The Falcons may have more talent and depth on the defensive line depth chart than any team since at least the 2004 season (the Patrick Kerney/Rod Coleman-led front) or possibly 1998 (the Super Bowl team in which four starting linemen -- Chuck Smith, Lester Archambeau, Travis Hall and Shane Dronett -- combined for 29.5 sacks).
"This is the most fired up I've been about a group of d-linemen," said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who's in his 10th season.
That's why it's likely we've seen the last of Dwight Freeney in a Falcons' uniform.
Dimitroff wouldn't make that declaration Monday when he made an appearance at the DeKalb YMCA to help build bicycles for youth and raise awareness about a cycling program, "Future Wheels." He reiterated coach Dan Quinn's comments about wanting to evaluate the current group of linemen before deciding whether to bring Freeney back for a second season.
But it became clear Freeney, a lock Hall of Famer, would be signed only as an emergency option if the Falcons suffer injuries in training camp or the exhibition season, or if others don't play close to the expectation level of Quinn and Dimitroff.
"Dwight respectfully aside, in any situation when you’re looking at a group, you have to get through the preseason to see where you are with injuries and where you are with development," Dimitroff said. "That’s something that’s on our mind.
"We're not going into it thinking about (Freeney). We’re going in thinking about the development of our guys, our young guys like (Takk McKinley), and merging our new guys with our team."
The Falcons, who have their first practice of training camp on Thursday, released Jonathan Babineaux and Tyson Jackson after last season. But the 37-year-old Freeney is still fighting a numbers battle. The Falcons added three linemen in the offseason, drafting McKinley in the first round and signing free agent tackle Dontari Poe and end Jack Crawford.
Teams generally keep 10 linemen, occasionally 11. The Falcons have at least nine strong candidates for roster spots: McKinley, Crawford, Vic Beasley, Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn at end; Poe, Grady Jarrett, Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw at tackle. That still leaves end/tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who found a role in Quinn's defense last season, as well as five other players on the roster.
Shelby (Achilles) and Clayborn (knee) are both coming off injuries. If either struggle, Freeney conceivably could replace one of them. McKinley continues to rehabilitate from shoulder surgery and likely will not play until the third or fourth exhibition. But Dimitroff said that will not impact the team's ability to evaluate the pass rush.
Another important factor in the decision is leadership. Freeney's snap count was limited last season but he was instrumental in Beasley's development and a mentor to the team's other young linemen. Quinn and Dimitroff are hoping Beasley, Jarrett and others take on greater leadership role to fill the void left by Freeney.
"We are focused on the group we have right now and we’re not signing him at this point," Dimitroff said. Right now, to be respectful, it’s not where our interest is. We’re trying to move forward with the players we have in place right now."
That falls short: "We're not bringing him back." But not by much.
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