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Jack Crawford figures to step into a real role in the 2018 Falcons defense

As one of the only defensive tackles under contract, he’ll be vital.

Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Andy Levitre is the biggest name on the Falcons’ injured reserve, without question. If he’s healthy this summer and the team hasn’t dumped him for cap-related reasons, he’ll be the starter at left guard, and he’ll be counted on to play at a high level for a line that will look to once again be a strength for Atlanta.

The second-biggest name, though, figures to also be a key player for Atlanta. The Falcons went out and signed Jack Crawford last offseason because they liked the veteran’s ability to rush the passer from both defensive end and defensive tackle, and he figured to provide valuable depth on the interior behind Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe. His injury robbed him off a chance to do that, but Crawford will be returning to a drastically different defense in 2017.

Dontari Poe is a free agent, after all. Adrian Clayborn is a free agent. Courtney Upshaw is a free agent. Brooks Reed, by virtue of his contract, could be on his way out. This defense line will retain at least one or two of those players, sure, and you can virtually guarantee a draft pick will be spent on the line. But there may be more snaps to go around, even so, and Crawford figures to be a beneficiary.

As our own Charles McDonald noted last year, Crawford is an athlete who can win against favorable matchups, especially against tight ends. He’s a capable enough run stopper who has had flashes of pass rushing production during stops in Oakland and Dallas, and the fact that he can do most things reasonably well and does have Dan Quinn-approved athleticism means he can find playing time. If he happens to have a year like 2015 or 2016, when he piled up 4 and 3.5 sacks, graded out as a solid run stopper, and even got some starts, he’ll earn that contract in a hurry.

If Atlanta doesn’t line up some impact players at defensive tackle, he’s an easy bet for 20-30 snaps per game there, and at worst he’ll step comfortably into a Courtney Upshaw-like role on the interior. That has obvious value.

Of course, all this assumes he’s fully healthy and ready to make an impact in 2018, which is never a given. If he is—and he’ll have had a long time to recover by then, thankfully—I imagine Crawford will have a sizable role on this defense. With so many players potentially leaving, his signing now looks like a smart hedge, even if we really don’t know how well he’ll play just yet.