We’ve talked about what might happen if the Falcons took a defensive end, right tackle, or cornerback at 14, but we haven’t covered defensive tackle just yet. Let’s remedy that today.
Who might the Falcons take?
Ed Oliver is the guy if the Falcons have been gathering their ammo to move up for, but it’s probably a stretch to think that he’ll be available at 14. A freak athlete who on his best days simply hammers his way through opposing offensive linemen, Oliver would pair with Grady Jarrett to create one of the league’s most exciting young tandems on the interior, and he could be useful at end if the Falcons want to mix and match their fronts. It’s a virtual lock they’ll need to go up and get him, however. Ditto Quinnen Williams, who doesn’t have the same profile but is in danger of being underrated now given his college production and huge skill.
If they’re content to wait, it’d be Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, or perhaps Jerry Tillery. Wilkins and Lawrence are big beefy run stoppers with some pass rushing punch, while Tillery is likely to fall further but has deeply intriguing upside.
What does it mean for the roster in 2019?
An absolutely loaded defensive tackle rotation, and the opportunity to do some interesting things on the defensive line more generally. Adding Oliver would allow the Falcons to put some sets on the field on run downs that could feature Oliver and Takk McKinley/Adrian Clayborn at end, with Grady Jarrett/Deadrin Senat/Tyeler Davison clogging up the middle. On obvious passing downs, meanwhile, the Falcons will be able to bring some combination of Jarrett, Oliver and Crawford to bear, and Jarrett and Crawford accounted for nearly a third of the team’s sacks a year ago without Oliver in the mix. That would be a fun line.
If they go with someone like Wilkins, meanwhile, they will have a compelling early down rotation and the ability to have the likes of Jarrett and Davison playing end when needed. The Falcons have (wisely or unwisely) talked a lot about stopping the run, and a line with more power and size helps to accomplish that.
Either way, adding a defensive tackle gives this team real talent and terrific depth on the interior, allowing them to do some creative things and keeping their best players fresh.
What does it mean long-term?
That the Falcons are looking to have a strong, capable set of defensive tackles over the long haul. Jack Crawford was a valuable player a year ago and the Falcons reportedly want to keep Davison around for longer than the 2019 season, which is all they have him for at the moment, but there’s no guarantee either will return. If they don’t and the Falcons don’t invest at defensive tackle, they’ll have Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, and potentially Justin Zimmer if he develops into a useful player after another year on the practice squad. Adding a first round talent gives this team two slam dunk starting-caliber DTs, a valuable young rotational run stopper in Senat, and whoever else they choose to add going forward. Pairing a genuine talent with Jarrett will help the Falcons solidify their defensive front while they work on long-term solutions at end, at the very least.
What are the opportunity costs?
Similar to cornerback, this is adding a player who could be a significant long-term addition but would be an uneasy fit this year unless the Falcons were planning to move on from Crawford to free up snaps. If the team isn’t planning to make a significant addition to defensive end, they can use their mega rotation of defensive tackles at end too, especially on early downs, which solves some of that.
But adding a defensive tackle pushes an edge rusher down the board, it pushes a right tackle down the board, and it pushes cornerback down the board, and the Falcons have made it clear those are all significant needs. Adding elite talent has to trump those concerns, but again, prioritizing a position that is less of an immediate need means the Falcons need to either nail later picks or be comfortable with stopgaps at a couple of core positions.
We should be clear that defensive tackle is no longer a massive need, even if I really do want the Falcons to land a player like Ed Oliver. There’s a single-minded focus on size at defensive tackle that crowds out all other considerations, but the Falcons now have a multi-year starter in Davison who is a proven quality run stopper, the still-promising Senat, one of the league’s better young starters in Jarrett, and Crawford, who despite some uneven efforts last year managed six sacks and can legitimately get after the passer. When you consider that both Takk McKinley and Adrian Clayborn can kick inside when needed, the team is not in dire straits at the position.
Should the Falcons do it?
It depends entirely on the player. If you can add a player like Oliver or Williams (or even Tillery, but he may be there in the second round) who has the upside to be a great, you can talk me into it fairly easily. The Falcons only will have three veterans under contract in 2020 and one of them is Senat, who despite his promise is not a proven option just yet.
I’m less sold on Wilkins, Lawrence, et al, because while they are fine players who can contribute immediately, I’m not sold on them becoming dominant in the way that I think Oliver or Williams can be. Of course, given that those are the kinds of players more likely to be available at 14, I should probably get comfortable with the idea.