The potential for a significant change in strategy seems likely to determine how the Atlanta Falcons approach the official start of free agency on Tuesday.
There have been whispers among Falcons players about a switch to a 3-4-defensive scheme. Such a move could be a wise one, if the Falcons can put together quality personnel to effectively execute such a defense.
At season's end, head coach Mike Smith said he would evaluate every aspect of the team, including scheme.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan brought in some 3-4 principles after joining the Falcons, but his base has been a 4-3 look. When he came over from the Miami Dolphins in 2012, many wondered if the Falcons would immediately switch to a 3-4.
"It's my philosophy that you build your scheme around the players, not the other way around," Nolan said back in January of ‘12. "What has been built (in Atlanta), I think is a very solid foundation on a 4-3 defense."
That was then. This is now.
The Falcons are coming off an atrocious season in which they finished dead last in third-down defense, second-to-last in run defense, and tied for 27th in total defense. They allowed two unheralded running backs -- Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey (163 rushing yards) and Arizona's Andre Ellington (154 yards) -- to bust loose for career-best rushing efforts. Stopping the run and eliminating big plays has to be the Falcons' defensive focus in ‘14.
Asking the current group of players to switch defenses on the fly would be a challenge but manageable. However, adding two or three guys with more 3-4 experience could make such a transition seamless.
If a change is indeed in the works, the Falcons would be smart to look into Miami's Paul Soliai, if they haven't made a call about the big nose tackle already. He was an integral part of the Dolphins' defense under Nolan in 2011, when Miami ranked third against the run, sixth in scoring, and seventh on third down.
At 6-foot-4 and 340-pounds, the 30-year-old Soliai would be the ideal guy to help plug the middle for a Falcons defense in dire need of run-stuffers. He takes on double teams with vengeance and has a knack for deflecting passes.
If not Soliai in the middle, maybe the Falcons could turn their attention to veteran nose tackle Ryan Pickett (6-2, 340) from Green Bay. Pickett, who turns 35 in October, has been disruptive in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. He could return to Green Bay, however.
In terms of the defensive ends to pair with the nose tackle, one player immediately makes sense: Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296). The former third-overall pick was drafted in Kansas City by Scott Pioli, currently the Falcons assistant general manager. Dallas' Jason Hatcher, who has experience in the 3-4, also has been linked to the Falcons this offseason. The Falcons also could look at recently re-signed Corey Peters as a defensive end in a 3-4 look, provided he recovers from an Achilles tear.
Any talk of a 3-4 might explain why the Falcons would have targeted outside linebacker Brian Orakpo as a pass-rusher had he not been franchised by Washington, why they're not in a rush to re-sign veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, and why defensive end Osi Umenyiora reportedly was asked to take a pay cut. Umenyiora essentially wouldn't have a role in such a scheme.
But a 3-4 would accommodate some of the young, athletic outside linebackers/pass-rushers coming out of college these days such as Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr. Such a player could be paired with Kroy Biermann, who has experienced in a hybrid role, as the outside linebackers. Paul Worrilow and a healthy Sean Weatherspoon could comprise the inside tandem, if the Falcons decided to go in the 3-4 direction.
Of course, the Falcons also have some tweaking to do in the secondary, with free safety Thomas DeCoud likely to be released. Top free-agent safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo is likely to be out of the Falcons' price range, but they still could look into Byrd, Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea, and Carolina's Mike Mitchell. The Falcons also could look at veteran defensive back Champ Bailey as a nickelback and mentor to young corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
The Falcons are $18,649,379 under the cap right now with $7 million more set to be added once retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez comes off the books.
Free agency, as well as the possible shift to the 3-4, will determine which way the Falcons lean in the draft