The new Falcons coaching staff reportedly met recently to discuss free agents they're interested in, and you have to figure a pass rusher is right near the top of their list. The fit is logical, given that Dan Quinn was on board when the Seahawks signed Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, and the need for this team is incredibly strong.
The question is who the target is for this team. This is a deep, talented free agent class, with Justin Houston, Greg Hardy, Jerry Hughes, Jabaal Sheard and others available for the highest bidder. Not all of those guys are impact pass rushers or ideal fits for the Falcons, but virtually any of them would represent an upgrade for this Falcons team. Fixing a pass rush that ranked more or less dead last in the NFL isn't an overnight thing, but adding players with legitimate talent is a fine start.
Realistically, the Falcons probably will not be able to get more than one of these players, unless they can pull off a late free agency coup. That's unlikely.
Here's a brief rundown on a few potential options.
Everyone's top choice, but the guy considered least likely to leave his current team. Houston is an elite pass rusher, full-stop, with the combination of athleticism, production and pure intimidation that the label implies. He's the best free agent in this class, just 26 years old and a Georgia native, and he's coming off a 22 sack campaign. I'd do a cartwheels all the way to the moon if this signing happened, but I know deep down he's probably not coming here.
We ran the Hardy discussion into the ground last week, so I'll keep this brief. As a pure pass rusher, Hardy is undeniably the best player likely to hit the open market, with back-to-back strong campaigns. He's turned himself into an effective defender against the run, as well, and is young enough to be an impact player for years to come.
The questions with Hardy all center on his brushes with legal trouble, the looming possibility of a suspension and whether he'd actually be interested in signing with the Falcons, a team he has professed to hating more than once before.
Hughes was a Falcoholic favorite coming out of college, but the TCU product looked like a situational pass rusher at best during his three years with the Colts. Landing in Buffalo resuscitated his career, and he's now posted back-to-back 10 sack seasons and has rounded into form as an effective pass rusher and solid run stopper.
The biggest reason not to believe in Hughes is that he's part of a truly phenomenal defense, which certainly boosts his numbers. Ideally, the Falcons would be able to pair him with a first round rookie or another free agent, but I do think Hughes is a quality 8-10 sack player even in Atlanta, and that if the Falcons can pry him away from Buffalo he'd be a nice fit for Dan Quinn's aggressive defense.
Harrison Nayler at Blogging Dirty had a nice look at Hughes recently, as well.
JPP has had an uneven career trajectory, with a 16.5 sack sophomore season that he followed up with a 6.5 sack season, a two sack season and plenty of questions about whether he was just a flash in the pan. On a decaying Giants defense in 2014, Pierre-Paul managed 12.5, and as a pure pass rusher he remains a terrific technician and athletic presence. He's just wildly inconsistent and not incredibly useful against the run, which makes his likely large salary a bit worrisome.
There's little point in denying that he'd become the best Falcons pass rusher by leaps and bounds if signed, however, and if the Falcons surround him with talent, he could probably replicate his 2014 season with relative ease.
McPhee's a second-tier option when compared to the the guys I've mentioned here, but that doesn't mean he couldn't be useful for the Falcons. The Ravens linebacker had six sacks his rookie season, had two middling years and then piled up 7.5 sacks a year ago, and is an athletic, high-motor presence the defense could surely benefit from. He doesn't solve the team's pass rushing woes by himself, but like Hughes, if he's paired with other defensive improvements he could put together some terrific seasons in Atlanta.
Please note that this does not pretend to be a complete list of pass rushers available to the Falcons, but these guys are ones I would consider highlights.
Personally, Jerry Hughes would be my choice. He's not necessarily going to be cheap and I know that his performance was aided by playing on a dominant Bills defensive line, but Hughes is still a talented pass rusher who would offer a real upgrade for this team. If they smartly acquire other pieces in the draft and free agency to improve the defense overall, Hughes could thrive in Dan Quinn's defense.
Who will the Falcons walk away with, if anyone?