- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s no secret how sorely the Atlanta Falcons need to improve their pass rush for the 2014 season.
Last season, the Falcons finished tied for 29th in the league with 32 sacks. League-leader Carolina finished with 60.
Their inability to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks had folks questioning why the Falcons ever parted ways with veteran pass-rusher John Abraham, who went to Arizona and finished in the NFL’s top 10 with 11.5 sacks.
But that’s all in the past now as the Falcons look ahead toward bolstering the defensive line for the future. The first step was adding more toughness with the hiring of new defensive line coach Bryan Cox. His no-nonsense style was evident during the Senior Bowl as he wasn’t afraid to bark at prospects either for messing up a drill or being late to a meeting with a scout.
The next step is adding more talented players to the roster. A few mock drafts as of late have the Falcons landing coveted South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the sixth overall pick. That would be the best-case scenario in the eyes of many fans. Clowney is considered the most physically gifted player in this year’s draft class.
But what about adding an edge-rusher via free agency? It would be a nice luxury to add both a seasoned veteran and Clowney, but the Falcons have more pressing needs along the offensive line. Plus, owner Arthur Blank said he doesn’t see his team making a ``big splash’’ in free agency, which would seem to rule out a player such as Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who told ESPN.com he would go anywhere that he would get paid top dollar.
There was one intriguing name of a veteran pass-rusher thrown out at the Senior Bowl. Once again, this is not necessarily a player on the Falcons’ wish list, but he was brought up in a discussion regarding the Falcons and free agency. As I was told, this player wouldn’t mind ``coming home’’ to Atlanta.
Michael Johnson, 6-7, 270, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Draft history: Third-round pick in 2009 out of Georgia Tech
Career games/starts: 79/45
The word: Johnson might be highly sought after in free agency despite having just 3.5 sacks this past season. He still managed a career-high 56 tackles, batted down eight passes, forced two fumbles and recorded an interception. Johnson’s most productive year in terms of getting to the quarterback was 2012, when he finished with 11.5 sacks.
Although Johnson is from Alabama, he obviously still had ties to Atlanta from his college days at Georgia Tech. He was taking classes at the school last spring. Whether those ties are enough to lure him to the Falcons remain unknown. But the obvious attraction for Johnson will be money. He made $11.2 million this past season after being slapped with the franchise tag. In other words, he might be out of the Falcons’ price range.
Thursday: What's in a name?