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Who are the big-ticket defensive free agents the Falcons could pursue?

Are there big fish the team could land?

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons are expected to have a bit of change to work with this offseason, which might mean Thomas Dimitroff and the front office will break out the hooks and angling gear and try to land a big fish.

The team has floundered in this endeavor in the past, but 2016 showed, with signings like Alex Mack and Mohamed Sanu, the team could splurge a bit on contracts and find success on the field.

After a 7-9 season, the team will need to amend the roster a bit to get where they need to go. That might mean luring some big names to Flowery Branch. Of the standout names out there, who makes sense for signing a big contract?

Let’s start with the guys on defense in our overview.

We’ll note that guys like DE DeMarcus Lawrence and OLB Jadeveon Clowney will probably get the franchise tag, but that they’d obviously be on Atlanta’s radar if they made it to free agency.

Now we’ll look to the front seven to find where the big investments could go.

OLB Dee Ford

A former Falcons draft target that exploded on the scene in Kansas City this season, Ford might be like Lawrence and Clowney and be headed toward the franchise tag. Should he become a free agent, the Falcons might want to get him in while he’s hot. A total of 13 sacks is nothing to sniff at for a season, and Atlanta could help him grow even more by putting him next to a young, growing defensive line group.

DE Trey Flowers

The wrecking ball of Bill Belichick’s front four, Flowers is a do-it-all defensive end who will get you sacks, run stops and pressures aplenty, though the overall sack count isn’t as eye-popping as you may want it to be. The Patriots are notorious for letting defensive talent fly out the doors in opposition to paying them, so don’t be surprised if Flowers does make it to free agency. Atlanta would be wise to get him in the building if they whiff on Ford and let his complete game bolster a line badly in need of it.

DE Ezekiel Ansah

Ansah’s health might scare some teams off, but there’s no question what he can do when he’s on the field. The former BYU standout only had four sacks this season in 11 games, but the Lions’ defense overall underwhelmed. He could perhaps flourish with a change of scenery, not unlike Adrian Clayborn when he left Tampa Bay to join the Falcons in 2015. The last time Dan Quinn looked to Detroit to add a pass rusher to his team, it was Cliff Avril joining Seattle. We all know how that went. For the right price, Ansah could be poised for a major comeback.

DT Ndamukong Suh

You know what Suh can do, even in the latter years of his prime, which is why he remains in demand as he gets older. He’s a game-changing talent at times, and still a dangerous disrupting force even when he’s not. On a three-year deal, Suh could pair with Grady Jarrett and provide the team one of its best defensive tackle tandems in quite some time, with Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat giving them perhaps the deepest group in the league. He won’t be nearly as pricey as he used to be, too.

DT Sheldon Richardson

Richardson has struggled to find a home since his Jets days, though he’s still an impact guy on any defensive line who can play inside and out. The right situation could boost Richardson back to being one of the elite defensive talents in the league. Could that be Atlanta, and potentially on an affordable deal?

OLB K.J. Wright

Wright is an old Seattle stalwart who might wriggle free from his longtime home. A model weak side linebacker, he’d be an ideal fit in Quinn’s defense (where, you know, he’s played before) if they don’t feel like Foyesade Oluokun is quite ready to continue to man that spot. He might not be as pricey as you think, and he’s obviously got Quinn connections. Could a reunion be in order?

OLB Thomas Davis

The longtime Carolina Panthers starter won’t be back in Charlotte this season, which puts a bonafide starting linebacker out and available. He’s still got plenty in the tank, though he’s contemplated retirement in the past. Should he want, say, a one-or-two-year deal to play close to his old team to prove what he’s still got, Atlanta would be smart to get a motivated former Pro Bowler in house. He would also add leadership to a locker room that Jeff Schultz at The Athletic and others have suggested would benefit from it.

DE Brandon Graham

Graham is in his early 30s, but is still a prolific pass rusher who may be out of Philly with the depth they have at the position and need to pay other guys. He will make a good paycheck in March, but would give any team a proven guy who can get after the quarterback and complement younger players who need time to grow into roles. The team could ride with Graham for three or four years, pair him as a mentor for Takkarist McKinley and perhaps a high draft pick and get the pass rush back on track.

Other names

OLB Anthony Barr is young linebacker and pass rusher who could play on the weak side and better tap into his potential as a pass rusher with the Falcons.

OLB Preston Smith is one of the better young second-tier pass rushers could hit a new gear in Atlanta.

OLB Za’Darius Smith is coming off an 8.5 sack season and might do better with more snaps, which he wouldn’t have trouble finding in Atlanta.

Quinn’s old Florida player DE Dante Fowler Jr. has succeeded (at least somewhat) in Los Angeles with the Rams and terrorized the Saints in the NFC Championship.

Titans veteran OLB Derrick Morgan was once a Falcons target in free agency and could be a good stopgap veteran to aid the pass rushing efforts and dearth of leadership.

We’ll be back later this week with offensive targets, but here’s a hint: Think offensive linemen.