Now we come to the defense. On the offensive side of things, there’s one easy call (Austin Hooper) and a couple of borderline guys, but the mass exodus of players is happening on this side of the ball.
This putrid season is probably going to make a lot of those decisions easier, because a new staff is going to roll into town with few (if any) attachments and make calls free of loyalty or what has been done in the past. Let’s take a closer look at what that might mean.
The honest truth is there are no essential re-signings for the Falcons in 2020. They already locked up Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, so what’s left is a collection of players who the team may want to bring back and ones they’re almost certainly going to let walk.
That’s a little grim given the cap situation, but it also gives the next Falcons coaching staff a chance to rebuild a little on the fly. The Falcons will go into the year with one still promising defensive end (Takk McKinley, one elite defensive tackle (Grady Jarrett), a should-be elite linbacker (Deion Jones) and a promising young reserve who may be ready to step into a starting role (Foye Oluokun), and a lot of young pieces in the secondary. Everything else is on the table, and it would not surprise me in the least if the Falcons let virtually every free agent defender walk and replaced them with better fits per the new staff.
DE Steven Means
Means’ injury was the start of an erosion of depth that has clearly hurt this Falcons defense, even if they were very much doomed without it. Means was impressive enough in 2018 in limited opportunities—and his injury early on enough in the offseason—that good health should earn him a look as a rotational defensive end for a team that is essentially going to have to re-build their line outside of Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, and John Cominsky next year.
DT Tyeler Davison
Davison has, with the exception of a smattering of penalties earlier in the year, been everything the Falcons hoped for and probably more. He has one of the team’s sacks, he’s been excellent against the run all year, and he’s done all that at an affordable price. With just Grady Jarrett and Deadrin Senat under contract next year and Davison’s clear value, it’d be surprising if the new staff didn’t prioritize keeping him around on a reasonable deal.
He’s not an essential defender with Senat potentially primed to claim his role, however, and we don’t know what the next staff is going to look for, so let’s put him here.
DT Mike Bennett
He’s a restricted free agent, and if he’s healthy, could be a back-of-the-rotation addition at defensive tackle in the short-term for the next staff. He had a promising spring and early summer before he went down.
LB De’Vondre Campbell
I expect Campbell to walk, but I’m going to put him down here because there’s still a real chance the next coaching staff will prioritize keeping him around.
Why? Campbell’s lousiest year thus far has coincided with the rest of the defense’s lousiest years, and it wasn’t all that long ago that he was prized by this coaching staff for his coverage skills against tight ends and his sound tackling. A new coaching staff might take a look at what he’s done in the past and want to maintain continuity at linebacker.
Of course, Campbell could be ready for a change of scenery or a significant pay raise, and he’s not necessarily going to get either one in Atlanta. I’m pessimistic he’ll actually re-sign but I wouldn’t be mad if he did.
LB Jermaine Grace
He’s been a key cog on special teams and remains an interesting, athletic linebacker, though the team has not given him a real shot on defense this year. Given that he’s an exclusive rights free agent and the Falcons have a lot of holes to fill, he ought to be back. If Campbell exits, he might have a better shot at a role.
S Kemal Ishmael
Ish has had his up-and-downs as the team’s starting strong safety, as you’d expect, and the Falcons essentially benched him last week against the Seahawks by installing Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee as the starters. If the team had to rely on him for a long-term starting gig again, that would obviously be a problem
But Ishmael is still a core special teamer under Ben Kotwica, he’s still a player with useful physicality, and he can still play both linebacker and safety, and he’s signed one year deals for close to the league minimum in recent offseasons. The Falcons could really use that versatility at that price, and Ishmael should return again. I’m just not 100% positive he will.
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
At every step of the way, Wreh-Wilson has played better than expected, but his chances in Atlanta have been few and far between. He would be a nice veteran presence in what might become one of the NFL’s youngest groups of cornerbacks and should merit re-signing from the new staff. It’s just a question of whether they’ll have their own guys in mind.
DE/LB Vic Beasley
There is always the chance, however slim, that a new regime will dangle an offer to Beasley. I’d be surprised if he returned, though.
The well’s just pretty poisoned here. The Falcons kept Beasley, Beasley didn’t show for OTAs (which is something that Dan Quinn seemed quietly unhappy about and isn’t likely to impress a new coaching staff, particularly a hard-nosed one), and Beasley has been solid but unspectacular. The Falcons dangled him at the trade deadline and quite literally could not seem to find an offer, which can’t feel great if you’re Beasley. The Falcons are going to want to re-shape their defensive front seven with a new staff coming on and Beasley, I assume, will probably want to be free and clear of all the miasma both sides have gone through over the last couple of seasons.
I could see him taking a situational role with a contender, but I doubt it’ll be Atlanta.
DE Adrian Clayborn
I welcome Clay’s return and he’s had some quality plays here and there, but he hasn’t been a needle-mover on a very bad defense and will be 33 next year. My guess is that a contender with a need for a veteran presence and a solid all-around defender will scoop him up.
DT Jack Crawford
Just a season after putting up sacks and serving as a very useful pass rusher, Crawford has been buried this season. A new staff might be interesting in bringing him back to help on passing downs, but I’m willing to bet they’ll want to put their own imprint on the team and Crawford will be headed elsewhere.
S Sharrod Neasman
I don’t get the team’s lack of love for Neasman, who filled in solidly a year ago when Keanu Neal went down. His outsized role on special teams might earn him a re-signing, but guessing the Falcons will just move on and re-make their reserve group at safety.
S J.J. Wilcox
He was headed for a third safety role with the Falcons before he unfortunately got hurt, but a 32-year-old safety coming off a season-ending injury isn’t likely to be a priority for a coaching staff already having to grapple with a very unsettled safety group.
S Johnathan Cyprien
The Falcons got one game out of Cyprien, and I still expect that to be true in 2020.