explode off the line so much as he pops off of it, a touch more gingerly now, the cruel blades of Father Time leaning on those Achilles tendons. Does that mean he's too old to be useful? Oh, hell no.
He still got plenty of pressure on the quarterback in 2009, and he still has the moves to get around his man. What that lost step is costing him are the sacks themselves, and maybe if the secondary is better his old man crabbing (Cornerbacks are no good these days! In my day, cornerbacks flew aeroplanes and made dinner, just the way I liked it!) will be justified and he'll grab a few more sacks. That's always been his bread and butter, and unless he picks up his numbers the casual fan will likely be disappointed in him in 2010.
Yet he's still providing value. He's still a fearsome presence outside that teams feel they must account for, and he's still getting into the backfield. I'm of the firm belief that a sack is generally better than a pressure, so I'd like to see him ramp up, but at the very least he'll be the cause of a few quarterback nightmares next season. Without a ton of help in 2009, he still managed to be a pretty good defensive end. Because he's on the wrong side of 30, that's an awfully good thing for him to be.
DE Kroy Biermann, Starter: He sacks! He runs! He kicks! He has a kung-fu grip!
Beerman/Duffman/Hamburger/Duffburger turned in a pretty nice sophomore campaign in 2009. Bear in mind that the guy is only 24 years old (younger than yours truly), and the fact that he amassed 49 tackles, 5 sacks and a forced fumble looks damn good. Biermann has bulked up since his initial entry into the league and uses a combination of quality moves and surprising physicality to get his shots at the quarterback. That combination should continue to serve him well.
Is Biermann the long-term starter opposite Abraham? Tough to say. If he continues to get better, continues to punish quarterbacks and pushes his sack total close to double digits, it'll be almost impossible for the coaching staff to sit him. While he's above average against the run, he could stand to tackle the ball carrier better, something I know he'll be working on in the off-season. That's a couple of ifs, of course, but Biermann's a fine choice to open the season starting, and I have a sneaking suspicion he'll continue to unless the Falcons invest a first round pick at defensive end.
What would be reasonable for Biermann in 2010? I'd say he'll continue to get better, piling up around 7 sacks and generally making himself a nuisance in the backfield. I think that's something we can all enjoy.
DE Lawrence Sidbury, Backup: El-Sid is going places, but not in a hurry.
What little we saw out of Sidbury in 2009 was promising. He's definitely fast and he can definitely put a hit on someone. For a rookie on a defensive line without a ton of depth, he still didn't manage to get much playing time, and a lot of that has to be blamed on the fact that he's not a complete player yet. I know Mike Smith would like him to become one, but for now his skill set is geared purely toward being a situational pass rusher, a role where he needs to get more reps if he's going to be valuable for the defensive line.
I do think he'll continue to develop, but as others have said, it's a slow development. He's definitely not going to start in 2010, not unless someone suffers a catastrophic injury, so he'll have another year to hone his skills and make his case to get on the field full-time in 2011. There's no reason to doubt he can do it, but I do want to see it happen with my own eyes.
DE Chauncey Davis, Backup: The very definition of a solid backup defensive end, Davis does a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything. He can rush the passer a little, is fairly stalwart against the run and never seems to embarrass himself, which is more than a lot of players in the NFL today can say. He might be a tad pricey for a reserve, but he's a nice fit for the Falcons and a guy I'm glad we have around.
DE Jamaal Anderson, Backup: As a defensive end, Jamaal Anderson routinely imitates vacuum cleaners, black holes and remoras. He's quite simply been a colossal bust on the outside, where he provides pretty good value against the run and virtually nothing against the pass. When you're a former first round pick who was highly touted as a complement for John Abraham, you damn well better be able to put more than 2.5 sacks in three seasons. Anderson could still prove to be a decent run-stopping defensive tackle/defensive end combination, but for a team that needs pass rushers in the worst way, he's doing absolutely nothing for us. Maybe I should just list him under DT so I can be kinder to him.
DE Maurice Lucas, Backup: Will he even make the team? Shoot, I don't know. He seems to have some skill, but we'll have to sit tight and see if he makes it through August in one piece.
Bottom Line: We have two above average starting defensive ends, one promising project, an extremely solid backup and two guys who are either useless or unknown. This is still a position that could use a shot in the arm moving into the future, but at least there's a decent base here.
As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.