Terry Fontenot is more than likely done manipulating the roster this offseason, outside a few minor tweaks, this is likely the team Arthur Smith will have at his disposal. The national media isn’t very high on the Falcons, and rightfully so, the roster isn’t necessarily elite, but coaching can cover up some personnel deficiencies. I think Atlanta will be competitive in 2021 because of coaching and consistent quarterback play, though to compete for Super Bowls, the roster will need improving. The reason I believe this is because the strongest position group on the team — off-ball linebackers — plays an insignificant role in successful teams, while the weakest position group — EDGE defenders — plays a massive role in successful teams.
I could hear arguments for wide receiver being the strongest position group prior to a Julio Jones trade or tight ends as Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, and Lee Smith is an incredibly robust depth chart, but I chose off-ball linebackers because those in the room have proven capable whereas Pitts is unproven, Hurst was average last year, and Smith is limited by his abilities. The below quote is from an article two summers ago describing the Titans’ “switching” defense of Dean Pees, which essentially describes the ultra-athletic group in Atlanta.
When you get to the linebackers, the story is very similar. The Titans feature a set of backers ranging from 5’-11” to 6’-2” and between 225 and 233 pounds. It’s a group that’s built on speed and athleticism over size and power. Jayon Brown is among the game’s best coverage linebackers and makes the Titans defense incredibly flexible when he’s in the game. Jayon Brown is one of several versatile defenders the Titans have added in recent seasons.
Rashaan Evans, the Titans 2018 first round pick, brings a level of flexibility as well. He can be a run-thumping inside linebacker on one play and then an edge rusher the next. Evans is unique as a 232-pound linebacker who plays with the power of a much larger player.
Deion Jones excels in coverage, which is important in this defense for a couple of reasons. First, Dean Pees becomes a more dangerous coordinator if he can reliably call his linebackers into coverage. Second, the NFC South is littered with non-receiver threats in the passing game — Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Giovanni Bernard, Rob Gronkowski, and OJ Howard — that will require a linebacker or safety to cover.
Before Dan Quinn was fired last year (weeks 1-5), Debo recorded 37 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, two TFLs, and one QB hit. After Raheem Morris took over (weeks 6-17), Jones saw an uptick in every statistic — 69 total tackles, 4.0 sacks, seven TFL, nine QB hits, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defended, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. I expect a Pro Bowl-caliber year from the former LSU Tiger.
His running mate, Foyesade Oluokun, had a career year in his third season — a career-high 14 starts, two interceptions, three sacks, and four forced fumbles. Foye was arguably the best defender on the team a year ago leading the Falcons in tackles. He isn’t as effective rushing the passer as his counterpart, but his incredible athleticism after playing safety in college makes him more reliable in coverage. The pair form one of the most athletic linebacking cores in the league.
Not to mention their backup, Mykal Walker, shined his rookie year and was named to the PFF All-Rookie team after grading out as the second-best rookie defender — behind only Chase Young. In limited snaps, Walker proved he was ready to take on more responsibility and with Foye’s contract expiring next year, Walker’s role will likely increase.
Moving on to the weakest position group on the roster, which is led by Dante Fowler. Fowler is by far 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. He took a pay-cut and had a year voided from his contract, so the future for Fowler in Atlanta doesn’t like great.
Behind him is a bevy of unproven pass rushers — Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Steven Means, and Barkevious Mingo. Keke is the most experienced out of this rotational group and 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 Ted Monachino in Chicago, Mingo racked up 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and two passes defended. Ogundeji and JTM are both versatile defenders who can be used in multiple alignments across the line of scrimmage, but don’t inspire much confidence.
I figured the front office would address the EDGE position before the fifth round when they selected Ogundeji, but I assume their big board permitted their selections. This defense will have to rely on coaching and scheme to pressure the quarterback, but it’s not great news that a team’s weakest link is an incredibly valuable position like EDGE.