The Atlanta Falcons have started the process of trying to enhance their defensive line, a process that could involve moving on from a couple of well-known veterans.
Former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell is scheduled to visit Atlanta at the end of the week, a source confirmed. Whether the Falcons sign the 29-year-old Mitchell likely depends on what happens during his other visits, with Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco reportedly all on his schedule first. Mitchell's former defensive coordinator coordinator in Miami, Vance Joseph, is now the head coach of the Broncos.
However the Mitchell situation unfolds, the Falcons are sure to make changes up front, particularly on the interior of the defensive line. There is an expectation that defensive tackle Tyson Jackson, who is due a base salary of $3.5 million next season and set to count $5.85 million against the cap, won't be back, at least not without a reduced price tag. Jackson, who turns 31 in June and is coming off a career-low 13 combined tackles (311 snaps played), is signed through 2018. Releasing him would save $2.65 million against next year's salary cap.
The Falcons also could move on from veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, if Babineaux even decides to continue his productive career. Babineaux, a team captain whose 35-year-old legs obviously aren't the same after just completing his 12th NFL season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins (March 9, 4 p.m. ET).
The Falcons already made one significant change with the firing of defensive line coach Bryan Cox and the hiring of former San Francisco 49ers standout Bryant Young. The next phase is finding the type of players capable of making the Falcons much more formidable against the run and more capable of bringing pressure alongside reigning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr.
From the interior, the Falcons know they have a keeper in nose tackle Grady Jarrett, who tied a record in Super Bowl LI with three sacks, plays the run well and continues to emerge as a young leader. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who was thought to be on the outs, apparently has won over the coaches with his improved play as he moves into the final year of his rookie contract. And the Falcons are expected to re-sign Courtney Upshaw, who showed great position versatility upon joining the team on a one-year deal but needs to tackle weight concerns.
Defensive lineman Derrick Shelby, who came over from Miami last offseason, will be back after an Achilles tear limited him to just six games in 2016. The Falcons signed him because of his strength and ability to get a push from the interior. Shelby started on the same line with Mitchell with the Dolphins in 2015, although Shelby lined up primarily on the edge then.
A name to keep an eye on free agency could be defensive tackle Terrell McClain from Dallas. McClain had 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks, seven quarterback hits and two forced fumbles for the Cowboys this past season.
The Falcons are likely to end up targeting an edge-rusher with the uncertain status of seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney coming off his 15th NFL season. Freeney said immediately after the Super Bowl that he had no clue which way he was leaning, as he has contemplated retirement every year since 2012.
Meanwhile, pass-rusher Adrian Clayborn just began the rehab process from the torn biceps injury he suffered in a divisional playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks (Jan. 14). Clayborn told ESPN.com the recovery time is five months from when he suffered the injury.
Several early mocks drafts have linked pass-rushers Derek Barnett from Tennessee and Charles Harris from Missouri to the Falcons, who hold the 31st overall pick. Defensive line and offensive guard are two draft priorities.