So what will the new head coach, Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, think of the returning defensive linemen on his roster?
Probably not much.
There could be significant turnover on the defensive line, a unit that just under-performed in 2014. The rush defense improved, mainly thanks to the play of first-year free agent signee Paul Soliai. But it's the pass rush that is still the biggest weakness on the team.
The Falcons just can't put pressure on the opposing quarterback, and until that changes, they will continue to struggle regardless of who is on the sideline as the head coach.
Quinn will work with Scott Pioli, who now has more power in the Atlanta front office. Pioli is known as a top line-of-scrimmage evaluator, so there will be significant discussions on what will happen on the defensive line for 2015.
Soliai may be the most secure player on the line. He played well, and again, the credit for an improved rush defense must be thrown in his direction.
But the other free agent signee from a year ago, Tyson Jackson, struggled. He just did not play well, and the alarming fact is he was likely suggested by Pioli, who had him when he was the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Is Jackson just released, or can Quinn make him better and somehow provide more of a pass rush? There is little doubt Jackson is a 3-4 defensive end, but he must be more effective.
The players on the line eligible for free agency are Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Corey Peters and Cliff Matthews. Umenyiora will likely be allowed to walk away. He's 33 years old now and just needs to move on or retire. Umenyiora has not played particularly well in his two seasons with the Falcons.
Biermann will be an interesting case. He's inconsistent and many believe it's time for him to simply move on. Can the Falcons do better than Biermann? Let's hope so. Quinn will probably believe they can.
Peters played well coming back off of Achilles' injury in a late-season game in 2013 against the 49ers. He signed only a one-year contract for 2014, so Peters could leave as an unrestricted free agent. The Falcons would be wise to bring him back, and he might go for another one-year contract to continue to rehab his value. Before his injury, in the 4-3 defense, Peters was very effective.
Matthews has yet to show great promise. He has not started a game in four seasons and played in just seven games last season. Matthews was a seventh round pick a few years ago, so he'll probably be allowed to leave via free agency.
So who might Quinn want to keep? Well, it will be interesting to see how he evaluates Ra'shede Hageman, last year's second round pick. Bryan Cox, who will be retained as defensive line coach, will have a lot to say about Hageman's progress in his rookie season. What is his potential?
Jonathan Babineaux is another dicey situation. He'll be 34 years old this October, so how much more does he have left in the tank? Could he be cut to create more salary flexibility? Babineaux has two years remaining on the three-year contract he signed last March.
It was believed that Jonathan Massaquoi was becoming one of the more dependable players for the Falcons, but then late in the season he was benched. He complained about not playing and the Falcons sat him for a whole game late in the season. Did former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan just not like Massaquoi? What does Cox think about his ability to improve? Massaquoi might be the most debated player in these discussions.
Malliciah Goodman actually started 10 games for the Falcons in 2014. But how would he fit in Quinn's system? The Falcons thought they were getting a pass rusher when he was drafted in 2013, but he has not registered a sack so far in 30 NFL games. They certainly need someone drafted in the fourth round to do better. Can Quinn make that happen?
That's one thing that will be interesting. Who will Quinn watch and believe he and his new coordinator Richard Smith can make better? He might think it's hopeless with many of the players and they just need to start over. But a coach will always believe he can make a difference, and there are players, like Massaquoi and Goodman, that are young enough to still have potential.
Will the Falcons pursue a veteran for the defensive line in free agency? Count on it. If Kansas City is dumb enough to not franchise Justin Houston, you can bet Pioli will target Houston immediately. That's unlikely, but could Ndamukong Suh be a target if he is an unrestricted free agent? What about a draft pick taken at eight in the first round? In almost every mock draft you see right now, the Falcons are taking either Clemson's Vic Beasley, Missouri's Shane Ray, Kentucky's Alvin Dupree or Florida's Dante Fowler. Would the Falcons just wait around to see which one of those prospects might be on the board at number eight in the first round?
The defensive line will be high on Quinn's list of priorities once he gets the job next week.
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