One of the great bits of intrigue this offseason has to do with the Falcons’ free agent plans for the defensive line. No other position grouping on the roster besides linebacker figures to suffer as much attrition as this unit, which could lose Adrian Clayborn, Dontari Poe, Ahtyba Rubin, and Courtney Upshaw, and at linebacker more or less everyone is a reserve. Clayborn and Poe both received starter’s snaps in 2017, and Upshaw had a small but important role for this defense.
We’ve determined that we think Clayborn will be back and Poe will be out of the team’s range, price-wise, but one way or the other the Falcons seem unlikely to keep both players. The team will still need depth, and that’s where Upshaw in particular deserves some scrutiny, since he played in 26 games over the last two seasons and had a handful of big plays, especially during the 2016 Super Bowl run.
What does Upshaw give you for his (very manageable) cost, and will he return in 2018? Here’s the case for and against.
Upshaw has been, when healthy, the definition of a solid rotational defensive lineman. He can play inside and outside, though his size and skill set play better in the middle of the defensive line, and he’ll give you a little bit of pass rushing prowess and solid run-stopping acumen for 10-20 snaps per game.
If that sounds like an eminently replaceable player, well sure, it kinda does. But Upshaw is cheap and has done more in his limited snaps than many of the rotational guys the Falcons have had on the roster in recent years, from Malliciah Goodman to Kroy Biermann. He’s a strong player who muscle his way into the backfield, and he can sometimes surprise you with his ability to chase down quarterbacks, even if he only had a couple of sacks over the last two seasons. For a team that currently has exactly two defensive tackles under contract with significant NFL experience, Upshaw’s a sensible re-signing.
Upshaw is a replaceable player. He gives you more than his contract would suggest, certainly, but he’s stretched as anything more than a part-time player in this defense and importantly does not get a ton of playing time on special teams. He’s as solid as they come, but the Falcons haven’t shown a lot of interest in maintaining the status quo on defense, and Upshaw could be a casualty of that approach.
Upshaw can surprise you with his burst at times, but he’s not a plus athlete going on 29 years old and coming off a season that saw him miss three games with injuries, and the Falcons have shown a keen interest in continuing to improve the athleticism and quickness of their ends and tackles up front. Upshaw’s not an uneasy fit in that philosophy, but the team could choose to replace him with an inside/outside player like Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis in the draft and probably get a bit of an upgrade.
The Verdict: Yes
I’ve been waffling on Upshaw for a solid month now, but ultimately I think he’ll be back. He’s a solid player who won’t make a lot of money, and the Falcons could lose multiple players along their defensive front this year, particularly on the interior. If he stays cheap, Upshaw makes a lot of sense for Atlanta, particularly with a largely one-dimensional run stopper like Ahtyba Rubin looking unlikely to return, and thus figures to have a good shot to return.
If the Falcons re-sign Poe and add a draft pick at defensive tackle in this class, things get more complicated, but I still doubt they’ll do both. That leaves the window open for Upshaw.