Grady Jarrett has, over the last two seasons, decisively emerged as the Falcons’ best defender. That’s been a stellar thing for Jarrett and the Falcons, but his world-wrecking potential has been limited by the limitations of the defense around him.
As we look ahead to 2020, it’s impossible to ignore the state of the defensive line. Atlanta chose to supplement their young talent with solid veterans this offseason, with Tyeler Davison playing very well and Allen Bailey and Adrian Clayborn providing some value. Next offseason, only Jarrett, Takk McKinley, Deadrin Senat, Bailey, and John Cominsky are actually under contract, with Mike Bennett and Steven Means coming off injured reserve and both Justin Zimmer and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner on the practice squad. You could build a line out of that group, but it’s not the one this team needs, and the Falcons are somehow going to have to build a better one with a limited budget.
It’s also not one that puts Jarrett into a position to succeed. At his best, he’s been an absolute wrecking ball, chewing up double teams and still making plays. Whether the game is close (in four games decided by 0-7 points, Jarrett has two sacks, four QB hits, and four tackles for loss) or when it’s well out of reach (in three games decided by 15+ points, Jarrett has a sack, two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles), he’s been an incredibly impactful player. The issue has really been that the defense has largely fallen apart around him.
Per ESPN Analytics, Jarrett has the second-best pas rush win rate among defensive tackles in the NFL, defined as a player beating their block within 2.5 seconds. He does that 23% of the time, but the issue that the Falcons have had is that he’s either A) alone or assisted only by Takk McKinley, who is 10th in the NFL in this particular metric or B) the ball is already gone. The team’s consistent coverage woes have masked the fact that the Falcons have actually been doing pretty well up front, at least when it comes to get past the initial block, and both Jarrett and McKinley have at least been applying some real pressure. It doesn’t matter if you’re beating your block in 2.5 seconds if the ball is in the air in 2.3, or if it takes you another second to get there and coverage is breaking down while you’re en route.
The problem, again, is largely with what Atlanta has put around them. I have no doubt that there are several players who will be better a year from now—there’s nowhere to go but up, really—but as was the case during the prime John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux years, a couple of key defensive linemen are playing well without much support. I’m bullish on the young cornerbacks in this defense, but none of them are locks to take a big step forward. About the only players I trust to be 100% and kicking ass a year from now in the back seven are Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen.
This is not an academic concern, either. Jarrett is still young and under contract for the long haul, but the Falcons have to decide on Takk’s fifth-year option coming up, and the Falcons figure to have to make some pretty sweeping changes to the defense in the next two years without reams of cap space or a huge war chest of picks with which to make them. We talk all the time about wasting Matt Ryan’s prime with this defense, but this team will also be wasting Jarrett’s if they can’t trot out better than, say, the 31st-ranked unit in the NFL sooner than later.
In summary, Takk and Jarrett are the only two real building blocks up front at the moment, barring Cominsky or Senat suddenly transforming into a force of nature just in time for the 2020 season. The Falcons owe it to both of them—but Jarrett in particular, given the long-term deal he just signed—to build a defense that gives them a real opportunity to eat.