We’re a few weeks away from the NFL draft, and the Falcons are in desperate need of game-changers at multiple positions. However, this far into free agency, Atlanta’s roster is essentially set, with the exception of the players Atlanta will select in the draft. Let’s take a look at the pre-draft depth chart outlook for the defense.
This group’s outlook hinges on Grady Jarrett, who makes sense to trade as the Falcons enter their rebuild. However, reports have surfaced that Atlanta’s intentions are to eventually extend the stalwart defensive lineman.
In his first NFL season, Graham played in 13 games and logged over 300 defensive snaps, totaling 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and five hurries. His length and positional flexibility showed up, but Graham didn’t play a full-time role until the latter weeks of the regular season. He played at least 20 snaps in the final eight weeks, surpassing 30 snaps in the final four games. Clearly impressed with Graham’s development, the coaching staff gave him a bigger role in the last quarter of the season. A big leap from the Longhorn product would do wonders for the Falcons’ defensive front.
Outside of those two, things aren’t great. Anthony Rush was solid for the Falcons in a run-stuffing, nose tackle role; I’d imagine he’ll garner a decent percentage of the defense’s snaps. Davidson hasn’t quite lived up to his second-round selection a few years ago, but at worst, he’s a very good reserve player. Cominsky is a versatile defensive lineman, but that flexibility is his biggest strength — he’s just a depth piece at this point. Now primarily in an outside linebacker role, Cominsky is running out of chances in Atlanta. Thurman should get some playing time if the Falcons don’t add to this group.
Outside of receiver, there might not be a position group in bigger need of game-changing players like the EDGE group. Carter is an interesting signing, and I do believe he’ll outperform his contract, but nobody should expect him to carry the entire pass-rushing workload this season.
A native of Atlanta, Carter has 14.5 career sacks over four seasons and is a well-rounded EDGE defender, but he shouldn’t be counted on to come in and completely reshape the Falcons’ pass rush. He’s certainly the best pure pass rusher on the team, but he shouldn’t be more than a team’s second option coming off the edge. However, it seems likely that he’ll be the Falcons’ best option.
Ogundeji is another breakout candidate. He only finished the season with one sack, one fumble recovery, two quarterback hits, 33 total tackles, and five tackles for loss. But rebuilding this abysmal pass rush was never going to happen overnight, and Ted Monachino knows that as it pertains to Ogundeji.
“At some point, he’s going to be a guy who goes in and impacts games for us. It may take a little longer because he’s a fifth-round pick instead of a first-round pick,” Monachino said at the beginning of the season. “But we still have the same expectation. With all of these players moving in and out of the building, we’re going to ask — at some point — Ade to be the bell cow in the room, and we’re preparing him for that right now.”
The depth, much like every position group, is severely lacking. Vaughters played decently in limited snaps, but the coaching staff is very high on him, so expect him to be one of the first outside linebackers off the bench. Bell and Brailford will likely be competing with each other for one a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Jones was objectively bad this past season, with a 16.9% missed tackle rate. Whether his poor performance was caused by the scheme change, position change, or his disinterest in playing for Atlanta, the former LSU Tiger isn’t playing up to the contract extension he signed a couple of years ago. Now that Foye Oluokun is gone, the Falcons might not be able to afford trading Jones, who carries a cap hit of $20 million in 2022, plus a dead cap of $24.8 million per Spotrac — so it is increasingly unlikely the Falcons part ways with him.
Atlanta seemingly signed Evans to replace Oluokun as the team’s middle linebacker. His best year came in 2019 when he logged 2.5 sacks and 111 tackles but fell out of favor in Tennessee. Even though he never quite lived up to his draft status, he can still be a productive player in this league, especially considering his familiarity with Dean Pees’ scheme.
Walker hasn’t quite gotten the opportunity to be a full-time player, and though I imagine he’ll have a chance to compete with Evans, he’ll inevitably be the group’s first backup. Etheridge and Smith are nothing more than depth pieces, but the former did have an impact for the Falcons’ special teams.
The cornerback position group is far and away the best on the team, but it’s more an indication of how poorly constructed the rest of the team is, rather than how great the corners are.
Terrell headlines this group, and the entire team for that matter. He’s one of the league’s best cover guys. If he can build off the All-Pro performance he had a year ago, this defense might actually not be completely helpless. Opposite Terrell, Hayward will turn out to be one of the team’s best free agent signings this offseason. He’s a reliable and versatile veteran that can still hang with offenses’ WR2s, while Terrell blankets their first receiving option.
Oliver rounds out the starters. He was playing the best ball of his career before he was sidelined with a season-ending injury. He seems to have found his niche in the slot in Pees’ system, which accentuates his strengths more than playing on the boundary. I’d expect a huge comeback performance if he rebounds from the injury.
The depth is pretty unproven, though. Ford is the newest signing but hasn’t been anything more than a special teams contributor past his rookie year. Hall didn’t show much during his first season, and Williams is more of a special teams contributor than traditional defensive back. Alford is a former CFL player and is intriguing, while Sheffield just hasn’t shown even an ounce of improvement since entering the league. Pitts, Armstrong, and Ballentine will all compete for the final roster spot with great chances of sticking around via the practice squad.
Eleven cornerbacks on the roster also makes it the most competitive position towards the bottom of the depth chart; if Atlanta comes away with a corner from the draft, it’ll make the competition that much more difficult.
The safety group is the one with the least clarity. Ideally, this is how Falcons fans would like to see this unit, but it could look wildly different during Week 1. Kyle Hamilton has been mentioned as a possibility for the Falcons’ first-round pick, which I assume would make him a starter. Even if the Falcons don’t select a safety, there are no guarantees as to which players from this group will start.
Grant possesses the raw talent to be a difference-maker in this league, but without the knowledge of how NFL offenses operate and with a limited understanding of Dean Pees’ scheme, Grant wasn’t able to get on the field consistently. He finished his first season with 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Grant logged nearly 200 snaps in the slot, surrendering 19 receptions on 24 targets for over 200 yards. The Falcons desperately need Grant to make a monumental leap during his sophomore season.
Hawkins’ outlook is as unclear as Grant’s; he got some decent playing time towards the middle last season, but barely saw the field in the last few games. He’s a physical safety with glaring weaknesses, but hopefully he’s the one who steps up and not Erik Harris.
Harris returns to Atlanta for his second year after suffering a season-ending injury. He’s a very reliable veteran presence on the backend and should provide valuable depth and guidance for a very young position group. Even though fans despise Harris, he wasn’t that bad in 2021.
Marlowe and Tabor round out this group. The former started nine games for Detroit a year ago, but there’s nothing in his game that he excels at. More than likely, Marlow will be a special teams mainstay. Tabor has some versatility to his game, playing both safety and corner, but much like Marlowe, he’ll be relegated to a special teams role.
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