There are two positions along the defensive front that have solidified starters, Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler, which leaves several starting and important rotation spots up for grabs in what could be considered a competitive group. Jarrett is a top-tier interior defender and will thrive in any system. Fowler is coming off his worst season, recording career lows in every major pass rushing statistic — one forced fumble, three sacks, four TFL — and a career-low games played. However, I’ve already pegged Fowler as a bounceback candidate:
Atlanta’s personnel dictates twists, stunts, off-ball linebackers, and defensive backs pressuring. The second level of the defense — Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, and Mykal Walker — will aid the pass rush of the Falcons thanks to the unit’s athleticism. Grady Jarrett, John Cominsky, Steven Means, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner are all athletic enough to twist and stunt with anyone coming off the edge. So for Fowler to succeed, he needs those around him to help. Atlanta’s pass rush will depend on Pees scheming pressure
Barkevious Mingo will likely start opposite Fowler and will be extremely valuable to this defense; he’s solid in run-support, can drop into coverage, and obviously rush the passer. Last year with Ted Monachino in Chicago, Keke Mingo racked up 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and two passes defended. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner will be competing with Mingo for snaps after playing 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. JTM went undrafted but has worked his way up from the team’s practice squad and only played 35% of defensive snaps but produced the fourth-highest pressure total (15) on the defense.
Adetokunbo Ogundeji will be in the rotation, and his playing time will depend on how quickly he develops. The reason I believe he could see the field on early downs is his prowess against the run and 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.
Tyeler Davison is a traditional run-stuffing nose tackle that plays a vital role in modern defenses that opt to put faster, smaller-bodied defenders on the field to keep up with high-powered offenses. His spot is essentially solidified because he’s the only one at his position, but his snaps will be limited. Moving on to Marlon Davidson, who I believe to be an ideal scheme fit in this defense.
Gary Emanuel has already stated that Davidson will begin this year with a new slate after little action in his rookie year. During his introductory conference call with the Atlanta media a year ago, Davidson reaffirmed his ability and willingness to move around the defensive front. “I can play it all,” Davidson said. “Whatever they want me to be, that’s what I’m going to be. If they want me at 285, 280 playing a big end on the edge or if they want to kick me inside, I can do it all.” That is exactly what the Falcons are going to expect out of him this year. He’s the perfect size and length to play a five-technique next to Jarrett as Davidson is a stout run defender but won’t be relied upon nearly as much to get after the passer. This is effectively a redo of his rookie year.
Steven Means, Jonathan Bullard, John Cominsky, and rookie Ta’Quon Graham will battle things out with Davidson for snaps. Means is coming off a career year where he set single-season career-highs in total tackles (38), sacks (3.0), quarterback hits (six), and forced fumbles (two) in 16 games. Given his elite athleticism for his size, Cominsky can play on the edge in base personnel and kick inside to rush the passer next to Jarrett in sub-package personnel. I wouldn’t be shocked if he started in base packages as a five-technique with Jarrett as a three-technique.
Graham is much like Ogundeji in that he’ll only see the field if he develops quickly. Still, he could play on early downs because of his elite run defense and positional flexibility — he can play the three-technique defensive tackle in four-man fronts and a five-technique defensive end in three-man fronts. He’ll push Davidson and Cominsky for snaps, but his role will mostly be relegated to early-down situations due to his lack of pass rush ability. Bullard is on the fringe of this group, but his experiences in multiple defenses bode well for him to make the team.
It’ll likely be a constant rotation of bodies as these players battle it out for only a few positions, but hopefully, as the season progresses, a few of them separate themselves from the pack.