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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Minnesota | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tennessee
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
It would be easy to throw out statistics to make the point of how bad the Falcons have been on defense over the last several years. In 2022 they finished 25th against the pass and 23rd versus the run etc. Maybe the best way to explain just how frustrating it has been for this team and their fans, the last time an Atlanta defense reached 40 sacks in a season was 2004, and they have ranked 31st or dead last in sacks five times in the last nine years, including each of the last two.
It's not as if the organization has made no effort. In fact, they have spent significant amounts of draft capital and free agent dollars on the defense over the years. For example, the Falcons have drafted five edge defenders in the first two rounds since 2015 and several more in the third through fifth rounds. Maybe they are just jinxed, but to their credit, they continue to fight.
With only the Bears recording fewer sacks in 2022, the Falcons decided that instead of throwing more draft capital at the defense, they would make another change at the top, so they hired Ryan Nielsen as their new defensive coordinator. Nielsen spent five seasons as the Saints defensive line coach before becoming a co-defensive coordinator in 2022. It remains to be seen if he can turn things around for the team, but let's just say that his Saints teams knew how to get to the quarterback. Over the six seasons Neilsen spent in New Orleans, the Saints never totaled fewer than 42 sacks with an average of 47.
Regardless of who calls the shots, it is impossible to turn a pile of horse poop into a silk purse. When a 305-pound defensive tackle is your best pass rusher, there is a personnel problem. In 2021 Atlanta totaled a mere 21 sacks, with Grady Jarrett's six as a team-high. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Carter led the team's edge defenders with four. Thus, the first step in the process is to acquire some talent for Nielsen to work with. That process started in free agency with the signings of Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree.
The Campbell addition is a rather strange one in that the team intends to play him as an edge defender in what is a predominantly 3-4 scheme. That is strange not only because Campbell will be 37 years old in September and is entering his 16th season but also because he has never played the edge in a 3-4. He was successful as a 4-3 defensive end early in his career but has been at the five-technique position in a 3-4 for the last decade plus.
Either the Falcons don't believe the old cliché that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, or they have a different plan in terms of scheme. Both Nielsen and head coach Arthur Smith have been saying that Atlanta will play a multiple defense, using a variety of fronts. They made clear the intention to play Campbell on the edge, but no one said anything about having him work from a two-point stance as a typical edge defender would in three-man fronts.
Regardless of the plan, Campbell is not the same player he was when he last recorded more than six sacks in a season back in 2018. His longevity and career numbers make it likely that Campbell will be in the Hall of Fame one day, but they don't mean he will be an IDP factor in 2023.
The addition of Dupree could be a great one, or maybe not. It all depends on if they get the Dupree that had 19.5 sacks and eight turnovers in 27 games with the Steelers in 2019 and 2020 or the one that averaged just under four and a half sacks and had two or fewer turnovers in the other six years of his career.
Dupree spent the last two years with the Titans, where he was a major disappointment after signing a big free-agent contract in 2021. He missed some games with nagging injuries and never seemed to be fully healthy, but the bottom line is that seven sacks over two seasons is not going to get it done. The fact that Dupree hasn't played a full season since 2019 is another concern. Let's just say the Falcons are far more optimistic about this addition than I am.
Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie, and DeAngelo Malone make up the rest of the depth chart on the outside. All three figure to see at least rotational action with the hope that one of them will blossom in the new scheme. Carter spent his first four years with the Giants, where he was a contributor but was not a difference-maker. There is no reason to expect more from him going forward.
Ebiketie was a second-round pick last spring. His rookie numbers were disappointing at 21-9-2 on over 500 snaps, but the organization has high hopes that he will step up in year two. His college production suggests that is a good possibility. Ebiketie had ten and a half sacks in 13 games at Temple in 2020 before transferring to Penn State for his senior year, where he added nine and a half more. It is common for rookies at the edge positions to start slowly and improve considerably in year two.
Malone didn't see a lot of action in his first season, but last year's third-round pick comes with an impressive resume. In four years as a starter at Western Kentucky, he racked up 324 combined tackles, 32.5 sacks, and 10 turnovers. The numbers are eye-catching, and the experience is a plus, even though it did not come against top-level competition.
Both second-year players have potential and could eventually become starting bookends. That said, when thinking about young pass rushers the Falcons have drafted in recent years, it's hard not to get visions of Tak McKinley and Vic Beasley, who were titanic busts. I simply can't get excited about either of these guys until they show something.
The only safe IDP target among Atlanta's defensive line is Grady Jarrett. When it comes to the battle in the trenches, the low man usually wins. At 6-foot-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 with a combination of power and enough wiggle to also contribute as a pass rusher. With 33.5 sacks over his eight NFL seasons, Jarrett is a proven commodity and has consistently been a borderline DT1 or a quality second starter for those in tackle-required leagues.
David Onyemata followed Nielsen over from New Orleans. Like Jarrett, Onyemata is more than just a big body to take up space. He contributed 23 sacks in six seasons as a starter for the Saints, working at both defensive tackle positions during his time there. Onyemata is a candidate for the nose tackle position with the Falcons but is not locked into that spot. Considering the team's options, it would not be a surprise to see him and Jarrett in the field in some nickel situations. Onyemata was borderline roster worthy as a third tackle during his time with the Saints. He could resume that status in Atlanta with the potential for a little boost in production.
- Edge Calais Campbell – Good story, but don't count on much production
- Edge Bud Dupree – DL2 potential with a lot of risk
- Edge Arnold Ebiketie – Watchlist worthy
- Edge DeAngelo Malone – Watchlist worthy
- Edge Adetokunbo Ogundeji – No impact
- DT Grady Jarrett – Low-end DT1 or priority DT2
- DT David Onyemata – Borderline DT3 with a little upside
- DT Ta'Quon Graham – Marginal impact expected
- DT Timmy Horne – No impact expected
- DT Eddie Goldman – No impact
Atlanta's linebacker situation is filled with possibilities, but there are a lot of unknowns. Rashaan Evans played nearly every snap in 2022, going 88-73-2 with 4 turnovers. With an average of 12.3 points per game, he was the eleventh-ranked linebacker. Evans is gone, presumably leaving the position to second-year man Troy Andersen, or at least that was the plan under the last defensive coordinator. Chances are, it still is the plan, but the coaching change adds a touch of mystery to the equation.
Andersen put up impressive numbers at Montana State, but not all of them were at linebacker. He made starts at four positions during his college career, including quarterback, running back, inside linebacker, and outside linebacker, making starts on both sides of the ball in the same game at times. Andersen is an outstanding, versatile athlete with the combination of size, speed, smarts, and heart that coaches drool over. If John Madden were still with us, he would say Andersen is simply a football player.
Andersen lit up the box scores wherever he played in college and won a laundry list of awards along the way, including first-team All-Big Sky conference at outside linebacker in 2019, first-team All-Big Sky conference at inside linebacker, along with conference defensive player of the year, and first-team All-American in 2021.
Andersen is believed to be the future of the inside linebacker position in Atlanta and has a good shot at being a special one. The only thing that kept him from playing more last year was a lack of experience. His success as a college linebacker was a combination of raw ability, intelligence, determination, and lesser competition. He did not transition to the position full-time until his final season, so even with a year in the NFL under his belt, Andersen is somewhat raw. The Falcons are not going to win a lot of games this year, but Andersen could be a bright spot for them and a sign of better things to come.
Both the Falcons and Saints played with two linebackers on the field nearly 100% of the time in 2022. That bodes well for the chances of Atlanta doing the same in 2023. The question is, will they choose between Kaden Elliss and Mychal Walker, or will they share the playing time like Walker and Andersen did a year ago in Atlanta and Elliss and Pete Werner did in New Orleans?
Both Walker and Elliss were highly productive on a per-snap basis last year. Walker posted 107 combined stops with a sack, 3 turnovers, and six passes defended on 769 plays. Had he seen a full share of playing time, that would have put him at roughly 82-71-2 with 5 turnovers and 13.7 points per game. Doing the same math on Elliss takes his 45-33-7 with 2 forced fumbles on 630 plays and makes it 78-58-12 with 4 turnovers and an average of 12.7 points per game in an every-down role. The moral of this story is that both of these players are very capable of strong IDP value. We just need to see how the playing time breaks down and hope it's not a split that ruins them both.
Because he played under Nielsen in New Orleans, Elliss might have the upper hand in the competition entering camp, but I see Walker as an NFL-level starter and believe he is the better option of the two in coverage. This situation is at or very near the top of the training camp watch list. For those drafting before we get an answer on this situation, it might not be a bad idea to pick up both of these guys in the late rounds and sit on them until we know the plan.
- ILB Troy Andersen – Huge upside with a little risk
- ILB Mykal Walker – Love him as a late-round sleeper that no one is talking about
- ILB Kaden Elliss – Pick him up late if we don't have an answer before you draft
- ILB Tae Davis – No impact
- ILB Andre Smith – No impact
The Falcons are looking at three new starters in the secondary. Free agent additions Jesse Bates and Jeff Okudah will be at free safety and corner, respectively, and with both Casey Hayward and Isaiah Oliver gone, someone new will be working the slot. That could be Darren Hall, who started for much of last season, veteran Dee Alford, free agent pickup Tre Flowers or the infamous player to be named later.
IDP managers had not seen much production from the Falcons secondary since Keanu Neal left town. That changed last year when Richie Grant moved to strong safety and made the top ten. Grant played sparingly as a rookie, working mostly at free safety when he did get on the field. He never had that big breakout game that grabs everyone's attention, so he flew largely under the radar. At the end of the season, it was surprising to see he had accumulated 71 solo tackles with 53 assists, 7 passes defended, and four takeaways.
At six feet and 200 pounds, Grant is not particularly big but is a physical tackler who worked at both safety spots during his college career. While at UFC, Grant was at his best when working as the high safety, where his coverage and ball-hawking skills were on display, but he has never been shy about sticking his shoulder into a ball carrier in run support. With Bates a lock at free safety, there is no risk that Grant will be moved back there, so another strong season is a fair expectation.
Jesse Bates is one of the league's best free safeties. He is a ball hawk with 19 takeaways over five seasons and will make plenty of plays in run support if needed. Over his first three years in Cincinnati, Bated was an IDP stud with top-ten finishes in each. Then the Bengals started playing well on both sides of the ball, and his target-rich environment faded away. Now that he is back on a struggling team with a defense that's still in rebuild mode, his production could return. The word, could, is important in that Bates is not a sure thing. Bad as they were last year, Jaylinn Hawkins could only muster 45 solo tackles and 39 assists at the position.
Since Bates did a vanishing act last year, recording a meager 38 solo stops and 33 assists, he is off the radar of many managers. There is no guarantee with him, but unless he is somehow restricted by the scheme, he should return to form. Don't hesitate to take a shot on Bates as a third starter with upside.
Atlanta's corners gave us little to work with in 2022 when none of them put up more than 5.9 points per game. A.J. Terrell led the way at 5.8 and is a great example of the rookie corner rule. As a rookie in 2020, he racked up 62 solo stops, 13 assists, 7 pass breakups, and 4 splash plays. In year two, the solos dropped to 52, his assists were up, and he added 16 pass breakups and 5 takeaways. Terrell missed three games last year, but when he played, his numbers were down across the board. Terrell's numbers could rebound a little, but with Jeff Okudah at the other corner, I don't expect Terrell to be thrown at all that much.
Okudah was the third overall pick of the Lions in 2020. He was so-so as a rookie, missed virtually all of year two, and was fairly productive last year, at least statistically. At 59-14 with 7 passes defended and 2 turnovers, he cracked the top 20 corners in 2022.
While the numbers made him a solid second starter for IDP managers, the Lions organization was less than impressed. Teams don't use that kind of draft capital on a guy and then let him go after three seasons, at least not without a good reason. That reason is why offenses kept picking on him last year. A new beginning in a different scheme could be a great thing for Okudah, or it could be an opportunity for IDP managers to take advantage of a situation and pick up a solid second starter.
The nickel back position is wide open as we near training camp. Expect several players to get a look in that role, possibly including safety Jaylin Hawkins.
- SS Richie Grant – Solid DB2 with low DB1 ceiling
- FS Jessie Bates III – Target as a third starter or depth, don't be surprised if he produces far better
- FS Jaylinn Hawkins – No impact
- SS DeMarcco Hellams – Developmental rookie
- CB A.J. Terrell – Marginal value expected
- CB Jeff Okudah – Possible CB2
- CB Dee Alford – No impact
- CB Darren Hall – No impact
- CB Tre Flowers – No impact
That does it for Part 21 of this year's preseason offering. The Saints are up next.
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