Yesterday, I talked about the three key players for the Falcons offense to be successful. Now, it’s time to do the defensive side, which undoubtedly has many more question marks, making it much more challenging to pick just three players. If you missed yesterday’s piece on the keys to Atlanta’s offense, click here.
The Falcons took A.J. Terrell 16th overall, and it received mixed reviews. Some scouts believe he’s as pro-ready to start from day one as any cornerback outside of Jeff Okudah. Others were adamant that the Falcons reached for need. For everybody’s sake, especially the current regime’s, let’s hope it is the former.
Looking at the Falcons current cornerback group, Terrell has to step in and start on the outside from the get-go. That’s going to be even more difficult since the offseason will be shortened severely. If he’s not at least serviceable, there’s no way this Falcons defense can hold it together.
Isaiah Oliver, the other starting cornerback on the outside, was better in the second half of last season but was still abused in the first half. There’s hope that he can ride his success at the end of last year into 2020, but that’s far from a guarantee. The other primary corner looks to be Kendal Sheffield, who had an up and down rookie year in 2019. Dan Quinn said he believes Sheffield can be a #1 corner, but coaches have said that about many players that ended up flopping. Terrell has to hold his own for 16 weeks, or it could be a mess from start to finish for Atlanta’s defense.
There’s something about the Falcons defense that is just different when Keanu Neal is on the field and healthy. Atlanta has plenty of depth at safety, so if he’s not the same player after back-to-back season-ending injuries, they should be just fine at the position, but they won’t be able to make up for the X-factor he brings. The physicality and swagger Neal adds cannot be defined on the stat sheet. He makes receivers think twice about coming over the middle and forces running backs to stop fighting for extra yards, just look at what he did on this play to Derrick Henry in college.
That cannot be replicated. The Falcons have desperately missed Neal’s presence over the past two seasons. They need him healthy in 2020.
Dante Fowler, Jr.
Many other players could have made this list, but Atlanta’s pass rush has been a deficiency since 2004. It’s been unbelievable how poor they’ve been at sacking the quarterback over the last decade. Since John Abraham, they haven’t had a high-quality pass rusher, and that has to change for their defense to be successful. The Falcons paid Dante Fowler Jr. like a top of the line pass rusher; now, he needs to perform like one. With Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson, and Takk McKinley in the fold, this group has some potential, but Fowler has to be what the Falcons thought they had initially in Vic Beasley.