This is the seventh of a ten-part series reviewing the Falcons season and taking a look at the future outlook, position-by-position. If you missed any other installments, be sure to check them out.
The Falcons defense totaled 18 sacks in 2021, which is fewer than some individual players — T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn. There is no speculating whether the Falcons will upgrade the EDGE position; it is a guarantee.
Dean Pees has been outspoken on the formula for the Falcons to pressure opposing quarterbacks more regularly — man coverage and pass rush. Pees noted that you cannot have one without the other, further explaining the pass rush will improve from experience and an infusion of talent.
Dante Fowler was this group’s most productive pass rusher, totaling 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, eight quarterback hits, 36 total tackles, and six tackles for loss. Fowler’s contract will go down as one of the worst decisions Thomas Dimitroff ever made as general manager, but I wouldn’t be entirely against the idea of bringing him back on a one-year, team-friendly deal. He was by far the most talented pure pass rusher on the team, so bringing him back on a cheap deal could only benefit the defense. However, I expect Atlanta to move on from the former third overall pick.
The rest of the group was pretty underwhelming. Steven Means recorded no sacks and only two tackles for loss while playing some subpar run defense, and I hope Atlanta doesn’t bring him back for his “veteran leadership.” Brandon Copeland also didn’t record a single sack, but he recently revealed that he played with a serious knee injury. I wouldn’t be against bringing him back as a fourth or fifth option, but the Falcons can’t go into 2022 with Copeland being even the third outside linebacker on the depth chart.
James Vaughters only played in ten games, but he totaled four quarterback hits, one sack, and one forced fumble. Vaughters seemed to really impress the staff even with the small sample size; I’d expect him to be a part of this group in 2022.
Ade Ogundeji, the only rookie of the group, totaled one sack, two quarterback hits, and five tackles for loss — the second-most of this unit. The rookie fifth-round pick has incredible length and uses it appropriately. His long-arm pass rush move worked regularly, but he needs to better refine his hand placement and develop a deeper pass rush arsenal, including countermoves. Ogundeji getting bigger, faster, and stronger this offseason should result in exponential improvement; however, to maximize his skill set, he must improve the technical aspects of rushing the passer.
Vaughters, Fowler, Means, and Copeland are all set to hit free agency in 2022. I’d expect the Falcons to bring back two from that group, purely based on their familiarity with the system.
To rebuild this pass rush, the Falcons have to develop their in-house talent (Ogundeji), but they also have to acquire more talent. Talent acquisition can come from the draft or free agency, and I would expect the Falcons to bring in multiple new bodies to bolster this position — a combination of veterans and rookies.