The Falcons have a handful of major needs, but in my mind, no need is bigger than defensive tackle. Grady Jarrett is a borderline Pro Bowler at worst and Jack Crawford is a useful player capable of playing a couple of downs per sequence, but there’s little else in the cupboard here, and Atlanta needs to address that most urgently.
Dontari Poe can fill that need. He did, quite capably, in 2017. Poe is not necessarily among the league’s most elite defensive tackle, but he’s at worst a cut below that, and was solid against the run, strong as a pass rusher, and capable of soaking up double teams last year. He also played a ton of snaps after losing weight per Dan Quinn’s request. Poe is a good player, and in a vacuum, you’d expect him back.
We don’t live in a vacuum, at least not in this sense. Poe is a free agent who should command a multi-year deal, is likely to command at least $5 or $6 million per year, and will have multiple suitors unless the Falcons manage to lock him up before free agency officially kicks off. It’s very possible he’ll be priced out of the Falcons’ range once that happens.
Let’s break down the case for and against signing Poe.
Simply put, Poe is the best defensive tackle likely to be available on the open market. Sheldon Richardson has a case but is the same age as Poe and has a little baggage in terms of attitude and legal history that might scare the Falcons off, and David Irving is younger and has emerged as a gifted pass rusher but figures to have very little chance to escape from Dallas, which is sorely lacking defensive playmakers.
That leaves Poe, who turned in a strong season in Atlanta. Poe is always a bit of a hot and cold player, but he played a ton of snaps, was solid or better in every phase of his game, and gave Grady Jarrett his first truly above average partner in the former’s young career. Poe still commands double teams quite frequently even in his slimmed-down state, which occupies blockers and frees up linebackers like Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell even when Poe himself isn’t involved in plays. The upgrade from Ra’Shede Hageman and an aging Jonathan Babineaux to Dontari Poe really can’t be overstated.
The Falcons can get a younger, cheaper, and possibly better player over the long haul in the draft, but that player simply won’t be as good as Poe out of the gate. If the Falcons want to build on the defensive success they had in 2017, signing Poe would be an excellent start. He’s the only 2017 starter outside of Adrian Clayborn, a rotational player who got a lot of snaps, who might not return, and inarguably the most essential.
You would sign Poe because for the next couple of years, at minimum, he’ll be one of your better interior defensive linemen, and he’d keep continuity for a defense that needs that and a couple of additions to be pretty close to elite.
The big problem is with what Poe is and is not for the price. He turned in a very capable season, strong-arming linemen and getting run stops, adding 2.5 sacks, and emerging as an amusingly capable lead blocker in goal line packages. But he is not an elite player against the run—the Falcons signed Ahtyba Rubin and rotated in Courtney Upshaw, among others, in part for that reason—and he the same kind of stretches of suboptimal play in 2017 as he had throughout his career with the Chiefs. He’s not, in other words, the best of the best.
That’s perfectly fine, and Poe has considerable value, value his market will undoubtedly reflect. His flaws shouldn’t be an impediment to him being re-signed, because they are not massive flaws. The issue is one of resources and alternatives for Atlanta.
If the bidding gets to $7 or $8 million annually, I’d argue that it would be very tough for the Falcons to commit that kind of money to Poe. They have major extensions coming up for essential players like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, and it would have to be a very carefully structured contract for Poe not to be an obstacle for other contracts. If you have to choose between keeping him and signing, say, Deion Jones in a couple of seasons, the choice is an obvious one.
Finally, this is a draft class loaded with quality defensive tackles. The Falcons arguably need more than one, and whoever they get isn’t going to be Poe out of the gate, but they could grab a player who could be Poe or better when they hit their ceiling and pay very little for that player over the next 4-5 seasons. If that winds up being a binary choice, I’d bet on the draft.
The Verdict: No
If the Falcons could snag Poe for $5.7 million per year, as Spotrac estimates, he’d be a virtual bargain. Even if they need to go higher than that, Poe is worth the money, and I’d welcome him back.
I just think that in the end, the Falcons will find that Poe has a robust market, he’ll be earning more than they’re comfortable giving him, and they’ll have done their due diligence on a quality defensive tackle class and elected to solve their positional woes through the draft, likely with a pick on the first or second day. Re-sign Clayborn or Upshaw, round up your defensive tackle rotation with a part-time run stopper like Rubin or practice squadder Taniela Tupou, and you’ve got yourself a defensive tackle depth chart.
As is often the case, I would love to be wrong, because it would be great to have Poe here for years to come.