With a little over a week left before the NFL draft finally arrives, the primary topic of conversation with Falcons fans revolves around the QB. To be more exact, the discussion is about protecting the one we've got and getting after the ones we face. Without a doubt, pressuring (and ultimately sacking) the other QB is critical to fielding a good defense, and for the past several years the Falcons have been terrible at it. It's why the names Clowney and Mack are so consistently linked with the Falcons in this draft class.
But are our only options to be found in the draft? What of the existing players on our roster? And will one drafted player be enough to fix our pass rushing woes?
Well, I want to take a moment to highlight why I believe Jonathan Massaqoui can be an instrumental part of the solution. Let's start by taking a look at a player many Falcons fans were hoping we could land in the off-season: Greg Hardy.
Why start with the DE from our nearest NFC South rival? If one looks at Hardy - his draft position, combine/pro-day performances, and his first couple of years in the NFL, it's hard not to see some of the similarities. Hardy, similarly to Massaqoui, was a mid-round selection (6th round, pick #175) who projected to go higher in the draft until his last CFB season. In fact, scouting reports on Hardy had him going anywhere between the 2nd and the 7th, which shows how volatile his stock was.
In Hardy's first two years in the NFL, he amassed a total of 7 sacks (3 in year 1, 4 in year 2). By year 3, however, Hardy started putting it all together for 11 sacks by his third year. Last year, Hardy had his biggest year yet, garnering 15 sacks (4 of those coming agains the Falcons in week 17). That progression earned Hardy a franchise tag, and will likely result in a long-term deal with the Panthers. Hardy has certainly benefited by having Charles Johnson on the other end, but he has also capitalized on it.
So, just how exactly does Massaqoui stack up when compared to Hardy? Here are some key stats from their respective combines/pro-days (best numbers are used for both here):
|225lb bench press||20||21|
|Broad Jump||10' 00"||10' 01"|
|20 Yrd Shuttle||4.51||4.62|
|3 Cone Drill||7.23||7.13|
As you can see in the chart above, Mass compares very favorably to Hardy in almost all of the events, including some key ones like the 10-yard split, bench press and 3 Cone drill. While Hardy is a bit taller and heavier than Mass, for our purposes the end goal of both players is the same: get after the QB. To that end, there's no "physical" reason Massaqoui shouldn't be able to progress as Hardy did in Carolina.
But in order to see that progression, Massaqoui needs to continue to get quality snaps. Something that didn't happen consistently in 2013 (and not at all in 2012). However, when Mass was finally given snaps at RDE - a more natural fit for him - he wound up getting 4 of his 5 sacks from that position and grading out much better according to PFF.
It's not just this feeble writer that believes this either. The word from within the Falcons organization is that they are very excited about Massaqoui's potential in 2014 and Smitty even highlighted Mass in his last press conference as a player he was very excited about.
So, while Massaqoui may not have lit the NFL on fire last year, what we did see was a young player finally get some quality snaps and do something with them. His 5 sacks are something to build off of and if the word out of the Falcons organization are to be believed, he may be ready to elevate his game another level. While I don't think Mass is ready to be "the" solution, I do believe he can be an integral part of improving our pass rush in 2014.