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Falcons have easy fixes to solve defensive tackle depth

Plenty of capable veterans are still waiting on a gig.

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL Draft has brought Atlanta a host of new players, including a fresh face at nose tackle in South Florida’s Deadrin Seant.

Senat will be expected to pick up a load of Dontari Poe’s vacated snaps on the defensive line. He looks built for the part, and has impressive college production and tape to follow. But, rookies are still rookies, and particularly for one taken in the third round, shouldn’t be expected to be a Poe right away.

The Falcons are still going to need to bracket time between Senat and a veteran nose tackle. Right now, Atlanta only has three sure bets at the position: Grady Jarrett, converted DE Jack Crawford, who has only played in four games with Atlanta so far after signing in March 2017 and Senat. Crawford flashed some promise, and could line up next to Jarrett in nickel packages, but they’ll still need someone to rotate the base snaps with Senat.

Thankfully for Atlanta, there’s a good bunch of guys still available on the free agent table that could fit this role, two of whom are veteran Falcons.

The Obvious Choice: DT Ahtyba Rubin

The Falcons lucked out when veteran nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin didn’t cut it in Denver after signing there as a free agent. In Atlanta, he was a valuable rotational piece who gave the team its best run defense group in eons. The team hasn’t re-signed him yet, which feels a bit odd considering the obvious need, but perhaps they were just waiting to see how the draft fell. They opted not to double-dip with rookie talent, so Rubin’s spot is indeed open in the rotation.

Bringing Rubin back into the fold would be the simplest fix, and wouldn’t really do much to the already muzzle-tight cap situation. But, Rubin will be 32 in July, and Dan Quinn has shown great reluctance with aging defenders in the past. Though, in a depth role, would his age really matter? It feels like this will get done, but since it hasn’t, is this as obvious a return as we think?

DT Jonathan Hankins

The name going around the campfire right now that Falcons fans want is former Colts DT Jonathan Hankins, and it’s hard not to see why. Adding Hankins would effectively make Senat the Ahtyba Rubin of the defense, and allow him to acclimate to the game with limited early snaps. Hankins is a starting nose tackle, and graded out with an 85.5 with PFF last season in his lone year with the Colts. He’s quite good, and it remains a mystery as to why he’s not on a roster already.

Well, maybe it’s not that mysterious, and involves him wanting a hefty deal that stretches out. If the Falcons don’t view Senat as anything more than a rotational defensive lineman, bringing in Hankins would be the best answer. If they believe Senat to be the nose tackle of the future, the team won’t pay Hankins what he’s going to eventually want when he latches on with an organization. The latter is the more likely scenario, so don’t count on this one, considering the per diem a guy like Hankins wants.

DT Karl Klug

Klug was a wily rotational defender in Tennessee before tearing his Achilles in 2016. But, PFF still ranked him with decent markings (71.2, which qualified as average), and his versatility to line up on the inside and out could entice Atlanta to take a flier on him to see if he can help bracket those needed snaps. He’s not as stout a run defender as Rubin, but he could give a little more in the pass rush, and line up on the outside, and maybe help out with the snaps the team is losing with Adrian Clayborn (though, most of those will be covered by Takk McKinley). Klug’s scrappy play and motor are Quinn-ready.

DT Ricky Jean Francois

Most recently with the Patriots, Francois has been a sturdy reserve tackle throughout his career. PFF gave him a 76.9 last season in his limited time with the Pats, which was actually six points higher than Rubin’s assessment. He’s bounced around the league a bit as of late, but run defending is his calling card. If the Falcons want some to mix it up a bit for the personnel group, Francois might be the best rotational guy out at this stage there that hasn’t already played for the Falcons yet.

DT Cedric Thornton

Thornton is an interesting case study. He was a pretty sound defensive tackle during his time with the Eagles, went to the Cowboys and did fine, and then went to Buffalo and fell off the face of the Earth. PFF actually lists him as one of their free agents who could benefit from a change of scenery.

Few players were tasked with a role that they couldn’t hope to succeed in more than Cedric Thornton was last season in Buffalo. When the Bills traded away Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars, Thornton became the team’s nose tackle and he just couldn’t hold up in that role. He ended up with 404 snaps over the season, including 17 in their Wild Card defeat to the Jaguars, but they were almost all poor performances and his overall PFF grade was 43.3, by far the worst mark of his career.

Thornton is an unusual player – one who had excelled as a run-stuffer in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense but struggled to translate to defensive tackle in Dallas and then was victimized in Buffalo’s defense. Fewer teams than ever run the kind of two-gapping looks the Eagles used to run, so the number of ideal potential landing spots is small, but if Thornton does find the right scheme again he could be a valuable run stuffing presence up front.

Perhaps Thornton could benefit from going to a rotational spot with a team like Atlanta, not put upon to be that key face at the nose tackle position. The talent is there.

DT Pat Sims

Sims and Rubin are very similar players, and Sims is technically older, and not quite as good. He’s listed in case, somehow, Rubin would still be too expensive for the team as the cap stands, and the Matt Ryan deal draws out longer than it needs to. If Rubin finds work within that time, Sims is a decent-enough consolation prize. He’s a big defensive tackle who can take up space against the run, and though his PFF grades are below average, the Falcons are known to bring out the best in guys. Consider this an escape hatch if, somehow, Rubin doesn’t happen.

DT Courtney Upshaw

Upshaw felt like an invisible man in Atlanta’s defense last season, only posting up nine tackles (and sure, a nasty sack on Drew Brees that we will always remember). He was always going to have a ceiling in his transition to defensive tackle, and while he was a solid part of the team’s rotation in 2016, that just doesn’t seem to be the trajectory going forward. But, familiarity can be its own edge, so if the Falcons do want to bring a guy back who knows the system, has produced in it and has a little bit of chemistry with the incumbent players, you could do worse than Upshaw.

Rubin feels like the safest guy to bring back, while Jean Francois and Klug are thought-provoking veterans who could fill out the depth. Hankins would be a statement move, but the team has spoken highly of Senat, and smart minds peg him as the team’s nose tackle going forward. Though one is not present on the roster at the moment, the team has veteran options, and figures to bring someone in sooner than later.

Perhaps it’ll be one of the names above.

You can check out Spotrac to see the full list of defensive tackles available at the moment, and tell us who we’re forgetting in the comments.