The Falcons must address the trenches in the 2022 NFL Draft and Free Agency

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The Falcons may have beat the Lions on Sunday to get to 7-8 and one game out of a wild card spot, but the consistent issues plaguing the team continued against Detroit. The offensive line struggled against a depleted Lions defense, and it began right out of the gate, giving up three sacks on the opening drive. Matt Hennessy allowed four pressures on 27 pass-blocking snaps, who has shown to have an insufficient anchor in pass protection. Still, it wasn’t just the second-year center; the entire unit played poorly too.

The Falcons offensive line has shown us the same thing nearly every week. Against the 49ers, it was even worse — 1-for-5 in the red zone, rushed for only 2.7 yards per carry, gave up three sacks and allowed ten quarterback hits. This isn’t anything new. Matt Ryan has been beaten up all season because of that porous line on his way to be the most hit any quarterback in the NFL

What makes matters more unpleasant, the defensive front has been worse. The Falcons rank dead last in team pressures (94), and the Lions are second-to-last (107). Don’t get your hopes up either; there’s more. Atlanta is also dead last in sacks (16), and by a large margin, the Eagles and Lions both have 25 sacks. Against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, the Falcons were only able to pressure Tim Boyle twice on 21 pass-blocking snaps.

The defensive front is abysmal. Outside Grady Jarrett, everyone is subpar. Dante Fowler is by far the most talented and natural pass rusher of the interior and edge defenders, but he’s provided very little for the Falcons. I can’t recall a game this season where he’s pressured an opposing quarterback at least four times in one game. According to Pro Football Focus, Fowler recorded 67 pressures with the Rams in 2019, and he’s on pace for fewer than that in two seasons with Atlanta.

The Falcons need an influx of talent across the board in the trenches. They need starters and depth pieces; most importantly, there needs to be more competition at every position. Outside of Grady Jarrett and Chris Lindstrom, nobody should feel secure in their standing. How Terry Fontenot goes about that will be another thing entirely.

He’s shown an ability to find diamonds in the rough through free agency, which is somewhere I’d expect him to look for help along the offensive line, given the team’s young and developing pieces. SportsTalkATL’s Jake Gordon noted one of those free agents should be on the Falcons Christmas list.

IOL James Daniels – Chicago Bears

In my opinion, James Daniels should be Plan A, B, and C going into this offseason for Atlanta. Daniels was a standout at Iowa and played all over the offensive front, and now the 24-year-old is a staple of Chicago’s offensive line at left guard. He’s young, balanced with his skill set, plays multiple positions, and shouldn’t break the bank. I don’t know what else you could ask for.

However, there’s always the possibility Fontenot elects to continue building his vision of an offensive line through the draft. Selecting Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman in his first draft as general manager shouldn’t be surprising; I’d expect him to bring in at least one offensive line through every draft. Jake has also broken down his top five tackles and interior linemen.

Offensive Tackle

OT1 Ikem Ekwonu – North Carolina State

OT2 Evan Neal – Alabama

OT3 Trevor Penning – Northern Iowa

OT4 Charles Cross – Mississippi State

OT5 Nicholas Petit-Frere – Ohio State

Ekwonu and Evan Neal are really hard to choose between for OT1, but I have to give the edge to Ekwonu. He has one of the craziest nasty streaks I’ve seen in my short time doing this. At worst, I think Ekwonu is a Pro Bowl guard from Day One, so I have to give him some credit for that. This is a pretty strong class, and the Falcons could absolutely look to find Kaleb McGary‘s potential replacement here. I was a big fan of Trevor Penning’s running mate Spencer Brown in the last draft cycle, and he has been excellent for the Bills thus far. This class tapers off a bit after the top four or five, but there’s definitely some value here. Expect these guys to go early and often.

Interior Offensive Linemen

IOL1 Tyler Linderbaum – Iowa

IOL2 Darian Kinnard – Kentucky

IOL3 Kenyon Green – Texas A&M

IOL4 Jamaree Salyer – Georgia

IOL5 Zion Johnson – Boston College

This is another positional group that I haven’t done much work on, but I absolutely love the top guys here. I think Tyler Linderbaum will be a plug-and-play upper echelon starter at center from day one, and the same can be said at guard for Kenyon Green and Darian Kinnard. Jamaree Salyer has been forced into a lot of tackle duties this season, but I like what he could offer at guard. Zion Johnson has a chance to start almost immediately as well. There’s plenty of the tackles listed above who could switch to guard.

On the other side of the ball, the situation is direr. I would imagine significant capital be invested along the defensive front this offseason, whether that be a free agent or a high draft pick. Jake has also broken down those defenders who could interest the Falcons in both mediums — free agents and draft prospects.

DL Akiem Hicks – Chicago Bears

Akiem Hicks is a pretty similar player to Grady Jarrett, and that’s something that should appeal to Falcons fans. Hicks can play inside out, but he generates a lot of push at the line of scrimmage and should help Jarrett eat up blockers, allowing Atlanta’s other edge rushers to get through. Like Williams, Hicks would cost a decent chunk of change, but he would improve this team in the trenches drastically.

EDGE Derek Barnett – Philadelphia Eagles

Surprisingly, Derek Barnett is only 25-years-old. He has just two sacks on the season, but he has generated a decent amount of pressure. Barnett wouldn’t fix Atlanta’s pass rush overnight, but he could provide a young infusion of talent if the price is right. It’s hard to ask for more than that with limited cap space.

EDGE DeMarcus Walker – Houston Texans

You can pretty much cut and paste everything I said about Barnett for Walker down to the two sacks on the season, except that Walker is 27-years-old instead of 25. It will be key for the Falcons to build a strong supporting class of guys who can at least get to the quarterback at an average rate. Almost anybody you can snag in free agency is an upgrade at this point.

EDGE Arden Key – San Francisco 49ers

I actually wanted Arden Key when he was cut by the Raiders earlier this offseason, and he has had a good bounceback season with the 49ers. Once a guy who was pegged as a potential first overall pick out of LSU, Key seems to have finally strung together a few nice games with five sacks over his last six games. He’s a high upside play for the Falcons at only 25-years-old.

EDGE Lorenzo Carter – New York Giants

Carter has been a late bloomer of sorts, and he has rewarded New York’s patience with loads of consistent pressure in 2021. He’s another guy like Walker and Barnett; the 26-year-old Atlanta native would at least provide the Falcons with some young talent at the position for what should be a decent price.


Defensive Line:

DL1 Jordan Davis – Georgia

DL2 DeMarvin Leal – Texas A&M

IDL3 Devonte Wyatt – Georgia

IDL4 Perrion Winfrey – Oklahoma

IDL5 Travis Jones – UConn

This is not a very strong class overall, and it’s a very top-heavy group. I have Jordan Davis slightly over DeMarvin Leal, primarily for his incredible athleticism. Alabama gave a bit of a blueprint for slowing down Davis — spreading out the field can tire him out. That may restrict him to a two-down player in the NFL, but it’s unlikely that defenses will be game-planning around Davis as a rookie. I still love his upside as a Vita Vea-type pass rusher and run stuffer. DeMarvin Leal is a versatile piece; he can move all across a defensive line and is a strong force against the run. Right now, he doesn’t have a real arsenal of pass rush moves — he wins with his raw power and athleticism a lot. Of course, this is the case for many young defensive linemen, and this can be coached. Wyatt, Winfrey, and Jones are all big space eaters who have bullied college centers. They’ll have to clean up their technique, but there’s absolutely starter potential later down the board.

EDGE:

EDGE1 Aidan Hutchinson – Michigan

EDGE2 Kayvon Thibodeaux – Oregon

EDGE3 David Ojabo – Michigan

EDGE4 George Karlaftis – Purdue

EDGE5 Travon Walker – Georgia

This is a difficult group to rank, and luckily for the Falcons, there’s a lot of talent across the board. I’m moving Aidan Hutchinson to my top spot; he is the most polished edge rusher out of the draft since Chase Young. Kayvon Thibodeaux is right there with him, and his incredible athletic gifts could mold him into a true franchise defensive player. David Ojabo is the name to watch here. He’s still learning the game, but his body and athleticism are something out of a video game. He could easily be a top-ten pick in this draft. You really can’t go wrong with any of these guys; even a handful of the honorable mentions have a case to be in the top five.

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