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With interior linemen hitting free agency in 2018, the Falcons should turn to the draft

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Successful teams prepare for the future as much as possible. The Falcons should keep that in mind.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It was only five weeks ago when defensive tackle appeared to be the biggest concern on the Falcons’ roster.

Jonathan Hankins priced himself out of the team’s plans, while mid-level free agents such as Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee joined the Redskins. A once-promising free agency market turned into a near wasteland. They decided to pursue Dontari Poe and surprisingly won the sweepstakes to make their lone splash signing.

The inclusion of Poe solidifies Dan Quinn’s defensive tackle rotation for at least this season. Pairing Grady Jarrett with the two-time Pro Bowler should create a ferocious interior duo within the base defense. Both players are capable pass rushers as well. If Adrian Clayborn or Derrick Shelby needs a break, expect to see Poe or Jarrett occasionally used in the nickel package. Ra’Shede Hageman and Courtney Upshaw could contribute as well.

With all those names mentioned, it’s pretty evident that they are fully secured going into the 2017 season. How the defensive tackle group will look in 2018 is another discussion. Besides Jarrett and Shelby, every other previous player mentioned is going to be a free agent. There are other questions as well. The coaching staff could move Shelby back to defensive end. Although he started to improve as a interior pass rusher last season, the former Dolphin earned his payday off the edge in 2015.

That leaves Jarrett as the only true defensive tackle currently under contract in 2018. Nobody can predict Poe’s long-term status. A productive season doesn’t guarantee anything. Another team could easily offer a multi-year, monster contract. With Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Jake Matthews expected to receive new deals; the front office may not be able to afford him.

Looking forward

Regardless of whether Poe remains in Atlanta, the defensive tackle rotation is bound to undergo some changes. Adrian Clayborn’s health will likely decide his fate. The versatile pass rusher fits well in Quinn’s defense, but his past injuries can’t be overlooked. Another season-ending injury could mean the end for him in Atlanta. Clayborn’s violent hand usage and explosiveness makes him useful in multiple areas on the defensive line. Before tearing his MCL, Clayborn produced four-and-half sacks in a six game stretch.

Hageman and Upshaw are both intriguing rotational pieces. Although he is wildly inconsistent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another team offer Hageman a mid-level contract. McClain and McGee were both paid over 20 million dollars, which equates to five million per year. Is either player significantly better than the former second round pick? Another solid season could make some teams view Hageman as a capable starter. Besides Poe, he would be the most likely player to depart in 2018. Upshaw’s versatility and ability to play off the edge in the base package makes him a realistic long-term fit.

Drafting a defensive tackle in the third or fourth round would be a wise long-term decision. The Falcons had several defensive tackles on the roster going into Quinn’s first season. Most people didn’t know what to expect from a group featuring Paul Soliai, Jonathan Babineaux, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Tyson Jackson. Although they eventually moved Jackson to line up as a 5-tech defensive end, he was primarily used as a defensive tackle under Mike Nolan.

The crowded rotation didn’t stop them from trading up for Jarrett in the fifth round, which proved to be a brilliant move. They recognized a talented player was falling and pounced on the opportunity. Keeping the future in mind provided them an absolute steal at an unstable position. Based on recent draft success, they could end up finding one again.