Despite not making any splash signings in free agency, it hasn’t been a quiet off-season in Atlanta. Several coaches were fired. Many long-time veterans were released. High round draft picks have felt the pressure of needing to perform at a higher level. Unsuccessful contract negotiations with key players have left some lingering concern across the fan base. There have been plenty of noteworthy headlines to make up for the lack of notable signings, and the Falcons have been gaining momentum of late.
With the NFC continuing to get better, the Falcons can’t afford to take another step back. This is a team built to win now. Pro Football Focus’ Garrett Mehal joins me to examine the Falcons’ roster and free agency thus far, with those thoughts in mind. He is the man behind the PFF Falcons Twitter account.
Off-season acquisitions and declarations on both lines
How the Falcons are going to improve in the trenches has been the central focus of their off-season. While major reinforcements are obviously needed, they had to make sure their main centerpiece remains in Atlanta. Grady Jarrett has developed into their most consistent player on the defensive line. He is coming off the best of his career, which meant a lucrative long-term deal appeared to be imminent. That hasn’t quite come to fruition as Jarrett received the franchise tag. Despite developing into one of the top defensive tackles in the league, the front office couldn’t come to terms with him for the long haul. Jarrett isn’t on the level of Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox, but there is a strong case to be made for him being right below them alongside the likes of Chris Jones and Geno Atkins.
“Jarrett is definitely in the second-tier,” Mehal stated. “He’s an interesting case because he wasn’t always getting to the quarterback at the level of the players you previously mentioned. In the last five games of last season, Jarrett was playing at a premier level. He was getting five to six pressures a game. Quarterbacks had to get the ball out quicker because of his disruptiveness.”
“I’m not sure what the holdup is in regards to his contract situation. Could they be hesitant because he hasn’t always been consistent as a pass rusher? It’s hard to say. Jarrett has always been an outstanding run defender. How he progresses as a pass rusher will be interesting in 2019. If he can sustain the numbers he was putting up at the end of the season, he can be right below the likes of Donald and Cox.”
Although Jarrett isn’t the only player on the roster due for a massive payday, his contract situation did restrict the Falcons going into free agency. Not having the cap space to pursue players such as Rodger Saffold left the front office searching for viable starting options at a cheaper price. James Carpenter and Jamon Brown were signed as potential solutions to their biggest positional need. Mehal understands the logic behind signing both players. That doesn’t mean he envisions them being difference makers on a revamped offensive line.
“Neither player can be considered as an above-average guard,” Mehal stated. “It’s more average to slightly below average when assessing them. Both players do bring starting experience, particularly in playing for good teams like the Rams and Seahawks. They also bring much-needed depth because the only guards on the roster were Brandon Fusco and Wes Schweitzer going into the off-season. I wouldn’t consider either signing to be a huge upgrade. The signings were definitely necessary given the situation at the position.”
On the defensive line, there has been plenty of discussion about Vic Beasley’s status. The former first round pick is facing major scrutiny. After becoming the NFL sack king in 2016, he hasn’t come anywhere close to matching that production. Beasley isn’t overwhelming tackles with his blistering first step and wicked agility anymore. Instead of generating pressure, he is being largely erased out of most games. Quinn spoke about taking a more “hands on” approach to get the most out of Beasley. Mehal is unsure of what to expect from him at this stage of his career.
“The talk last off-season was about them not using Beasley as an off-ball linebacker anymore,” Mehal said. “They weren’t going to give him any coverage responsibilities anymore. Putting him in a pure pass-rushing role was the plan. That didn’t work out last year, as he was near the bottom of the league in pass-rushing productivity. I’m not sure how they can use him differently at this point. He’s shown he can produce at a somewhat high level. We saw plenty of good things from him in his first two seasons. For him to regress puts the coaching staff in a tough spot. He is Quinn’s guy, but this has to be the make-or-break year for him. You’d like to see Beasley improve his hands, while the coaching staff tries to get more creative in utilizing him.”