The Falcons are set to experience an incredible amount of roster turnover. Atrittion is natural in the NFL, but Terry Fontenot exclusively handed out one-year deals — outside of Mike Davis — last spring. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball, Atlanta might have to replace a bevy of starters.
The Falcons’ defense leads the entire league in snaps coming from impending free agents. Atlanta will have to replace Foye Oluokun’s 98% of all defensive snaps, Duron Harmon‘s 91%, Fabian Moreau‘s 88%, Erik Harris‘ 64%, Steven Means‘ 58%, and Dante Fowler‘s 44%. Six defensive starters and a plethora of other rotational players are set to hit free agency.
Dean Pees’ unit was one of the worst in the league, so a bit of turnover could benefit the Falcons. The only issue with that is the cap restraints Fontenot will once again be forced to work around. Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus presented three impending free-agent defenders the Falcons could sign.
Which defensive free agents raised their stock the most in 2021?
Where could they end up this offseason?
– Jacob Martin to the Falcons?
– Charles Harris to the Giants?
– D.J. Jones to the Bills? Browns?
– Eli Apple to the Steelers?
Plus many more…https://t.co/aBiGJ83Z3X
— Brad Spielberger, Esq. (@PFF_Brad) January 18, 2022
Jacob Martin, Houston Texans
Martin may be best known for getting traded to the Texans by the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for Jadeveon Clowney, but he’s carved out a solid career in his new home despite the turmoil around him.
Martin was drafted as an undersized 4-3 defensive end before quickly shifting to a primarily 3-4 base defense in Houston under Romeo Crennel, though Crennel is not married to his base personnel — much like his longtime partner Bill Belichick. In 2021, the Texans deployed Lovie Smith’s patented Tampa-2 defense behind a four-man front, and Martin recorded a career-high 67.3 grade in his first season as a starter to go along with 38 quarterback pressures.
The teams below are creative and multiple with their looks upfront, and the Atlanta Falcons, in particular, are in desperate need of help on the edge at a cheaper price point.
Given Martin’s affordable price tag, he makes sense financially. Schematically, Martin has experience in even- and odd-man fronts. Both bode well for what the Falcons are trying to do. Dean Pees loves versatile defenders, particularly those who can move up and down the defensive front, which Martin seems able to do.
Uchenna Nwosu, Los Angeles Chargers
Nwosu delivered the best stretch of his career during the second half of the 2021 season, and it was perfect timing. From Week 8 through the end of the season, Nwosu did not record a single game grade below 65.0 — a remarkable run of consistency at any position. His 27 quarterback pressures over the final 11 weeks of the season were as many as he’s accumulated in any full season prior.
The Chargers’ lack of talent along the defensive line outside of Joey Bosa is an ongoing problem, but Nwosu stepped up in a major way down the stretch. Nwosu handled becoming a starter quite admirably, as he posted a career-high 68.5 pass-rush grade. He can also effectively drop into coverage on a handful of snaps a game, as he allowed just 32 receiving yards from six receptions for the season, making him a strong fit for teams employing a 3-4 defensive front.
How many times did Falcons fans watch Steven Means drop into coverage and get burned? In Pees defense, outside linebackers are sometimes tasked with dropping into coverage, but they don’t have the personnel to be that flexible. According to Spielberger, Nwosu is capable of doing just that. Producing 27 pressures in just 11 games is impressive regardless of who you’re playing next to (Joey Bosa), so it could be an avenue worth exploring for Fontenot.
CB Eli Apple, Cincinnati Bengals
Apple has bounced around the league a bit after the Giants drafted him with the No. 10 overall pick in 2016, but his talent is starting to shine through in Cincinnati. A lot of well-deserved attention has been given to edge defender Trey Hendrickson, who was a slam-dunk free agent signing for the Bengals last offseason, but Apple, fellow outside cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and slot cornerback Mike Hilton have been great additions in their own right.
Since Week 11, Apple’s 79.3 coverage grade ranks 14th among cornerbacks with at least 100 snaps over the span, and his 14.3% force incompletion rate since Week 11 ranks 25th.
Signing Apple is going to come with ups and downs, but that’s also one aspect of his value. He can shake off a bad rep or a bad game and bounce back in a major way, continuing to talk as much smack as any cornerback in the NFL in the process. While many wide corners have a preference, Apple is actually capable of excelling on either side of the field, if necessary.
The Falcons signed Fabian Moreau last offseason to handle duties opposite A.J. Terrell. For me, bringing Moreau back on a similar team-friendly, one-year deal is worth it. He played acceptable considering his price tag; however, Fontenot has a connection to Apple as the two resided in New Orleans for a couple of seasons. If anyone knows what Apple is capable of being, it is Fontenot.