No matter what the Falcons say or do in the coming months, you shouldn’t expect them to spend top dollar on a free agent pass rusher. That means no Jadeveon Clowney, no Everson Griffen, and probably no one like Arik Armstead or Jason Pierre-Paul, though those names aren’t completely impossible.
Atlanta’s much more likely to try to re-build their pass rush through the draft and through judicious, affordable signings. That probably made you crinkle your nose in disgust, but it’s the cap reality and it doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world. Remember, a year ago the Falcons used a lot of their money on the likes of Vic Beasley, Allen Bailey, and Tyeler Davison, with two of those guys being run stoppers and the other being someone who didn’t get things going until the second half of the season.
On the other hand, the Falcons had to like what they saw from John Cominsky in his opportunities this season, and Adrian Clayborn was absolutely a quality addition. If they actually nail their draft pick this year and get a couple of players of Clayborn’s caliber with their available funds, they’ll likely fare better in 2020. Here are five players to watch as the team shops in the
DE Adrian Clayborn
2019 stats: 15 games, 4.0 sacks, 7 QB hits, 12 pressures, 5 hurries
I’ll honestly be upset if they don’t re-sign Clayborn.
In four seasons with Atlanta, Clayborn has played 60 of 64 possible regular season games, has 21 sacks (good for 17th in team history), and has been rock solid as a pass rusher and run defender throughout his tenure. At worst, he’s an extremely solid part of a rotation, and he’s shown no sign of slowing down heading into his age 32 season.
Clayborn’s deal in 2019 was for one year and $4 million, and if they can sign him back for that amount or a bit more, they should absolutely do so. He’ll be a nice mentor for whoever the team drafts and an essential part of the rotation at defensive end.
DE/DT Quinton Jefferson
2019 stats: 14 games, 3.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, 16 pressures, 5 hurries
Unfortunately for Jefferson, a broken foot suffered in the NFC Divisional Round matchup with the Packers is going to hurt his market value. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks, too, which means his next contract probably isn’t going to be a blockbuster one.
Scratch beneath the surface a little bit and you’ll find a lot to like with Jefferson, however. Jefferson’s 16 pressures were second on the Seahawks and would’ve been fourth on the Falcons, and he would’ve been second on the team to Grady Jarrett in terms of quarterback knockdowns. He started 14 games, can play defensive end or defensive tackle as needed, and is at worst a solid run defender as well.
You’ll have to be confident he’ll be 100% to start the year to sign him if you’re the Falcons, who desperately need healthy and effective bodies on that defensive line, but Jefferson’s exactly the kind of affordable, versatile defender Atlanta could use.
DE Benson Mayowa
2019 stats: 15 games, 7.0 sacks, 10 QB hits, 15 pressures, 3 hurries
It feels like I add Mayowa to this list every year in vain, but maybe this is the year that changes. The superficially impressive sack numbers are nice but his production has actually been pretty consistent. A year ago for Arizona, Mayowa managed 16 pressures, 11 QB hits, and 7 hurries, but only 4 sacks, which gave Oakland the opportunity to sign him for less than $2 million. He proved to be an absolute bargain, finishing second on the team in sacks and top three in every pass rushing metric overall.
Mayowa will turn 30 this coming year but has played in 15 games each of the last two seasons, has plenty of experience as a rotational pass rusher for teams across the NFL, and is producing at a level that makes him a strong, affordable addition for teams that need that help. The Falcons are, of course, one such team.
DE Emmanuel Ogbah
2019 stats: 10 games, 5.5 sacks, 11 QB hits, 14 pressures, 4 hurries
I don’t have a great feel for Ogbah’s market, but he hasn’t put up the big, flashy numbers you’d expect to break the vault open.
With Ogbah, what you’re betting on is talent and youth coming together in a major way. In 2018, Ogbah only put up 3 sacks, but had 26 pressures (which equals Grady Jarrett’s 2019 total, for reference) and was a hyper-reliable tackler near the line of scrimmage. He’ll be just 27 in 2020 and could be a problem for opposing offensive lines again if he’s healthy and the talent surrounding him is capable enough, and I’d certainly gamble on that outcome given his talent.
He’d be a strong Allen Bailey replacement, given that Bailey’s 2019 did not go well and he’s in real danger of being cut heading into 2020.
DE Stephen Weatherly
2019 stats: 16 games, 3.0 sacks, 9 QB hits, 14 pressures, 5 hurries
Weatherly would be the most affordable option on this list, and would be more of a candidate for the back end of the rotation than anything else. I’m listing him here because he’s consistently generated a decent amount of pressure and is a capable, durable defensive end the Falcons could sign for cheap. Those players are valuable and not necessarily common, given the way dollars fly for pass rushers.