New Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has succeeded at many places around the NFL. Like MANY many. He's had six different stints as a DC plus a head coaching gig, with all but his Redskins spell in the late-'90s regarded as successful. Pending this offseason's roster moves, it's hard to foresee a 2012 in which Atlanta's defense isn't expected to exceed its No. 18 ranking from 2011.
The Falcons will reportedly remain a 4-3 team for now (Mike Smith was previously adement about keeping the current system in place), but what if Nolan and Smith agree Atlanta should switch to a primarily 3-4 set on running downs at some point in the future?
Nolan ran a first-year 3-4 with success in Denver in 2009, but the 2010 Dolphins defense could be a better look at what's coming Atlanta's way. Miami developed a modified 3-4/4-3 hybrid for that year, shifting to a more traditional 3-4 for 2011. Then again, his 49ers, who'd began the 3-4 move in 2005, shifted back to more of a 4-3 by 2008.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said about his scheme that he'll adapt his attack to the current personnel. If Nolan follows the same model, he'll likely incorporate 3-4 principles into the current arrangement instead of revamping the entire front seven right away.
The Falcons don't have any players who fit the classic nose tackle model, the system's most critical piece. Even 307-pound Vance Walker is at least 35 pounds too slim and a couple inches too short. A slimmer Corey Peters and a stronger Ray Edwards could perhaps work as 3-4 ends, who need to be taller and heavier than 4-3 edge rushers. A player like Kroy Biermann or maybe Lawrence Sidbury could convert back to that Jack linebacker/end role (which Biermann played in college), while Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton could fit into any scheme. Among current players, Stephen Nicholas may project as a Sam linebacker for now, which means he'd need to both cover tight ends and stand as the point man against strong side runs.
John Abraham could be on his way out anyway due to free agency. He has experience in a 3-4, and has spent the last few years doing much more roaming than the average 4-3 end thanks to Brian VanGorder's fire zone-heavy system. But if all this transition were to happen anyway, a shift could mean the end of the Abe era.
By my count, the Falcons would need to bring on at least three players (a nose tackle, a true 3-4 end and a true 3-4 Jack backer) to run a 3-4 effectively. That's not going to be easy to do in one offseason with only five draft picks and no first-rounder, plus an offensive line hole that needs to be filled, not to mention perhaps two new starters in the secondary. I'd be surprised if the Falcons did anything in 2012 more than tie 3-4 elements into the current set while planning for a future conversion.
The idea of becoming the only 3-4 team in the NFC South, though? Very exciting, if that ends up being what the plan is.