The Falcons have muddled along for too long without an elite pass rush. The last time they had anywhere close to one, they had Patrick Kearney and John Abraham paired up on their defense line, and Abe was a one man wrecking crew in his own right. The solution to the Falcons’ ongoing woes could be found in this draft class if they fare well, land a player with the 14th pick who can pair with a (hopefully) emerging Takk McKinley, and continue to get quality contributions from the likes of Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford. For a change, though, they could also make a big free agent splash, adding a high-caliber pass rusher for the first time in many, many years.
If they cut ties with Vic Beasley, Robert Alford or Ryan Schraeder—or even all three—it’s a splash they should be able to afford to make, however tight they’ll be up against the cap post-Julio Jones extension and Grady Jarrett contract. Setting aside the question of whether they will, though, who is even out there beyond the Osi Umenyioras and Dwight Freeneys of the world? Let’s look.
I won’t bother to disguise my delight at the thought that the man I was convinced the Falcons would draft five years ago could re-join them this year. Clowney is an obvious candidate for the franchise tag in Houston, which could make this discussion entirely moot, but he’s a genuinely great player against the run who has steadily improved as a pass rusher over the years, finishing off a 2018 season that saw him pile up nine of them. Clowney, a draft pick and Takk would be an unfair rotation for the Falcons, and Clowney isn’t a liability in any situation because of his power and athleticism. I’d love to see it happen, but it is of course extremely unlikely.
Let’s be blunt: Clark is not a Falcons player on paper. He was arrested for and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of home invasion in 2012, was arrested for domestic violence in 2014, and lobbed an extremely ill-advised and assholish tweet at SB Nation reporter (then at Bleacher Report) Natalie Weiner, who had written about his legal struggles. The Falcons haven’t shown a ton of tolerance for things like that, and thus I would not peg Clark as a top selection for them.
The talent speaks for itself, of course. Clark is coming off a 13 sack season for the Seahawks and is a tremendous pass rusher. If he doesn’t get the franchise tag in Seattle and Atlanta’s comfortable with his legal background, perhaps this happens, but despite his excellence he’s perhaps the most unlikely fit on this list.
Jackson is a big, physical player who has put some very good seasons as a pass rusher together, most notably 2016 and 2017 for the Jaguars when he had a combined 14.5 sacks. The durable defensive lineman is coming off a 3.5 sack season, however, and there are plenty of rumors that the Jaguars might cut ties and put him into the open market. Jackson wouldn’t be the sexiest choice on this list, but he’d be sort of a turbo Derrick Shelby with his ability against the run and much better pass rushing acumen. If he’s reasonably affordable, Jackson would be an excellent addition to the rotation, even if his sack numbers probably aren’t going to return to 2017 levels going forward.
Consistent as they come, Graham has either been a rumored or desired target for the Falcons numerous times over the years. He put up 9.5 sacks back in 2017, but has generally just been a consistent pass rusher who can be counted on to hit the quarterback, with 11 such hits in a 2018 season where he only managed four sacks. Like Jackson, the soon-to-be-31-year-old isn’t exactly the flashiest addition, but he’s durable, capable, and would be a certain upgrade over the likes of Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby and (yes) Vic Beasley as a pass rusher.
A bit of an under-the-radar name, Flowers figures to stay in New England but would be intriguing should he shake loose. He’s managed at least 6.5 sacks per season from 2016-2018, and while he’s not the strongest run defender on this list, he’s a plenty capable addition who will just be turning 26 as the 2019 season begins.
The Falcons were hot on Dee Ford back in 2014 but couldn’t or wouldn’t make a move to get him. Ford’s five seasons in Kansas City have been hugely inconsistent, with two 16 game seasons, two double digit sack years, and three years of anemic production, at least in terms of actual sacks. Ford will just be turning 28 this year, though, and is coming off a career season with 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles. If he can continue that kind of production he’d be a massive addition to Atlanta, but if you’re getting more the average of his career he’s probably going to get overpaid, and the Falcons should probably steer clear.
A gifted athlete who has turned in some stellar seasons in Detroit, Ansah is coming off a poorly-timed injury that cost him nine games in 2018 and is turning 30 years old. In a market that could be filled with quality pass rushers, that might depress his value somewhat. If he’s healthy, I’d welcome him in Atlanta, as he’s fast and physical and Dan Quinn adores that.
I fully expect him to get the franchise tag or a big extension from Dallas, unfortunately, but there might not be a stronger fit on the market than Lawrence. He was the team’s other big rumored target back in 2014 at the end of the first round, he’s turned in elite production and that vaunted nasty streak that Dan Quinn keeps talking about, and he’s still fairly young. If he made it to the open market I’d expect the Falcons to pursue him with gusto, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely.
Ultimately, this market will be significantly thinned by teams re-signing or franchise tagging their own elite guys, likely leaving some combination of Jackson, Graham, Flowers and Ansah for the Falcons to mull. Even an addition like Jackson or Graham would be a massive upgrade over what they have, and I’m hopeful the Falcons won’t try to paper over cracks with a twilight-year option or the kind of mid-tier rotational guy they’ve been so fond of under Quinn. To get this defense back on track in 2019, they’ll need to come up with a better pass rush, and this list affords them opportunities to do so.