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Assessing the current state of the Falcons defensive line

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How will the Falcons move forward following the departure of Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn?

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

When a franchise starts to have sustained success, it usually leads to talented players moving on elsewhere for financial reasons. Keeping every key player is virtually impossible in this league. To re-sign even one major starter can prove to be difficult, especially when your starting quarterback is expected to receive an enormous extension in the near future.

It has been a quiet off-season for the Falcons. As fans are left desperately waiting for some kind of major move, the front office isn’t capable of making any marquee signings. Signing right guard Brandon Fusco should provide some stability at a problematic position. While finding an upgrade over Wes Schweitzer was vital, they have endured multiple major losses on the defensive line.

In a two-day span, Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signed elsewhere to bitter rivals (or teams that fans strongly dislike). Both players offered so much from a versatility standpoint. Other than Grady Jarrett, no defensive lineman played more snaps than Poe and Clayborn. They played a combined 1,339 snaps on a defensive line filled with talent. How Dan Quinn replaces them will be crucial for the team’s prospects in a ridiculously stacked NFC conference.

What the Falcons are losing

Nobody truly knows what the front office’s plan was going into free agency. Most would assume it must have involved either re-signing Poe or Clayborn. Not being able to keep either player is a significant blow. Whether they lined up together in nickel or caused havoc separately, both players brought power and nastiness to help turn a young, inconsistent defense into a top ten caliber group.

After signing Clayborn to a one-year “prove it” deal in 2015, the Falcons did something similar with Poe. They beat out several teams in acquiring the two-time Pro Bowler. Adding a massive body up front was expected to give rising stars like Jarrett and Deion Jones more big play opportunities. Poe took on double teams effectively, while generating more pressure than anticipated. Unlike most nose tackles, he was comfortable playing in base and nickel. His ability to play during long stretches gave the coaching staff flexibility in tight games.

The loss of Clayborn was surprising, considering Quinn’s admiration for him. Not many players fit his system better than the former first round pick. His knack for shifting inside to accommodate Takkarist McKinley created mismatches, along with cross chopping left tackles into submission off the edge. It’s rare to see a physically limited player excel in multiple spots. Clayborn’s raw power, violent hand usage, and relentless motor made him valuable in Quinn’s rotation. Younger players looked up to him as a leader as well. Losing such a crafty, multidimensional pass rusher will affect them to a certain extent. They will have to find other ways to get creative up front.

What the Falcons currently have

For all the concerns surrounding the front four, it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. Not many teams have three terrific defensive linemen under 26 years old. Jarrett, McKinley, and Vic Beasley aren’t going anywhere. All three players will be on the field together in nickel sets and clear passing downs. That should be very encouraging, as they search for the final piece.

There are only two other experienced defensive linemen currently on the roster. Brooks Reed is coming off his best season in Atlanta. Expect him to continue being used as one of Atlanta’s main edge defenders in base. How the coaching staff decides to use Jack Crawford should be fascinating. The versatile defender shouldn’t be expected to replace Clayborn, as he simply isn’t good enough.

That doesn’t mean Crawford is useless. He possesses good lateral agility for his size. Using him inside in nickel sets could bring the best out of him. Replacing Derrick Shelby as the other edge defender in base is another realistic option. Quinn knows how to put players in specific roles to maximize their potential. Crawford’s big frame and high motor will give the coaching staff plenty to consider this summer.

What the Falcons could do

It would be surprising to see the Falcons not add or re-sign someone. They can still bring back Ahtyba Rubin or Courtney Upshaw for depth purposes. Instead of throwing a rookie defensive tackle into the fire, they could bring him along slowly by using Rubin for 10 to 15 snaps a game. Upshaw’s ability to line up in different areas makes him a useful backup for a defensive line in need of depth.

The other solution would be signing a defensive tackle to offer something more than Rubin and Upshaw. There are some intriguing players available on the market. Johnathan Hankins and Bennie Logan would be ideal fits alongside Jarrett. Unless they can’t afford either player or Quinn is fixated on finding Poe’s replacement in the draft, there is no reason why they shouldn’t inquire about signing one of them.

What appears to be the likeliest scenario is drafting more players up front to continue their remarkable draft success. Finding a player who can handle double teams and flourish as a 1-tech should be their top priority. That will allow them to be more flexible going into Day 2. Why not take a flier on an athletic specimen or draft Shelby’s potential replacement? If they decide not to make any more moves during free agency, drafting two defensive linemen will be needed for Quinn’s rotational system.