Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 1/25/12
With the start of NFL free agency less than two months away and the Atlanta Falcons in the midst of a coaching staff overhaul, the defensive side of the ball is the one that should occupy the front office the most. The Falcons have nine potential free agents on defense, and five of them are starters, as head coach Mike Smith considers the nickel back a starter. The most pressing are defensive end John Abraham, the NFL's active leader in sacks; middle linebacker Curtis Lofton; and cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro Bowl pick in 2010. Two of the team's top three safeties, Thomas DeCoud and James Sanders, also can be free agents. Nickel back Kelvin Hayden, who was injury prone and played only 223 snaps, is the other starter. So what will general manager Thomas Dimitroff do, specifically in regard to Abraham? Some clues might have been provided by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in an introductory conference call with Atlanta media members last week. One of the more intriguing quotes from Nolan was about the pass rush. The Falcons ranked 19th in the NFL in sacks in 2011; Nolan's defense in Miami ranked 10th. "I would rather have 10 guys get four sacks than only four guys get 10 sacks each," Nolan said, "because it's a lot more difficult for an offense to look at your entire defense and say, We've got to block them all guys. That guy might come, that guy might come.' That's a real stress for a quarterback." With that in mind, the Falcons already have invested 7 million in one of their oldest players on the offensive side of the ball, tight end Tony Gonzalez, a player who is a paragon of health. Abraham made 8 million last season. What are the chances they will do the same with Abraham, who will be 34 next season and has a history of groin issues issues that he said held him back at times in 2011? Now, let's take a look at something else that Nolan said in that conference call. "People always talk about having four starting DBs," Nolan said, "but I think the future is there are really five starting DBs, if these quarterbacks keep doing what they are doing." Under Smith, The Falcons have not finished better than 20th in the NFL in pass defense. Nolan echoed comments Smith has often made in the past about pass defense being an 11-man effort. One thing the Falcons have rarely gotten under Smith and former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are so-called "coverage" sacks, sacks the defense gets when none of the opposing receivers are open. As a result of Nolan's comments, it sounds like the Falcons are going to start playing a lot more nickel defense under Nolan. Taking a look at the free-agent market, one of the best nickel backs in the league is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan, who was an All-Pro in 2008. On Friday, Finnegan told The Tennessean newspaper that he was pessimistic the Titans would re-sign him. If the team chose to tag him as their franchise player, he would earn 10.3 million. Now, it's possible that Finnegan would want to sign with Detroit, where his former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is the Lions' head coach. So if the Falcons are, relatively speaking, going to invest the same amount of money, would it be in an aging defensive end or a 28-year-old defensive back? If you're looking for durability, ProFootballFocus.com says that Finnegan played 1,142 snaps last season which was almost double Abraham's 628. Which provides greater value to a team? Now, consider what Nolan said and that the Falcons have to find a way to defend against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees twice a season. Finnegan isn't the only top defensive back who could be on the free-agent market. Baltimore's Lardarius Webb also could be a free agent, but considering his team was just a couple of plays away from a Super Bowl berth, it would make sense if he decided to stay with the Ravens. Even if the Falcons don't get a big-name defensive back in the free-agent market, it might be surprising if Abraham is back, unless he's willing to play for a substantial discount. It's a move that could create a lot of teeth-gnashing among fans, but, ultimately, it will be judged by whether the Falcons can finally make that big, long-awaited improvement in their pass defense.
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