With free agency looming, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t expected to be high rollers. And, why would they be?
With only a little bit of cap space to use, and not that many holes on the roster to patch up, the Falcons are going into 2018 with plenty of chess pieces to play with. They’ve got to refine and improve one of the players (Sarkisian, Steve), and a lot of next season’s success will depend on that variable tightening up.
But, there is one problem spot on the roster that’s going to take roster moves in both phases of the offseason, and it’s the one area of the roster he’s yet to fully perfect.
His bread and butter; what gave him his career; the last part of the Falcons roster that needs a serious tune up — the defensive line.
Ever since Quinn arrived in Atlanta, it was kind of assumed that his signature calling as Falcons head coach would be building (or at least attempting to build) a monstrous defense that would rival what he had in Seattle. In a way, he’s done just about as well drafting talent and molding existing players into one of the league’s better units (the team finished the 2017 regular season ninth in points allowed, up from being the eighth-worst team for that stat in 2016).
When you study what Quinn’s done, it’s pretty astronomical from the turgid remnants of the Mike Smith era, one loaded with scrubs, unfulfilled youth, bloated contracts for overpaid veterans and, by some strange twist of fate, two starting corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford (to his credit, Thomas Dimitroff does know how to scout skill positions).
Let’s just admire some of his prowess here for a second, just for old times sake:
- In the secondary, his staff helped elevate the games of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford; they discovered Brian Poole; he oversaw the drafting of Keanu Neal and the position switch of Ricardo Allen from corner to safety; might have another steal on his hands with corner Damontae Kazee, who will transition back into more corner play this season after spending 2017 as Allen’s backup
- Gutted the linebacking group and added Deion Jones (arguably the future of the position), De’Vondre Campbell (a steal for a fourth rounder and a continually-progressing linebacker), Duke Riley (a promising, fast young player with potential still to be developed), LaRoy Reynolds (a valuable special teams player and vocal leader) and brought back Falcons favorite Sean Weatherspoon (which paid off for a few weeks on the field, and forever in our hearts)
- Brought on Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed in free agency, drafted 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley, promising second-year DE (and vivacious personality) Takk McKinley, draft steal Grady Jarrett, nabbed DE Dwight Freeney for the team’s Super Bowl berth season and lured Dontari Poe and intriguing interior rusher Jack Crawford to Atlanta last March
By all accounts, Quinn has made this defense in his image, and it’s poised to ascend to a new plane next year, with guys like Jarrett, Jones, Neal, Campbell, Allen, Beasley and McKinley more seasoned and ready to attack, and veterans like Trufant and Alford comfortable in their roles.
But, even as it looks really promising, it’s still incomplete.
The pangs of having a tight cap will see Poe and Clayborn leave, two of the last elder statesmen on the defensive line. Poe was a phenomenal presence in the run defense down the stretch, if not quite the pass rusher he should’ve been, and Clayborn has always been a stalwart pass rusher, if not quite the contributor in the run game one would have hoped. Both are good, if not great, players, who are set to get massive paydays in free agency (Poe for his run support and potential; Clayborn for being a 9.5 sack rusher in a thin FA group).
With Poe and Clayborn out the door, run stuffer Ahtyba Rubin’s status up in the air and the team’s release of Derrick Shelby, a good, if overpriced, rotational run defender, the defensive line looks a bit thinner than hoped. With Beasley moving back to edge full-time, Jarret’s ascension, McKinley’s tantalizing ceiling, Reed’s reliable contributions and Crawford’s recovery from an early-season injury, one doesn’t worry too much about the stars, but one does wonder what this final part of the defensive puzzle will look like, and if this unit will finally resemble something close to elite.
The dirty secret about Atlanta’s pass rush is that it’s never been as good as it should be under a coach like Quinn. If you give him 2015 as a mulligan, his 2016 team only had a league-middling 34 (about half of those coming from Beasley’s breakout season) and his 2017 team improved to thirteenth in the league with 39. But, that improvement adds in the six sacks Clayborn posted up against a Chaz Green. If you take that performance away, the team only has 33, which would be one less than 2016. As deep as the DL was, one could argue it wasn’t quite as effective as it could’ve been at getting after the QB (particularly when you remove the Green incident).
Now, sack totals aren’t *everything,* particularly when you look to see the Eagles right next to Atlanta in the rankings. But, which defensive line bullied who in the playoffs? It ain’t all about sacks, but it’s sure is about consistency.
The Falcons’ pass rush has lacked consistency in the Quinn era, and you have to imagine, in his fourth season, he’s going to pour all of his resources into getting this fixed. Time after time, we’ll see an electric rush met by complete silence, allowing lacking teams like the Dolphins, Bills and Jets to sustain drives. Sure, busts in coverage don’t help this, but some of it does come from the defensive’s front inability to generate consistent pressure. With the Eagles, you know they can consistently get to you. See this past January’s divisional playoff game.
This might sound overtly critical, but when you think about it, this was kind of DQ’s calling card when he got here. He’s been an outstanding coach, and doesn’t get enough national recognition with what he’s done to pull this roster from the doldrums of 2014 to being a perennial contender in the NFC. You can’t say enough about what Quinn’s done to improve the roster, establish a culture and assemble a coaching staff.
But, the last domino to building his defense is surely to fall next. Whether it be by playing the bottom half of free agency like a pro, using draft capital to address holes or a mix of the two, he’s got work to do on the defensive line this offseason. It’s the final act to building the defense he was hired to build.
He’s been patient with guys like Beasley, McKinley and Jarrett, and that patience is bound to pay off, with all three still with so much potential to meet. But this offseason, he’s going to add the remaining pieces. And, the younger players are going to continue to grow. And, we’re going to, hopefully, see the defense he envisioned when he got to Atlanta.
But, his challenge now is to complete the defensive line, perhaps the most needing position on the roster. Missing on guys like Michael Bennett in the trade department hurts, but at this point, you’ve just got to trust Quinn to see this thing through. It’s worked so far, and it’ll probably work again.
And, now, the work begins.