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The Great Falcons Roster Breakdown: Defensive Tackles Edition

Good teams build out from their lines, so it's appropriate that the Falcons have been focusing a lot of their energy on defensive tackle of late.

Whether it was the mystical process of turning Thomas Johnson into a useful platoon piece, drafting both Peria Jerry and Vance Walker or simply gritting teeth and waiting for Jon Babineaux to ride out his legal troubles, the Falcons have taken steps to shore up a critical position since Thomas Dimitroff forcibly seized control of the Good Ship Falcon back in 2008.

So today we'll take a look at that most august of positions and see what you, the fan, can expect in 2010. Slimdog has the mic and I've got two turntables, so let's break this thing down. Join us after the jump for some hot (um?) defensive tackle action.

Slimdog says:

Jonathan Babineaux: 47 TCKL, 6 SCK, 2 FF, 2 PDEF

To start off with DTs for the Great Falcons Roster Breakdown, I’ll highlight the blue collar, workhorse-like, I don’t give a S@!% about no Pro Bowl Mr. Jonathan Babineaux. Probably my favorite player on the defense, Babineaux represents the anti-Deangelo Hall. He suits up every Sunday in the red and black and earns his paycheck with gutsy play and no gimmicks. I would bet my college education (no money since I’m still in school), that any fan who voted, coach who selected, or player who chose this year’s Pro Bowl roster could not come up with one good reason why Babineaux was not on the field representing the NFC this year. The fine folks at Pro Football Focus rated JB as the #1 most effective DT with a rating of 19.2. To refresh your memory this year’s NFC DTs were Darnell Dockett, Jay Ratliff, and Justin Smith. Each of these guys put up slightly better numbers than Babineaux this season, but Smith and Dockett are hybrid lineman who get a lot of snaps on the edge allowing for better stats. Of all

true DTs and NTs in the league Babineaux was 1st in sacks and 4th in tackles. Anyways, enough of the Pro Bowl BS cause you will never hear Babineaux complain about it.

To get more into the effect Babineaux has on this defense, the Falcons ranked 10th in the NFL this year in rushing yards per game. Compare this to 28th in the league in passing yardage and you can see why teams usually aired the ball out against us. With Abraham having a down season, J Anderson being familiarly ineffective, and Jerry going down early Babineaux was key to the defense not completely melting down this season. Originally drafted out of Iowa as a second round pick in 2005, the initial knock on him was that he was too small for an interior lineman and didn’t have long enough arms to get past blockers for an effective pass rush. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in quickness, speed, and agility. I find it truly amazing how the pocket collapses around him as OGs are just too slow to beat him off the line. His effectiveness at stopping the run will be a tremendous asset if we can find a secondary that can stop the pass.

At 28 years old, I expect Babineaux to have at least another 2 or 3 seasons of "Pro Bowl like" numbers and I hope not to see any kind of drop off in the immediate future. We have him locked up through the 2012 season so barring any injuries Falcons fans will get to see a lot more of Mr. Babineaux. My 2010 expectations for him would be to repeat this past season’s numbers and hope the rest of the D can provide some more production to complement him. For his no nonsense attitude (and yes I purposely left out his run-in with the marijuana police because I simply don’t care what he does in his personal time as long as he is producing on the field) I award this loyal Falcon with the highest of grades. Now take a shot of Falchohol as we look forward to seeing Babineaux suit up in the red and black in 2010 as we chase a Super Bowl title. (On a separate note, can we have a contest to come up with a nickname for Babineaux as he is clearly lacking one?)

2009 Grade: A+

Thomas Johnson: 20 TCKL, 2 SCK, 1FF

Johnson was picked up by the Falcons last offseason to fill up a depth chart, and was expected to be serving a reserve role after the drafting Jerry. Well, as the story goes Johnson had to fill in as starter once Jerry went down. PFF gives Johnson a rating of -7.2 with his best week coming against Buffalo in week 16. He has had some injury problems and even spent a year out of football in 2007. At 28 years old this was technically only his 3rd year in the league. My personal thought on TJ is that he is a very capable backup, but not a guy we want to rely on as a starter. He is a journeyman type, who has the attitude to play hard and earn his spot in this team. I look forward to seeing him back next year as a reserve player who will earn every snap on the field.

2009 Grade: C

Vance Walker: 13 TCKL

BEST VALUE DRAFT PICK OF 2009! I loved this pick in the 7th round. As a student at Georgia Tech I was very familiar with Vance and the terrific job he did there. It took some injuries before Vance finally got a call up from the practice squad to play in week 8 against NO. PFF rates him as a -6.9, and his appearance were few and far in between. Look for Vance to have to battle this summer for a roster spot, but I project him to make the team (fyi my depth chart is as follows: Babineaux, Jerry, Walker, Johnson). He’s got a lot of upside, but needs to add some more to his frame to be able to compete with larger interior lineman. I think with some grooming and development we could see Walker turn into a key reserve or even a capable starter if Jerry can’t kick the injury bug.

2009 Grade: C+

Trey Lewis: 10 TCKL

Lewis is a BIG guy weighing in at 320+ pounds. PFF rates TL as a -10, meaning that puts him as the least effective of all our defensive tackles on the season. He only saw action in 8 games and was used in a very limited role. I see Lewis starting out next year on the practice squad, but at 24 years old he is a guy we could see develop into a capable backup role.

2009 Grade: D+

Peria Jerry: One busted knee

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t be an injury bust. We know you have the talent fine sir, but we need to know if you can stay on the field. How about a comeback player of the year award in 2010.

Dave the Falconer says:

The success of these two spots on the line will be largely predicated on how healthy Peria Jerry is, with a side of how awesome the USS Babineaux is. My bet? Read on.

DT Jon Babineaux, Starter: He's scary good.

Forty-seven tackles. Two forced fumbles. Six sacks. Two passes defensed (!). It was a very complete season from Babineaux, who breaks interior offensive linemen down to their individual atoms and then disperses them. He's not the big, space-clogging defensive tackle the Falcons have traditionally catered to, but he does everything so well it's impossible to knock him. Well, as long as you stick to his on-the-field performance. Which we're going to.

In fact, Babineaux may just be the best player on the Falcons' defensive line, and at age 28, he should have a few more quality seasons left in the tank. I have high hopes that in 2010, Babs will improve his sack numbers while being called on to do a little less, with Jerry hopefully returning as an effective complement. Something like seven or eight sacks wouldn't be out of the question, and he'll continue to be a fearsome spectre in the middle of the line. You gotta love that.

Grade: A-

DT Peria Jerry, Starter: You couldn't have come up with a worse start to Peria Jerry's career.

The promising rookie lost basically his entire season to an injury, one severe enough that he's still recovering from it. As such, though he's 99% certain to be the starter in 2010, it's impossible to know what to predict with him. He's clearly got the ability to penetrate the offensive line and should be an effective piece of the pass rush, but that's only if he's healthy. That's still a big if at this point.

Assuming Jerry plays the majority of snaps as a starter this season, I would say 4-5 sacks and 30-40 tackles aren't out of the question. Given that he'd makes teams worry about another pass rushing presence in the middle of the line, that's all he'd have to do to have value.

Grade: INC

DT Thomas Johnson, Backup: TJ wasn't great. He was, however, a valuable reserve who posted two sacks, which counts for a lot.

Johnson's also the more prototypical space clogger than the two guys above him on the depth chart, though that hasn't translated into consistent effectiveness against the run. Essentially, TJ functions as a hobo's version of Babineaux, providing a little bit of everything and not a hell of a lot of anything. At 28 he's the same age as Babs, but obviously he's not going to suddenly display a ton of growth as a player now. He's a very solid reserve, and nothing more.

Grade: C+

DT Vance Walker, Backup: The rookie was surprisingly good in 2009. Called upon for significant playing time because of Jerry's injury, Walker really got going later in the season and managed to post 13 tackles while playing effectively against the run. Not to beat dead horse, but everyone at this position for the Falcons has displayed some ability against the pass and the run, and Walker's no exception.

Obviously he didn't have a ton of time to cement himself as a member of the rotation, but I expect we'll see him pick up a sack and a few tackles in limited playing time in 2010. If anyone gets injured—and I'm going to weep bitter, Falcoholic tears if that happens—Walker will be more than capable of stepping in and providing value on a limited basis. I like what he brings to the table, and he's still got room to grow as a player. Just don't expect miracles out of him, because we didn't get any in 2009.

Grade: B-

DE/DT Jamaal Anderson, ????: Horrible defensive end, passable defensive tackle. I bet nobody thought that would be Jamaal Anderson in a nutshell after he was drafted so early in 2007.

What Anderson offers to this team is run-stopping ability. The man is actually very, very good against the run, but he's completely inept against the pass. That still makes him a valuable piece of the tackle rotation, and it could mean the Falcons are willing to bump someone else off the roster and give JA98 more reps at the position now that we've basically abandoned hope in him ever doing anything useful outside.

Obviously, though, this is a one year solution unless he reinvents himself as a complete defensive tackle. The Falcons just simply aren't going to keep him around after he's busted out so badly. I'd forecast limited snaps and tackles for Anderson when he gets the chance to play.

Grade: C

DT Trey Lewis, Backup: Somewhere along the line, the promise Lewis had in his rookie year evaporated.

Now, that comes with a caveat. He's 24 years old and still has time to grow into a valuable piece, and he's certainly got the size to be an excellent situational run-stopping defensive tackle. I'm not trying to condemn the guy. That said, he looked nothing like the players I had such high hopes for such a short time ago. I don't know if injuries have sapped his effectiveness or if this is just a small sample size issue, but I thought Lewis looked ill at ease and slow during 2009. When we were scrambling to fill Jerry's position with the most effective linemen, Lewis had a prime opportunity to step up and didn't. I think the team will continue to carry five defensive tackles, but he may not be one of them.

Here's hoping he has a good season in 2009, and here's also hoping it's for us.

Grade: D

Bottom Line: With the exception of Trey Lewis and maybe Jamaal Anderson, this is a very effective unit. The remaining four guys do a little bit of everything, and Babineaux is honestly one of the better defensive tackles in the NFC right now. If Jerry returns healthy and effective, teams are not going to enjoy playing us in 2010.

As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.