The trenches were trouble for the Falcons in 2018, and in the case of the defensive line, that was a massive disappointment.
The Falcons only had one significant injury on the defensive line, a multi-week ailment for Grady Jarrett, and were otherwise healthy minus Derrick Shelby. For all that, this team got very little production out of their front four, putting additional strain on a depleted secondary and leading to major questions about Vic Beasley’s future with the team, among other issues.
The end result is a line that’s likely to undergo significant changes between now and September. The Falcons won’t bring back Derrick Shelby, are unlikely to return Terrell McClain, and could conceivably move on from both Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley. Even if the turnover isn’t that drastic, they need to upgrade the talent level, and fast, even if they’re planning on retaining Steven Means and Bruce Irvin to help out.
Let’s take a look at where this team might be headed this offseason.
The Falcons would be wise to consider using their dollars to give themselves help along the defensive line, assuming they do so judiciously. Takk McKinley is locked in as a starter alongside Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford, with Deadrin Senat expected to be a quality contributor as well. There are no other locks.
Given that Vic Beasley won’t be counted on as a starter in 2019, the Falcons could make a splash signing at defensive end and greatly improve the entire defense in the process. We’ve gone through options recently, but if they make it to the open market the Falcons ought to sniff around Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence, and so forth. I believe Takk when he says he’s going to work his butt off this offseason to improve and believe he has the talent to be a consistent force, and getting him a bookend terror is only going to help him there. It’s the single most important thing the Falcons can do with their free agent dollars, in my opinion.
Beyond the big splash defensive end signing, this is still a market worth dabbling in for mid-tier options and reserves. The Falcons could aim higher than Terrell McClain at defensive tackle by adding Shamar Stephen from Seattle, Clinton McDonald from Oakland, or Tom Johnson from Minnesota, and they could replace one of Brooks Reed or Derrick Shelby with Steven Means (who is already sort of on hand), Bruce Irvin (ditto), and semi-reliable outside options like Benson Mayowa from Arizona, Kerry Wynn from the Giants, or Mario Edwards. If the Falcons have the dollars and desire, in other words, they can spend to bolster their line in a way they haven’t in a long while.
There is no shortage of quality options here, and a large part of me hopes the Falcons wind up investing their first round pick on the defensive line. You have potentially elite defensive tackles like Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Jeffrey Simmons at Mississippi State, plus high-end pass rushers at defensive end like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Florida’s Jachai Polite, and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. If the Falcons want to take a swing a top-flight talent with the #14 pick (or even trade up, since this is a Thomas Dimitroff-led Falcons team), they’ll have the opportunity to do so. They should do so.
Beyond those talents, there are additions worth exploring on Day 2 and beyond. Brian Burns at Florida State and Zach Allen at Boston College are two such players who could sneak onto the first day and offer athleticism and quickness, if not size, while the defensive tackle depth in this one is solid. If the Falcons are inclined to spend their money elsewhere, there’s little question that they can make substantial present and future upgrades to the defensive line purely through the draft.
The preferred outcome
The Falcons make significant investments in both dollars and draft picks, winding up with one of the top free agents available at defensive end to bolster their rotation. They wind up with Dee Ford, Takk McKinley, Bruce Irvin, Steven Means, and a later round draft choice at the position, using the money they save from cutting Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley to get the job done. That’s a rotation I think we could all live with.
They use their top draft choice on Ed Oliver, who falls to 14 (please) and gives the team an absurd 2019 defensive tackle rotation of Oliver, Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat. Oliver eases in a bit for his rookie season and takes over as a full-time starter for Crawford in 2020, and the Falcons have a deeply dangerous defensive line for the next few years for the first time in a long, long while.
If the Falcons grab Rodger Saffold, as I’ve suggested, and sign Dee Ford and give an extension to Grady Jarrett, it will chew up a huge percentage of their cap space. It would also give both lines a massive boost, so I think it’s absolutely worth it.
The likely outcome
The Falcons make significant investments in both dollars and draft picks, but not to the extent I’ve outlined above. They re-structure Vic Beasley and cut Brooks Reed, using the money they save from that to return Bruce Irvin and Steven Means. They then sink a first round pick into a pass rushing defensive end, with Polite, Ferrell, Burns and Allen looming as names to watch. Their defensive end rotation is Takk, Beasley, Irvin, Means, and the rookie, with improvement heavily dependent on Takk (who should improve) and the rookie (who will hopefully be an immediate contributor).
The Falcons bring Clinton McDonald, a former Dan Quinn defensive tackle in Seattle who is coming off a productive year, as an obvious upgrade on Terrell McClain. A rotation of Jarrett, Crawford, Senat and McDonald still looks pretty darn good.
If this sounds significantly less appealing, it’s because I’ve been trained to be skeptical that the Falcons will actually go out there and spend the money to get an elite pass rusher, as they haven’t done that in over a decade. Hopefully they surprise, but even these upgrades would be extremely welcome.