Alright, folks, the Atlanta Falcons roster review train continues to glide down the tracks, and our next stop is defensive tackle.
Defensive tackle was essentially the Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe Show all season, with various contributors salting in things here and there to help. Half of that show might be gone by March, creating a new path forward for the Falcons behind Jarrett, the de-facto DT1 on the roster, and one of the best overall players on the team.
Let’s look at who we’re working with, shall we?
Current players on roster: DT Grady Jarrett, DT Jack Crawford, DT Tani Tupou (reserve contract), DT Joey Ivie (reserve contract)
Pending free agents: DT Dontari Poe, DT Ahtyba Rubin, DT/DE Courtney Upshaw
Grady Jarrett – 4 sacks, 55 tackles
Dontari Poe – 2.5 sacks, 39 tackles
Courtney Upshaw (13 games) – 9 tackles, 1 sack
Ahtyba Rubin (10 games) – 15 tackles
Jack Crawford (4 games) – 5 tackles
The defensive tackle situation revolves around one player – Grady Jarrett. Ever since falling to the fifth round of the 2015 draft, Jarrett has defied expectations to become one of the better interior defensive lineman in the NFL.
It’s a sports cliché, but Jarrett really can do a little bit of everything – rush the passer, stuff the run, bat down passes, and, even on one occasion, intercept the ball. The Super Bowl 51 star is as complete a player at the position you can have and is the main starter at the position for Atlanta. He only figures to get better and is poised for a payday next season when it comes contract time. Atlanta stumbled upon a star at the position with Jarrett, but after that, things get a bit murky.
The Falcons brought in Dontari Poe on a one-year deal last March to give the team a formidable one-two punch at the position. Poe is known for his run support and has flashed pass rush ability from time to time. He’s one of the more athletic defensive tackles in the league for his size. He’s also a man of tantalizing potential that has never really translated consistently onto the field. Poe had a strong back half of the season, particularly against the run, and like any new player does, needed his time to adjust playing for a new team. His signing was a success for Atlanta.
Poe’s a good player, and if the Falcons had oodles of cap space, you’d figure he’d be an easy guy to bring back. But, the Falcons do not have oodles of cap space, and Poe is about to negotiate the most important contract of his career. He could command $6-7 million annually, and maybe more if he gets into a bidding war. The Falcons will find creative ways to open up cap space, as they always do, but paying that much for a second-fiddle defensive tackle, particularly when you’ve got Jarrett’s extension looming over the horizon, just might not, well, work.
The Falcons had the league’s ninth-best run defense toward the end of the season, so it’s just not fun to think about breaking this group up. But, money’s money, and Poe will most likely go where he can make the best paycheck this season (like any player should). It’s just unknown as of now if Poe is to stick around or go elsewhere.
Rubin is part of why the run defense took an uptick at the end of the season, as providing run support is his calling card. You pop him in to your lineups here and there to stop the run. He’s good at it, and he absolutely helped Atlanta in that regard. He’s a veteran, and probably won’t be all that expensive to bring back. It feels like a pretty obvious move to make, but Atlanta has always shown a desire to get younger when they can. Though, too much youth can absolutely be a bad thing. So, we’ll see if Rubin sticks around – he’d be more than welcome.
Crawford flashed some exciting pass rush ability in preseason, but we really only got a taste of what he could do in a rotational role before he left the Buffalo game with a season-ending bicep injury. He’s a lock to return next season, and he will have had plenty of time to rehab before training camp begins. He’s still a bit of an unknown commodity on the defensive line – but he’ll have a role. It’ll be interesting to see what that role is in 2018.
Upshaw was a solid role player who always did his job – not outstanding, not terrible, just solid. He had a nasty-beautiful sack on Drew Brees toward the end of the season, and definitely gets credit in helping stop the run. He just doesn’t figure to be back, as he could arguably nab a larger role elsewhere and make more doing so. But, you never know.
Also, Tupou comes from Seattle, and has intriguing potential. One wonders if he’s the next guy to come out of nowhere and nab a spot in the rotation after spending a season in the team’s development program.
Right now, the safest bet is that Rubin is brought back, and Poe gets away to a team willing to pay him more than Atlanta can (same for Upshaw).
Jarrett, Rubin and Crawford aren’t a bad group, but it’s certainly incomplete without Poe in the mix.
To make up for losing Poe, the team all-but-certainly would need to invest in a defensive tackle in the first or second rounds of the draft. Taven Bryan. Watch for him. He’s incredibly Falcon-y.
Of free agents out there to supplant depth if Rubin goes, watch for Dominique Easley – a former Quinn guy who’s struggled with health, though, when he’s able to play, he’s shown to have excellent traits as a pass rusher and could help against the run when need be.
Defensive tackle is just one of those positions that is waiting for a big domino to fall (Poe). The future of the position will come down to Jarrett, and whomever else the team can afford to put behind Jarrett. Maybe that’s Poe. Maybe it’s a first or second rounder in this upcoming class. Whatever it is, it’ll be an important decision for the team to make. With Poe and Rubin’s status in question, the team’s newfound success in run defense is partly in flux.
Let’s see what Atlanta decides to do with their defensive interior.