Free agent targets with connections to Falcons new defensive coordinator

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The Falcons will have a new-look coaching staff in 2023. After defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, Atlanta hired former Saints co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, with former Packers assistant Jerry Grey joining the staff. Most position coaches from the previous staff were let go, except for Frank Bush, as Nielsen brings in his subordinates.

The Falcons are going to be able to add major talent on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, given the team’s salary cap space, and there is no shortage of positions that need addressing. Nielsen will have a say in the personnel brought in, and his expertise lies in the trenches.

He’s been a defensive line coach since 2005, with stops all over the country at the collegiate level. Most recently, Nielson has been in New Orleans, where he’s overseen the defensive line directly since 2017. Since then, the Saints have recorded 281 sacks, which is the second most in the NFL over that period, finishing in the top 10 in sacks in five of the last six seasons.

With money to spend, his connections will likely drive the team into some free agent signings. Here are some potential candidates for the Falcons to pluck from the Saints:

Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Shy Tuttle, Kentavius Street

Rankins is a former first-rounder who signed a two-year deal with the Jets after his rookie contract expired in New Orleans. Despite briefly dealing with an injury, he turned in an impressive campaign, notching a career mark of 33 tackles. He’s not stellar in any one area, but he’s a reliable contributor defending the run and rushing the passer. He shouldn’t break the bank, either.

Onyemata served a six-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Still, he remains one of the better interior pass rushers in the NFL. Onyemata finished with five sacks and five tackles for loss. His 2020 and 2021 campaigns were much more impressive than 2022, but there’s still good football in him despite turning 30 years old.

Davenport once again dealt with injuries this past season. The physical talent is there and might be worth the gamble. Davenport is effective as a defender against the pass and run. The former first-rounder is probably a top-20 player at his position when healthy because he’s reliable in most facets of the game. The problem is that he hasn’t logged 600 snaps in a single season. He appeared in a career-high 15 contests this season but only played 50% of the defensive snaps. I have no idea what kind of contract he’ll command, but the Falcons should be interested.

Tanoh Kpassagnon might not be a well-known name outside of New Orleans, but he’s a productive defender. He had four sacks and 11 pressures in 2021 then followed it up with two sacks, eight pressures, and three tackles for loss in 2022. His 6’7″ and 289 lbs build makes him a versatile piece that can be moved up and down the line of scrimmage. He’s solid against the run, an average pass rusher, and won’t break the bank.

Shy Tuttle has made a nice little career for himself. After being an undrafted rookie in 2019, he turned himself into a run-stuffing defender. He’s always struggled to rush the passer but did post a career-best two sacks this season.

Kentavius Street just spent one season in New Orleans but could still interest the Falcons. He spent his first four seasons in San Francisco and finished 2022 with career-high totals in sacks (3.5) and tackles (29) while contributing nine pressures and five tackles for loss.

I’d be willing to bet at least one of these defensive linemen will be in Atlanta in 2023 because of their ties to new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.

Photographer: Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire


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