Atlanta Falcons: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth Chart
The Atlanta Falcons had one of the weakest defenses in the NFL in 2013. In breaking down Atlanta’s new defensive depth chart, big acquisitions and the multitude of draft picks need to be accounted for. There were also some departures by declining players that should help improve the team’s depth.
For each position, the Falcons have someone who looks like he will be a starter, multiple backups who should get some playing time in rotation at different spots and some guys who likely won’t see the roster outside of training camp.
In breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the defense’s new look, the scheme has to be accounted for as well. Atlanta has one of the most unique defensive schemes in the league. It rivals only a Rob Ryan or Rex Ryan scheme in the multitude of its formations and schematic pressure generated.
Starter: Paul Soliai
Backups: Corey Peters, Travian Robertson, Ra'Shede Hageman
Camp Body: Donte Rumph
The Falcons haven’t had a legitimate big-bodied nose tackle in a long time—2008 to be exact, when Grady Jackson was eating offensive linemen like he was at a Golden Corral. It’s time for a space eater to return in the form of Paul Soliai. He’s the instant starter at nose tackle in 3-4 alignments.
However, when the Falcons shift to their 4-3 alignments, Corey Peters could easily resume his role here and spell the big man. Add in rookie Ra’Shede Hageman to the rotation for some speed inside, and the Falcons have a formidable group. Travian Robertson and Donte Rumph likely won’t make the roster.
4-3 Under Tackle and 3-4 Weak-Side Defensive End
Starter: Jonathan Babineaux
Backups: Ra'Shede Hageman, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry
A unique spot in the Falcons defensive line rotation is at 3-4 weak-side defensive end and 4-3 under tackle. The position is going to consist primarily of 3- and 5-technique responsibilities and could even have some heads-up on the tackle alignments.
Jonathan Babineaux should be the primary starter there early on, but if he's usurped by Peters during the season, it wouldn’t be shocking. Peria Jerry likely won’t make the roster unless Peters is ready to go, and Hageman should be in this spot long term when he’s done developing.
3-4 Strong-Side Defensive End
Starter: Tyson Jackson
Backups: Malliciah Goodman, Ra'Shede Hageman, Cliff Matthews
Camp Body: Nosa Eguae
If there's a spot on the team that should see the most rotational pieces during the season, it’s 3-4 strong-side end. The Falcons have many pieces who will work effectively here, including Malliciah Goodman, Hageman and Peters.
However, the starter should be Tyson Jackson. He’s sliding right back into a role that he’s played almost his entire career and should translate well for Mike Nolan’s defensive scheme. Cliff Matthews and Nosa Eguae might both be on the outside looking in when camp ends.
4-3 Strong-Side Defensive End
Starter: Malliciah Goodman
Backups: Tyson Jackson, Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews
Camp Body: Walker May
In 3-4 alignments, Jackson should be king. However, when the Falcons line up in the 4-3 using a more traditional 6-technique defensive end, Goodman should be tapped into. Late in the 2013 season, he showed potential as a run-stuffing defensive end with some pocket collapsing talent.
Kroy Biermann and Cliff Matthews should also see some time at the position this year, and Tyler Starr could even be a dark horse in this rotation. Walker May has the most potential to make the roster here, but it’s doubtful he sees enough snaps to earn the spot.
4-3 Weak-Side Defensive End/3-4 Weak-Outside Linebacker
Starter: Jonathan Massaquoi
Backups: Osi Umenyiora, Tyler Starr
Camp Body: Jacques Smith
Jonathan Massaquoi looks like he has usurped Osi Umenyiora at weak-outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignments and starting weak-side defensive end in the 4-3 alignments. Massaquoi is a third-year player from Troy and has improved his game every year since he came into the league.
Umenyiora looks like nothing but a rotational guy at this point in his career, as his run defense was apathetically atrocious at best last year. Tyler Starr should have an opportunity to rotate in with this grouping and Jacques Smith should see some snaps during training camp to help keep guys fresh.
4-3 Weak-Side Linebacker/3-4 Weak-Inside Linebacker
Starter: Joplo Bartu
Backups: Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill
With the loss of Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons had to shuffle Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo over to the weak-inside linebacker role. Bartu should easily win the job when they do 4-3 alignments as a weak-side linebacker because of his speed.
But Shembo has a unique fit as a weak-inside linebacker because he understands how to blitz and attack from multiple angles. Marquis Spruill could also end up being a dark horse for the starting role due to his speed, but he would have to drastically improve his coverage ability and block-shedding first.
4-3 Middle Linebacker/3-4 Strong-Inside Linebacker
Starter: Paul Worrilow
Backups: Prince Shembo, Yawin Smallwood, Tim Dobbins
Camp Body: Brenden Daley
Last season, Paul Worrilow was just trying to make the roster and show that he could compete on special teams and as a reserve. Now, he’s the most likely candidate to wear the green dot on his helmet, signifying that he’s the defensive play-caller.
The question lies in who his backup is going to be. As of now, rookie draft picks Prince Shembo and Yawin Smallwood look to be good fits as his primary backup. Tim Dobbins looks to be fighting for a roster spot in camp but should make it for special teams prowess. Rookie free agent Brenden Daley has an uphill battle.
Starter: Kroy Biermann
Backups: Joplo Bartu, Stansly Maponga, Tyler Starr
Camp Bodies: Walker May, Jacques Smith
At strong-side linebacker, the Falcons will likely go with the supremely versatile Biermann in both their base 3-4 and 4-3 looks. However, in pass-rush sets, Biermann should end up as a down lineman or a blitzing linebacker. He is coming off of an Achilles injury and may not be 100 percent, though.
If Shembo earns the weak-inside spot, expect Bartu to compete for the starting role over Biermann. Stansly Maponga and Starr should be looked at to rotate in here to keep everyone fresh, and the combination of Walker May and Smith should see some reps in camp.
Designated Outside Pass-Rusher in Sub-Packages
Starter: Osi Umenyiora
Backups: Stansly Maponga, Tyler Starr
Camp Bodies: Walker May, Jacques Smith
Umenyiora looks like the prime candidate this year to be the designated pass-rusher. Last season, he was a starting weak-side defensive end, but he was eventually replaced by this year’s likely starting weak-outside linebacker in Massaquoi.
With the switch to more 3-4 looks, it’s unlikely that Umenyiora will be depended upon in base sets. Maponga and Starr are developmental projects at different points in their development and should see some playing time this year. May and Smith are camp bodies.
Starter: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford
Backups: Ricardo Allen, Robert McClain, Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas
Camp Bodies: Devonta Glover-Wright, Jordan Mabin
Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford were specifically drafted to be the long-term starters and were the primary starters in 2013. The competition behind them is ridiculous, though.
Ricardo Allen and Robert McClain are both young talents with great potential and slot abilities. Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas have both been nickel corners and starters on different NFL teams. However, neither needs to really be the starter at this point in his career. Devonta Glover-Wright and Jordan Mabin will have to drastically exceed expectations before they earn a spot on the roster.
Nickel Defensive Back
Starter: Robert McClain
Backups: Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas, Ricardo Allen, Dezmen Southward
Mike Nolan loves running nickel sets—to the point where his nickelback is essentially more of a starter than his third linebacker or nose tackle would be. During the preseason, the Falcons should have five different guys competing for the role.
McClain was the starter there last year, but Wilson and Arenas have experience in the NFL at the position. Allen has the perfect skill set for it as a playmaking zone corner. Dezmen Southward provides an intriguing option as that "Wolverine-style" third safety who can also play corner.
Starter: Dwight Lowery
Backup: Dezmen Southward
Camp Body: Kimario McFadden
Free safety will be the best battle on the Falcons roster this year. Dwight Lowery is the early look as the front-runner, as he's the only one with any sort of experience as a free safety in the NFL. Southward has great speed and size but is very raw.
Southward needs at least a season of learning the position and gaining experience against real NFL talent. If he can get up to speed quickly, the Falcons could go with the rangy safety as the starter to help provide umbrella coverages. McFadden is also rangy, but he doesn't have the same raw skills as Southward.
Starter: William Moore
Backups: Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael
Camp Body: Sean Baker
William Moore is the unquestioned starter and leader of the secondary. He's someone who will be a captain for the defense and will help ease the loss of Weatherspoon off the field. Moore also has a skill set that allows him to play either strong or free safety.
Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael are both going to compete for a job as Moore's backup. Motta may even be able to be kept on the roster if he loses the job due to a neck injury that he sustained. Meanwhile, Sean Baker looks to be nothing more than a camp body at this point.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' premium stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.