The Falcons defense is undergoing a makeover. Outside the countless positions that will be upgraded this offseason, the coaching staff will only return Frank Bush from the 2022 group. Ryan Nielsen and Jerry Gray will spearhead that side of the ball, and the team boasts the second-most cap space in the league to go along with an arsenal of draft capital. There will be new faces.
After another lackluster year, a total overhaul seems appropriate for the defense. And it seems the Falcons found an inspiring character to lead the group in Nielsen. The former Saints co-defensive coordinator had his press introduction on Monday, and of all the information presented, all I could think about was how he reminded me of Dan Campbell.
His intensity at the podium was palpable, which is much different than Dean Pees, who said all he needed to say with his demeanor. In response to a question about the fit of the coaching staff, Nielsen began with, “Hard, tough, physical, aggressive…” and continued by stating the defense will be an attacking style unit at every position. It’s fair to be excited about the passion Nielsen coaches with, but I’m here to tell you that it won’t be enough unless there is a significant investment in that side of the ball.
I’m a firm believer that defense in the NFL is more about Jimmys and Joes than Xs and Os; there might not be a group more deficient of talent than Atlanta’s defense. There isn’t a single position group that doesn’t need either starting-caliber talent or rotational depth.
The defensive front needs both. Grady Jarrett and Ta’Quon Graham are a great start along the interior, but there’s no obvious nose tackle to play the zero- and one-technique. The depth is also nonexistent. On the edge, the hope is Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone take substantial steps in their respective development. Ade Ogundeji didn’t experience a breakout like Graham, and it could happen in 2023, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s not exactly an inspiring unit.
On the second level, Troy Andersen showed his inexperience last year after replacing Mykal Walker as the starter. And those are the only two linebackers under contract in 2023. The Falcons will have to add to the position — starters and depth.
The secondary might not look like it needs much because four starters are returning, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. AJ Terrell is an obvious building block. Casey Hayward could actually be a cap casualty. He’s coming off a serious injury and will be 34 years old for the 2023 season; the front office might choose to get younger at the position while saving $5 million against the salary cap.
Darren Hall is a fine player in a reserve role; he actually performed admirably, considering the circumstances, when forced into the starting lineup last year. The team still needs a starting nickel and more high-quality backups like Hall, though.
Richie Grant should be expected to start and continue his development, but the same cannot be said for Jaylinn Hawkins. The regime didn’t draft him, and he struggled last year. That’s a place the team can get better. With NFL defenses regularly playing five defensive backs, the Falcons will need to add two starting-caliber secondary pieces along with multiple reserve players.
There’s so much to do that it might be impossible to do it all in one offseason.
Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire
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