This is the seventh installment of a comprehensive positional breakdown for the Falcons following April’s draft. So far, I’ve broken down the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive and defensive linemen.
I separated the defensive front into interior defensive linemen and EDGE because, in Dean Pees switching defense, it can become confusing which position is which due to the fluidity of each. Ted Monachino is in his 15th season of coaching in the NFL and has ties to Dean Pees when he held the same position under him in Baltimore, including winning Super Bowl XLVII. Under Monachino and Pees, Terrell Suggs was named to the Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and won the AP Defensive Player of the Year; they also coached Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil to a franchise-record 17.0 sacks in 2014.
In this new-look Falcons defense, EDGEs will be either stand-up outside linebackers in odd defensive fronts or defensive ends with their hands in the dirt in even fronts. There are currently six rostered EDGE defenders, but I think the Falcons go into the season with just four of the players below because many of the interior defensive linemen are versatile enough to play a little of both — Steven Means, John Cominsky, and Ta’Quon Graham.
Dante Fowler Jr.
Fowler is by far and away the most talented and proven pass rusher in this group, but 2020 was Fowler’s worst season thus far — career lows in sacks and games played, missed more tackles than usual, and less effective against the run (expected). With the Rams in 2019, Fowler was healthy, playing alongside Aaron Donald and blitzed far more often than last year with the Falcons.
Pees’ history tells us Atlanta will blitz much more in 2021, and with Grady Jarrett, Fowler should return closer to his career norms. Monachino has high hopes for the former third overall pick. The pressure produced a year ago (9.8%) with the Falcons is closer to his career average (9.9% from 2015-18) than his career year in 2019 (13.2%), but the pressure didn’t translate to sacks in particular last season. It’s unlikely he’ll reach double-digit sack numbers again because playing with the best defensive player — Donald — has it’s resolve. Still, he’ll improve substantially from last year.
Keke Mingo will be a valuable piece for this team because he can do anything this coaching staff asks him to do, even if he doesn’t do anything spectacularly. He’s solid in run-support, can drop into coverage, and obviously rush the passer. Last year with Manachino in Chicago, Mingo racked up 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and two passes defended. He gives Pees flexibility in his fronts and coverages, but most importantly, he’ll be a great leader for the Falcons’ other EDGEs, even if it’s as a rotational player.
Tuioti-Mariner is only 24 and played in all 16 games last season for the Falcons, finishing with 31 tackles, five quarterback hits, three fumble recoveries, and one sack — one of the few pleasant surprises of the 2020 season. He’s a former undrafted free agent that has worked his way up from Atlanta’s practice squad, playing 35% of the defensive snaps and producing the fourth-highest pressure total (15) on the defense. Tuioti-Mariner has shown the capabilities to be effective as a run defender and improved greatly as a pass rusher; it’s entirely possible JTM plays a significant role in Dean Pees’ defense because of his ability to line up in multiple spots along the line of scrimmage. He was also a core piece of the special teams, playing 48% of the snaps there a year ago, so, at the very least, he’ll be an effective piece for new special teams coordinator Marquice Williams.
In one of the thinnest position groups on the Falcons, Terry Fontenot decided to wait until the fifth round to address the EDGE when he drafted Ade Ogundeji out of Notre Dame. He’ll likely be a depth piece but could see the field early given his prowess against the run and his positional flexibility. He can stand up outside of tackles in three-man fronts, put his hand in the dirt in the same spot or kick down in four-man fronts. His pass-rushing skills aren’t effective just yet, but he has a fantastic get-off and thrives against the run. He’s going to be a special teams contributor regardless of what happens on defense.
Kobe Jones was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State and is a long shot at making the final 53-man roster, but he could be stashed on the practice squad given his potential. He mostly served as a rotational edge rusher and projects well as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker given his long limbs. He was praised for his effort in academics and on the gridiron. He gives maximum effort every snap; Jones clearly has the desire and physical tools to develop into an NFL player.
Pututau terrorized quarterbacks at Adams State in 2019 — 24.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks. He’s an ideal-sized 3-4 outside linebacker for Pees’ multiple defense. He will have to further develop his pass-rushing repertoire instead of just bullying less athletic tackles, though he’s extremely athletic. I wouldn’t be surprised if he somehow made the roster or was stashed on the practice squad.
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