Where do Falcons turn for DE help?

The Carolina Panthers, who’ve been kicked around the NFC South the past couple seasons, started kicking back Tuesday. Not only did the Panthers help themselves by re-signing defensive end Charles Johnson, they also hit the Atlanta Falcons where it hurts most.

The Panthers took some potential kick out of the Atlanta pass rush. By all indications, the Falcons were very much in the mix for Johnson (so were the Denver Broncos, but they’re not in the NFC South). We’ve known for months the Falcons would almost certainly pursue a pass-rusher as soon as free agency opened.

They did and it didn’t work out. Where does Atlanta go from here?

Well, let’s not completely rule out Minnesota free agent Ray Edwards. His name was creating as much buzz in Atlanta as Johnson’s in recent months. Although there have been some reports the Falcons really aren’t interested in Edwards, I’m not buying that.

But the Panthers could end up costing Atlanta a shot at Edwards as well as Johnson. The deal the Panthers gave Johnson (six years, $76 million with $32 million guaranteed) is probably something Edwards and his agent will point to. Is Edwards, who has never had more than 8.5 sacks in a season, really worth that kind of money?

I’m not so sure. I’d let the market sort itself out and if the Falcons can get Edwards to sign a deal cheaper than Johnson’s, go for it. If not, it’s time to look elsewhere, but where is that?

There’s not a lot else out there. Tennessee’s Jason Babin is available and he had 12.5 sacks last season. But Babin never had more than five sacks in any previous season. More importantly, he’s 31 and could end up beating John Abraham to retirement.

I’m looking at the other alternatives and not seeing anything overwhelming. Yeah, Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins is out there, but he’s as much defensive tackle as defensive end and doesn’t bring much of a threat off the edge.

There’s one intriguing possibility out there that might not cost all that much, but it comes with some risk. That’s Mathias Kiwanuka. He’s spent a star-crossed career with the New York Giants. He’s coming off a neck injury last season and had a major leg injury in 2007.

But, when healthy, Kiwanuka’s been a pretty decent player, even though the Giants shuffled him between defensive end and linebacker. I think back to Kiwanuka coming out of college. He was athletic, quick and smart and looked like he could be a big-time pass rusher.

He’s never had more than eight sacks in a season, but I think there’s still potential in him. I’m not sure about the medical stuff, but the Falcons have team doctors. I’d have them take a look at Kiwanuka (or at least his medical records, since time is of the essence) and see what they say. If they think Kiwanuka’s healthy, I say the Falcons should take a chance.

Atlanta can probably get Kiwanuka with a one- or two-year deal at a reasonable rate. If he doesn’t work out, not much harm will be done. If he does work out, the Falcons could end up with the pass-rusher they were looking for at a much lower price.