After being overloaded with defensive tackles in 2014, the Falcons found some balance in 2015. Dan Quinn devised a solid rotation with five defensive tackles to keep each player as fresh as possible. This system helped veterans such as Paul Soliai and Jonathan Babineaux to play at a high level on a consistent basis. Quinn will look to keep a strong balance between his base and nickel packages this year, which means more rotation at defensive tackle.
2016 Defensive Tackle Projection
Grady Jarrett (Starter)
Tyson Jackson (Potential Starter)
Jonathan Babineaux (Nickel Package)
Derrick Shelby (Nickel Package)
Joey Mbu (Backup/Battling for a roster spot)
2015 Defensive Tackle Depth Chart
Paul Soliai (Starter)
Ra'Shede Hageman (Starter)
Jonathan Babineaux (Nickel Package)
Adrian Clayborn (Nickel Package for majority of the season)
Grady Jarrett (Backup)
The defensive tackle rotation appears to be completely revamped. After being one of the better run-stopping units in 2016, the team is surprising us by making several changes. Besides Desmond Trufant, it can be argued that Paul Soliai was Atlanta's best defensive player last season. Cutting him for cap purposes could come back to haunt them. They are going to reinsert Tyson Jackson back on the inside, which went poorly in 2014. Another off-season focusing on Quinn's tutelage and losing weight should only help him, however.
With Ra'Shede Hageman being moved to defensive end, Grady Jarrett is expected to take a big step forward this season. In limited snaps, the rookie defensive tackle showed plenty of upside, particularly against the run. It will be fascinating to see Jarrett's undersized frame handle the responsibilities of a nose tackle. He will replace Soliai within their base package.
This could possibly be Jonathan Babineaux's final season with Atlanta. At 34 years old, the ageless defensive tackle showed no signs of regression last year. By placing him back on the interior and limiting his snaps, Babineaux was outstanding at times last season. With only one year left on his contract, the stellar defensive tackle may look to play for a Super Bowl contender next season.
He is expected to pair with Derrick Shelby in their nickel package. Although Shelby is a versatile player, the Falcons shouldn't pay four years, 18 million on a player to strictly use him in their nickel package as a three-tech defensive tackle. The former Dolphin would be an ideal fit in Quinn's LEO role under their base defense. Joey Mbu is the final defensive tackle, but isn't guaranteed a roster spot.
Is it better?
With so much uncertainty surrounding the defensive tackle rotation, it can't be classified as better. Soliai was excellent against the run last season. There were several instances of him abusing opposing centers or taking on double-teams successfully. Jarrett will have plenty of pressure on him. It's not easy to transition from a limited backup role to playing significant snaps on a weekly basis. Add Jackson's return to defensive tackle and the middle of Atlanta's base package looks very questionable on paper, even if Jarrett obviously has talent.
Babineaux is always going to play at a high level, while Shelby should make a positive pass-rushing impact on the inside. He shouldn't be a complete liability against the run like Clayborn. The combination of Babineaux and Shelby provides plenty of optimism. How Jarrett develops and Jackson responds to moving back inside will determine how well this unit plays in 2016. On paper, transitioning from Soliai and Hageman to Jarrett and Jackson is a worse move, but we'll have to see it play out.