Up until the Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora, no position had been a more consistent source of angst for Falcons fans than defensive end over the last few years. Yes, even cornerback.
That's because John Abraham was the only truly reliable pass rusher on the roster for years, as we've covered in some detail. After he was cut, there was more than a little anxiety about what would follow. By linking themselves to some of the draft's finest pass rushers and signing Osi, the Falcons have eased our minds somewhat. Somewhat. We'll have to see what the draft brings.
This is one of those positions where defining starter might get a bit tricky. Osi and Kroy Biermann are the obvious choices, but you can bet that Jonathan Massaquoi, Jonathan Babineaux, Cliff Matthews and others will draw plenty of snaps at end. I'm projecting the two guys as "starters" who I believe will draw the most snaps over the course of the season.
Let's break down the position.
Starter: Osi Umenyiora
This is a no-brainer. Osi wasn't signed to a two-year deal for his quiche recipes, I can tell you that.
While Osi fell off the pace a bit, he has 75 sacks in his career, rushes the quarterback well from the edge and remains a dangerous and explosive pass rusher. He's never been stellar against the run and he won't be asked to be anything more than average there in Atlanta. He was signed to get after the passer, plain and simple.
I hate to say he was signed to replace Abraham, because Abraham's production was so stellar for so long. But Osi is younger and is basically being asked to play the same role, but for more snaps. I can't tell you he's going to be more effective than Abe, but he's going to get more run and is still effective as a pass rusher. The Falcons will need him, and he's bound to play significant snaps in this offense.
Starter: Kroy Biermann
Biermann's calling card is versatility. He can move around, he's quality against the run and he can rush the passer a little. Given the players behind him at the moment, that's going to earn him a starting job.
I don't mean that to sound unduly harsh, because Biermann is a fine player. He's a mighty useful one. He's just nowhere near elite, and we have a fair amount of evidence that he's not going to be anywhere an elite pass rusher, which the Falcons sorely need. He is one of the better ends against the run and Mike Nolan likes to utilize guys who do a lot of things well, even if they're not truly great in any one area. Biermann will get plenty of snaps in 2013.
Reserve: Cliff Matthews
Matthews is a little underrated around these parts. When Mike Nolan talks about building a defense full of four sack guys, I think he has Matthews in mind.
Is Matthews going to blossom into a starter? No, probably not. But as a run-stopping reserve who has shown some ability to get after the quarterback in fairly limited snaps, he's going to get playing time, and I think he'll do quite well as the third or fourth defensive end, depending on what the team does in the draft. Jonathan Massaquoi is the one we'll all be watching because of his pass-rushing chops, but it's telling that Matthews was the first guy on the field when Abraham couldn't go in the playoffs.
Reserve: Jonathan Massaquoi
All promise at this point, Massaquoi was drafted in 2012 with an eye on bolstering the pass rush going forward. We're all hoping 2013 is the year.
Massaquoi is the kind of player who could be asked to slot in at linebacker or defensive end, though he bulked up a bit to stick at DE for the foreseeable future. While Massaquoi's not a finished product against the run and didn't get on the field much last year as he learned the ropes, the pass-rushing ability is there and he's got explosive athletic ability that could make him a force to be reckoned with if he can harness it properly.
I think Mass will get some run as part of Nolan's pass rush rotation, and my fingers are crossed that he'll excel. He's an unknown quantity right now.
Ultimately, this position still needs help. The Falcons will move Jonathan Babineaux and potentially even Corey Peters and Peria Jerry out to end at time, which will alleviate the depth issues here. The Falcons still lack another game-changing pass rusher and need Mass to step up, but they also only have two guys who are even capable run stoppers at the position at this stage of the game. Adding another end in the draft is virtually an imperative, unless the team thinks Matthews and Mass are ready to take huge steps forward in 2012.
Still, there are enough questions here that I can't give this position the grade I'd like to.