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The Falcons find themselves in rebuilding mode again, or maybe it’s still. Either way, it seems like they have been here for a while on the defensive side of the ball. Atlanta has not reached 30 sacks, had a top-20 pass defense, or finished in the league's top half versus the run since 2018.
When Dan Pees took over as the defensive coordinator last year, the Falcons were supposed to be heading in the right direction. Time will tell if that is true but they sure took a step backward in his first season. In 2020, Atlanta totaled 29 sacks. Linebacker Deion Jones led the team with four and a half while tackle Grady Jarrett led the defensive line with four. The team addressed defense early in the draft that year, but did not take a lineman or outside pass rusher until round five, nor did they invest capital on any of the top-shelf free agents. When asked how the team would improve the poor sack numbers, Pees answered that they would have to be creative. That plan did not work out well in 2021 as Atlanta’s defense produced the fewest sacks in the league. It was so bad, that their 17 sacks were 11 fewer than the next lowest total.
Getting to the quarterback was not the only thing this unit did poorly last year. They finished in the bottom third of the league in turnovers, completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, and rushing yards allowed. To cap it off, the 19 rushing touchdowns Atlanta gave up ranked 27th and only one team allowed more receiving scores. Simply put, they have a long way to go.
Pees was a 3-4 guy at his previous stops with New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee, but in a statement shortly after accepting the job, he suggested that the 3-4 or 4-3 debate would be pointless. He pointed out that his previous defenses, while often referred to as 3-4, used multiple fronts and constantly shifted based on personnel and situational matchups. Pees stated that he planned to create a scheme in Atlanta that is custom fit to the personnel. Instead, entering his second year as DC, many, if not most, of the players he inherited are gone as the organization begins the process of putting together the personnel to fit his scheme.
In 2021 the Falcons’ defensive line accounted for two sacks. One by Grady Jarrett and one by Marlon Davidson. So what have they done to improve in the trenches? Well, they signed journeyman Vincent Taylor to provide depth at nose tackle then picked up a trio of undrafted rookies to fill out the depth chart. So much for the concept of building a defensive foundation up front.
Maybe I am being a little cynical here. The organization may not have added any significant talent to the defensive line, but they have a couple of very good players in Jarrett and Davidson. Heading into last season, Jarrett had a run of five straight with at least four sacks, including six in 2018 and a career-high of seven and a half in 2019. He has been highly productive as a 4-3 tackle throughout his career and would seem to have the perfect skill set for Pees' multiple-front scheme. Jarrett’s versatility is particularly valuable in that he only needs to come off the field for a breather once in a while. On 3-4 calls he can line up as a 5-technique over the offensive tackle, then slide inside to a 3-technique when in a 4-3.
When it comes to the battle in the trenches, the low man usually wins. At 6’0” and 305 pounds, Jarrett is a quick and athletic big man with a low center of gravity and a naturally lower pad level than most blockers. He is among the league’s outstanding run defenders but has a combination of power and enough wiggle to also contribute as a pass rusher. With 27.5 sacks over his seven NFL seasons, Jarrett could bounce back nicely after a year of experience in the scheme, especially if the play of those around him improves. One thing we can always count on from him is respectable tackle numbers. Over the last five seasons, he has averaged 33 solos and 25 assists.
He was not selected by the current regime, but 2020 second-round pick, Marlon Davidson, could also prove to be a good fit in the long term. He played both tackle and defensive end during his time at Auburn, working mostly on the outside as a senior despite weighing in at 303 pounds. Davidson’s scouting report leading up to the draft suggested that he would be best suited to work at defensive end on early downs and then slide inside in passing situations. That sounds a lot like the skill set and description of a 3-4 defensive end. Davidson shed about 25 pounds heading into his rookie campaign, in hope of becoming quicker off the edge, but was still not able to get on the field much. Look for him to put some of that weight back on as he prepares for his third season.
Davidson missed time late last year while battling COVID, so his numbers appear lower than they actually were. The 2020 second-round pick has done little statistically thus far in his young career but there are reasons to believe that will change. He posted 14.5 sacks over his career at Auburn, recording 48 combined tackles and getting to the quarterback for 6.5 sacks as a senior. He is not someone we will be looking to draft but keep an eye on Davidson when the season opens, especially if he continues to hold the positional designation of tackle.
Last year’s fifth-round pick, Ta'Quon Graham has been penciled in as the starting nose tackle, though he could face competition from Anthony Rush or even Vincent Taylor. Graham is a little undersized for a nose tackle and could also see time as the third man in the defensive end mix if the 350-pound Rush lands the starting job. Regardless of how it pans out, neither Graham nor Rush project to have much box score impact.
The Falcons’ starting defensive line could improve considerably even without a talent infusion. An injury might be brutal for them though. Behind the four guys expected to play a lot, they have one veteran in Taylor and a collection of first or second-year undrafted players with little or no NFL experience.
- DE/DT Grady Jarrett – Low-end DT1 or depth as DL, expect some bounceback in the sack column
- DE/DT Marlon Davidson – Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
- DE/DT Ta'Quon Graham – Marginal impact expected
- NT Anthony Rush – No impact
- NT Timmy Horne – Undrafted rookie project
- NT Vincent Taylor – No impact
- DE Nich Thurman – No impact
- DE/DT Bryce Rodgers – Undrafted rookie project
- DE/DT Derrick Tangelo – Undrafted rookie project
Atlanta’s inside linebacker situation is clear as mud as training camps approach. The first question that has to be answered to solve the riddle, is will Deion Jones be part of the equation? As is often the case, money lies at the root of the issue. Jones has a cap number north of $20 million with $13.64 million guaranteed. With $63 million in dead money on the books already, the organization is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not to mention that Jones will miss most or all of the offseason program after having shoulder surgery. The team would like to trade him but the salary is prohibitive. They will consider cutting him, but the big cap hit makes that prohibitive as well. Unfortunately, there is no end to the dilemma in sight, so the issue may not be settled until late August when final cuts are made.
This is what we know as of June. If Jones is on the roster and healthy come Week 1, he will be in the Falcons’ starting lineup and should turn in another strong season for IDP managers. This is a guy that, except for an injury-shortened 2018, has never fallen short of 100 combined tackles, and has 17 takeaways, 8.5 sacks, 43 passes defended, and 5 defensive touchdowns in six seasons. Providing the shoulder is good, he is going to play somewhere. So even if he is released after we draft him, Jones is not going to be a bust. At least not for the entire season.
If Jones remains with the team, we still have to figure out who will replace IDP stud Foye Oluokun who signed with Jacksonville. If Jones is not there, we have two high-profile IDP spots open to new starters. Either way, we need to get familiar with the candidates.
Batchelor one is 2020 fourth-round pick, Mykal Walker. At 49-34-0 with 3 takeaways, 5 pass breakups, and a score, over two seasons, his numbers have not been eye-popping as a pro. At least not before considering that Walker has played 588 total snaps. That amounts to roughly half a season as a three-down starter. In terms of both tackles and fantasy points per snap, Walker has outproduced Jones and virtually equaled Oluokun over the last two seasons. He was drafted by the previous regime but is an NFL-caliber starter that can play all three downs and carries a ton of IDP potential.
Batchelor two is Free-agent addition, Rashaan Evans. A first-round pick of the Titans in 2018, Evans never quite lived up to expectations. He earned a starting role in 2019 and 2020, posting decent numbers in the tackle columns but was not a playmaker. Evans played in most sub-packages in 2019 but was relegated to a two-down role in 2020 until Jayon Brown was injured. The Titans soured on Evans, benching him altogether at times in 2021 and electing not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract.
Batchelor three is free-agent addition Nick Kwiatkoski. A fourth-round pick of the Bears in 2016, Kwiatkoski spent his first four seasons as the top backup at all three positions in Chicago’s 4-3. He played well in several short stints when others were injured and stayed on the field in many sub-packages. Kwiatkoski put up good numbers while in the lineup but was never able to lock down a starting gig. His best production came with Chicago in 2019 when he started eight games, played 518 snaps, and put up a rather impressive stat line of 57-19-3 with a pair of turnovers and 3 passes defended. Kwiatkoski signed with the Raiders in 2020 where he was expected to be a starter but once again, was unable to hold the job long-term. He will be an underdog in this competition but could have good IDP value if he lands a significant role.
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