Even if the Atlanta Falcons select a defensive left end in the third round Friday night, filling what many observers feel is the team's most pressing need, the club is still likely to try to essentially fill the void in free agency.
Remember, the Falcons surrendered their second-rounder to Cleveland as part of the mega-package to move up 21 spots in the first round on Thursday night and to choose Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. So the options at left end in the third round, particularly players who might quickly contribute, could be iffy at best.
Still, a number of league sources told The Sports Xchange on Thursday night and early Friday morning that they expect Atlanta to choose the veteran route to try to address the left end need. And the player many expect the Falcons to target when the veteran free agency period eventually begins is Ray Edwards of Minnesota.
Any pursuit of Edwards, 26, could be tricky because his status as a free agent is tied to a new collective bargaining agreement or to the rules the league imposes as part of re-opening for business after the lockout. A five-year veteran, Edwards can only be an unfettered veteran if there is an agreement which reduces the number of accrued seasons for unrestricted free agency to four years.
Four years was the prior requirement, but the uncapped season in 2010 raised the level to six years, and the league could decide to play under those guidelines again.
Edwards was offered a one-year restricted free agent tender, at $2.521 million, by the Vikings, but obviously would prefer to be unrestricted. If he gains the latter status, the Falcons could chase him and pair him with right end John Abraham, the 11-year veteran who enjoyed a resurgent campaign in 2010 with 13 sacks.
Owner Arthur Blank, as he has demonstrated in the past, most recently with corner Dunta Robinson last spring, is not shy about opening his coffers to target and pay a premier free agent. The Falcons awarded Robinson a six-year, $57 million contract, with $25.5 million guaranteed, last year. The price tag for Edwards, if the Falcons do go after him, will also be pricey. But Blank wants a Super Bowl champion, and as illustrated Thursday night with the Jones deal, is willing to go "all in" to get one.
A fourth-round choice from Purdue in 2006, Edwards is regarded as one of the NFL's top left ends, and a productive pass rusher. He has five or more sacks in each of the last four seasons, which coincides with his tenure as a starter. The last two years, Edwards has 16.5 sacks. He had a career-best 8.5 sacks in 2009.
The lack of pass rush from the left end spot in 2010 was a glaring deficiency for the Falcons and certainly contributed to the club registering only 31 sacks for the season. Only 10 teams notched fewer. The trio of players who had quarterback kills at left end for the Falcons - Kroy Biermann, Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis - totaled just six sacks as a group.
Biermann regressed as a rusher, netting only three sacks, while starting 14 games. The previous season, he had five sacks as a situational player.
There is still some hope that third-year veteran Lawrence Sidbury, a fourth-round choice in 2009, might develop into a viable rusher. But Sidbury has just one sack in 22 appearances, and no starts, in two seasons. So the Falcons could turn to a proven commodity, and many, even in the Atlanta organization, seem to feel that Edwards might be the target.
Add to that the fact that Abraham is now 33 and the team in the next few years may need to find a replacement, and the consideration that Edwards has conceded in the past that he wants to play right end at some point in his career.
In his five NFL seasons, Edwards has 182 tackles, 29.5 sacks, 11 passes deflected, six forced fumbles and two recoveries. He has appeared in 72 games, with 58 of them as a starter.
--Len Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange