Everyone knows the Atlanta Falcons desperately need to improve their pass rush. Having the league's worst third-down defense and ranking tied for 30th in the league with 22 sacks in 2014 simply emphasized the point.
The question is, how much will the Falcons invest to make the necessary upgrades to improve the pass rush? I asked owner Arthur Blank whether the Falcons would be willing to pay a high price for a elite pass-rusher.
"I think we've always been willing to invest whatever to get the best players we can and obviously the best coaching staff to coach those players," Blank said. "So my answer would be 'Yes.'
"The NFL has its salary cap and its limits. It's designed for, theoretically, a level playing field. Through talent evaluation and through the coaching staff's selections and the resources that coaches [have], there are a lot of ways you can unlevel the playing field in your favor. And the great organizations in the NFL figure ways to do that over a long period of time, not just one year."
Maybe the Falcons won't be able to solve all their woes in just one year. But 2015 could be a significant step in the right direction for a team that sorely needs pass-rushers.
New coach Dan Quinn, a pass-rush guru, got spoiled with the group he had in Seattle as the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. Now, he inherits a team with essentially no legitimate threat off the edge. Remember, the Falcons opted to target run-stuffers Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in free agency last season rather than securing a pass-rusher or two. And everybody obviously signed off on adding the big space-eaters, no matter who wants to point fingers for the oversight.
Signing a player such as Justin Houston from Kansas City, Jason Pierre-Paul from the New York Giants or Greg Hardy from Carolina this offseason sounds so appealing. But it seems unlikely -- though not impossible -- that the Falcons would shovel out $12-15 million per year for such a player. Not to mention the franchise tag could keep top-flight pass-rushers from going anywhere.
Washington's Brian Orakpo would have been a top target for the Falcons last offseason had he not been hit with the franchise tag. Orakpo is set to hit the open market in March but is coming off a season-ending right pectoral tear. It will be interesting to see whether the Falcons maintain an interest in the three-time Pro Bowler, who has 40 career sacks.
The Falcons might be better off targeting a pass-rusher such as Pernell McPhee from the Baltimore Ravens. He didn't start a game last season yet was productive with 7.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hits to go with 11 tackles for losses while playing 489 of 1,034 defensive snaps. The former fifth-round pick from Mississippi State made a modest $645,000 last season. McPhee, 26, will get a significant raise but won't force teams to break the bank.
Chicago found a bargain pass-rusher last season with the addition of Willie Young at $3 million per year. Young delivered a team-leading 10 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in his first season with the Bears.
Adding just one capable pass-rusher won't be enough for the Falcons. They need to stockpile as many as possible. Two names worth monitoring on the free-agent market are Adrian Clayborn from Tampa Bay and O'Brien Schofield from Seattle.
Clayborn, 26, was drafted in the first round by new Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris when Morris was the head coach of the Buccaneers. Clayborn also had Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox as his position coach in Tampa.
Scofield, who turns 28 in April, played for Quinn the past two seasons in Seattle and is familiar with Quinn's scheme, so he's a natural fit and would add more depth to the position.
There will be other reasonably priced options, as well. And Quinn could get more out of players such as Ra'Shede Hageman, Malliciah Goodman and Corey Peters, if the Falcons opt to re-sign Peters. Plus, the Falcons are expected to target a pass-rusher with the No. 8 pick in this year's NFL draft.
The Falcons have an estimated $21 million in cap space right now, based on ESPN Stats & Information figures and a projected $140 million team limit. They could increase that amount before free agency March 10 with the release of veterans such as running back Steven Jackson ($3.75 million cap savings) and possibly guard Justin Blalock ($3.79 million cap savings), who currently has a 2015 cap figure of $7.91 million.
We'll see how this all plays out. But one thing is for certain: The Falcons are in a rush to improve.