The Falcons’ roster in 2020 isn’t going to have that much turnover. The offense has solidified their starters at essentially every position outside of center and guard, especially after the signing of Mike Davis. Most of the changes will come on defense, with multiple starters departing via cap casualties or free agency. Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Darqueze Dennard, Steven Means, and Allen Bailey played significant time for the defense at some point in either a starting or rotational role.
Terry Fontenot has already begun replacing some of those snaps by signing Erik Harris, Jonathan Copeland, and most recently, Barkevious Mingo to one-year deals, which are relatively cheap contracts for how much they’re expected to play. Harris, as the roster stands, will be a de facto starting safety. He’s an exceptional leader and communicator that can also contribute on special teams. Copeland and Mingo will likely have smaller roles in Pees’ defense, but they are versatile linebackers that can also help out with special teams.
We will compare the Falcons’ roster with those three players as it stands today to the 2018 Titans’ defense. Obviously, there will be more additions to the defense before the start of the season, so this is a benchmark for where the defense was and will be after the offseason. I decided against using the Pees’ most recent 2019 Titans’ defense because the prior year, the unit was third in the league in points allowed, and Falcons fans need to see how much he can squeeze out of his personnel.
Beginning in the trenches, we will compare the interior lines, which would be nose tackles, defensive tackles, and defensive ends. The Titans trotted out Daquan Jones, Jurrell Casey, and Austin Johnson for most of their base personnel. Jones and Johnson were better against the run than rushing the passer, as the pair combined for one sack in 2018. Casey is a menace at stopping the run and can also rush the passer with the best of them from the inside, recording seven sacks. The three interior linemen the Falcons might role out are Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, and John Cominsky. Jarrett is equally as disruptive in the run game as he is rushing the passer, and the other two are equally as valuable as Jones and Johnson. Overall, there is no advantage for either side.
The linebackers that started that year for the Titans were Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard on the inside, while Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan lined up outside. Brown was elite in coverage and rushing the passer in 2018 but struggled to defend the run. Woodyard was elite against the run and in coverage but struggled to rush the passer. I would say the pair of Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokon are superior in every facet of the game — Woodyard might be better against the run, but that would be the only thing. Brown and Woodyard combined for 10.5 sacks that year. In comparison, Debo and Foye totaled 7.5 sacks in a defense that didn’t use the inside linebackers as pass rushers very often — advantage: Falcons inside linebackers.
Orakpo’s final year was a disappointing one, recording only 1.5 sacks in 2018, but he graded out averagely according to PFF. Morgan had a similar year, totaling just one sack. They were both average at best and weren’t on the team the following season. The Falcons reworked Dante Fowler‘s contract, and he is expected to be the starting outside linebacker in Pees’ defense. There is hope he returns to the play that earned him the three-year $48 million contract a year ago, but last year was not encouraging — hence the pay cut. The starter opposite of him has yet to be named, but Jonathan Copeland, Mykal Walker, and Oluokon can play that position. This is another position where I don’t see much of an advantage for either side.
Things get a little lopsided on the back end, as the Titans’ defensive backs are superior to the Falcons in every facet. Tennessee’s safeties that year were Kenny Vacarro and Kevin Byard, who were both exceptional for Dean Pees as they were able to defend against the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage. Though Vacarro wasn’t his very best, they are far superior to Erik Harris and Jaylinn Hawkins.
The Titans deployed more nickel personnel in 2018 than anyone in the league with Logan Ryan, Adoree Jackson, and Malcolm Butler. Ryan and Jackson were on the outside while Butler handled the nickel role because he was better suited to blitz and help support the run than the other two. Ryan was elite when he did rush the passer and had an above-average grade in coverage. Jackson was only serviceable in coverage while being a complete liability in the run game.
AJ Terrell, Kendall Sheffield, and Isaiah Oliver are the top three cornerbacks on the Falcons roster. Terrell had an up and down year, which is expected from a rookie, but showed flashes in every facet of the game. He will have to become more consistent with his technique, but an improved pass rush will eliminate some of his miscues. Oliver was better supporting the run and rushing the passer than dropping into coverage, which makes me think he could be valuable to Pees’ defense as a nickel corner. Sheffield hasn’t progressed much and shouldn’t be expected to start opposite Terrell. Once again, the Titans have a clear advantage in this area.
The front seven’s of these two defenses aren’t too different in terms of talent, but the secondary is obviously lacking in Atlanta. Expect that to be the focus of the Falcons as we approach the draft in April. As we get closer to the season, I will come back to this article and compare if the offseason acquisitions have made any difference.
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