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Falcons whiff on Michael Bennett, questions loom large on defensive line

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With Atlanta losing out to Philadelphia on the Bennett sweepstakes, the team looks to the draft and free agency.

NFL: Houston Texans at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The rumor mill maelstrom surrounding the Falcons closing in on a trade for Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett ended with a mere whimper, as the Pro Bowl pass-rusher is on the move to Philadelphia. The way this thing played out felt a bit like an Atlanta-centric re-cut of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening—all build up, no payoff, and the Natural Laws of Football are punishing the Falcons.

At least nobody was chewed up by a lawnmower.

The Falcons seemed well-positioned to secure Michael Bennett’s services next season and beyond, but alas, the Eagles swooped in (heh) with a fifth-round pick and a wide receiver who has played musical chairs with the practice squad since being signed in 2016. Atlanta, lacking a fifth-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft as a result of the trade for swing tackle Ty Sambrailo, seemingly could not match—and would not top—Philadelphia’s offer without surrendering higher draft capital.

The Falcons losing out on Bennett means that the upcoming draft and free agency period are even more consequential, especially in respect to the defensive line. With the pending departure of Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, and Derrick Shelby, the defensive tackle position was always going to be a top priority.

With Bennett headed to Philadelphia, the pressure to acquire a playmaking rookie in the draft or sturdy veteran in free agency is nearing critical mass.

Florida’s Taven Bryan and Stanford’s Harrison Phillips are intriguing options near the end of the first round, or if the team wanted to take a flyer on a veteran stopgap, Seattle’s Sheldon Richardson or oft-maligned-yet-immeasurably-talented former New York defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson may fit the bill. It’s extremely unlikely that top options Vita Vea and Da’Ron Payne will be available if the Falcons stand pat at pick 26, so they will need to get creative if they want an impact starter. At the end of the day, they really could use at least one additional impact starter, too.

Whichever direction the Falcons decide to head, it’s now imperative that they bring in a guy who can contribute from Day 1. As for Philadelphia? Atlanta gets to face its defensive line, now featuring both Fletcher Cox and Michael Bennett, on the road in 2018.