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Falcons post-2019 roster review, defensive end edition

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It’s Takk and a lot of question marks for 2020.

NFL: DEC 30 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re on to the defensive side of the ball for our 2019 roster review. Like the offensive side of the ball, this is going to be a bit of a roller coaster.

We begin with an annual trouble spot for Atlanta. Defensive end wasn’t a liability in 2019, per se, but it was an up-and-down position group that might be gutted by free agency. It would be fair to say I neither expected the team to be in this position or wanted them to be in this position, not after they’ve put two first round picks into it in the past five seasons. But it’s the reality we must march forward with.

Let’s get to the review.

Starters

DE Takk McKinley

2019 stats: 14 games, 29 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits, 12 hurries, 21 pressures, 14.7% missed tackle rate, 2 forced fumbles, 1 pass deflection

Contract: 1 year remaining; 5th year option for 2021

Two things are simultaneously true: Takk was unlucky this past season, and Takk had a lesser year than he did in 2018, when it looked like he was on the cusp of breaking out. This leaves the Falcons with a tough decision this offseason.

Let’s start with the good. Takk was among the team leaders in pressures once again, was a solid run defender at worst, and was frequently around the quarterback, if not actively hitting him. His low sack total compared to Vic Beasley is a bit fluky, given that Takk both pressured and hit opposing quarterbacks more often than Beasley, but didn’t get sacks. Some of that is a quarterback getting rid of the ball, some of it is arriving a split second too late, but Takk is powerful and quick enough to make life miserable for passers, and there were still flashes of that in 2019.

The other side of the coin is that Takk has still not broken out the way he or the team hoped he would. He had vowed to get double digit sacks this year and didn’t even come close, and for all the fine work he did as a pass rusher this year, his totals are still lagging way behind the league’s best pass rushers. His 21 pressures are about a third of the total put up by T.J. Watt, who had 60 and led the league, and Takk isn’t the elite run defender he’d need to be to make up for that.

When the talent is evident but the results are mixed, what do you do with Takk’s fifth year option? The Falcons already invested in Vic Beasley under similar (but not identical) circumstances and only got quality play out of him after their playoff hopes were sunk, and they’ll undoubtedly be leery of repeating that with Takk. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on the contract front, but either way, 2020 is a pivotal year for McKinley. I still believe he can and will be much more productive this time around.

DE Vic Beasley

2019 Stats: 16 games, 42 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits, 7 hurries, 18 pressures, 6.7% missed tackle rate, 2 forced fumbles, 2 pass deflections

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Beasley remains one of the most fascinating and infuriating players to pass through Atlanta in some time. If this is it for his time with the Falcons, he finishes 5th all-time on the team’s sacks leaderboard, 6th in quarterback hits, and 8th in tackles for loss, which should lead to everyone looking back fondly on his time in Atlanta. Yet I suspect that won’t happen.

There’s little question that 2019 was a better year for Vic, who cut his missed tackle rate down from a frankly putrid 35% to around 7%, increased his sack total by three, and really turned on the jets to enjoy a fine second half by just about any measure. The talent—particularly the speed and unwillingness to let the quarterback go once he gets ahold of him—is never in question, but the results have been maddening. On the surface, at least, that wasn’t the case this past year.

And yet. Despite blitzing 12 more times in 2019, his total hurries fell by 6 and his pressures fell by 2, and Beasley’s pass rushing production was particularly anemic in the first half of the season. Takk wins his matchups fairly often and just can’t close things out, a problem reminiscent of the great Jonathan Babineaux. Beasley rarely wins his matchups but gets to the quarterback at warp speed when he does win, leading to better surface level production.

It should be readily apparent to the Falcons and to Beasley that a fresh start would do him good. The Falcons like to keep things simple on defense and count on their defenders to win their matchups, and after five years in the NFL Vic just doesn’t win those matchups consistently enough for things to work out in Atlanta’s defense. Vic’s game-changing speed, his improved work as a tackler, and the likelihood that he won’t command top pass rusher money makes him an ideal fit for a team that needs a complementary pass rusher/linebacker and can scheme pressure effectively. I have little doubt that if he lands in the right spot, Beasley is perfectly capable of putting up double digit sacks, but I doubt it’ll be Atlanta.

Reserves

DE Adrian Clayborn

2019 stats: 15 games, 18 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits, 5 hurries, 12 pressures, 0.0% missed tackle rate, 2 forced fumbles

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Clayborn came aboard after a quick stint in New England and was immediately a useful rotational player again, as he always was in Atlanta before. The numbers don’t pop off the page, but Clayborn was a pretty productive pass rusher given his snap totals, the surest tackler on the team in his opportunities, and a fine defender against the run once again. He’s just a good, solid player who fits what the Falcons are trying to do on defense.

That’s why they shouldn’t overthink bringing him back. The team’s chronic failure to develop young defensive ends means they’re heading into 2020 with just Takk as a semi-proven option, which means they once again need veterans who can play 20-30 snaps a game at a pretty high level. Clayborn’s certainly that guy.

DE Allen Bailey

2019 stats: 15 games, 26 tackles, 1.0 sack, 4 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 2 hurries, 4 pressures, 23.5% missed tackle rate

Contract: 1 year remaining

Bailey was a rock solid signing on paper, one I welcomed with open arms. He turned in a typically solid year against the run, but otherwise it was an off year for a player with a long history of being a capable player at the position.

I don’t care to speculate as to why that was, given that Bailey missed time this year for a personal issue. I just know that he wasn’t much of an asset as a pass rusher and missed 8 tackles, which might cloud his future with the team despite their lack of options along the defensive line.

It seems unlikely that Bailey would repeat that lack of productivity, for what it’s worth. He had 6 sacks and 17 pressures a year ago, which would have put him in the top 3-4 on the team in 2019 had he kept that level of production up. If he’s stepping into a slightly larger role and more comfortable in 2020, I think he’ll be a fine piece of the rotation, but with the possibility of $4 million in cap savings, I don’t think we can count on that.

DE/DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

2019 stats: 8 games, 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 2 hurries, 2 pressures, 0.0% missed tackle rate, 1 forced fumble

Contract: 1 year remaining; Restricted Free Agent in 2021

Part of the reason Bailey might not be back is the emergence of Tuioti-Mariner, who looked quite good as a run defender in the back half of the season. He’s been gaining valuable experience on the practice squad and has likely seized a role he won’t surrender after the impressive audition.

Tuioti-Mariner is under contract for 2020 at the ridiculously cheap price of $585,000, and at that price if he’s a solid early down end, he’ll be an absolute bargain. His work this year tells us he can handle it just fine.

DE/DT John Cominsky

2019 stats: 10 games, 11 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 2 hurries, 3 pressures, 0.0% missed tackle rate

Contract: 3 years remaining

Cominsky may be moving to defensive tackle in 2020, if Dan Quinn and company’s comments before the year are any indication. Either way, he should be an interesting player to watch.

In his brief playing time in 2019, Cominsky showed an ability to fight through garbage and get into the backfield. A year of refinement in combination with his obvious gifts athletically should make him at least a productive member of the rotation along the defensive line, no matter where he plays, but I wouldn’t project more than that just yet.

Outlook: Shaky

Right now, you have Takk McKinley fresh off surgery, Allen Bailey fresh off an off year, and a couple of young, interesting players in Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and John Cominsky. I don’t have to tell you that they’re not in great shape at the position, and re-signing Clayborn and maybe Steven Means helps but does not remotely get them close to the level of play they need to realize in 2020.

The draft is an obvious spot to look for help, and I fully expect the Falcons will do bargain bin shopping in free agency and then draft a pass rusher at defensive end in the early going. They’re going to need better from Bailey (if he’s here) and that long-awaited true breakout from Takk to make this position special in 2020, either way. It’s depressing to write that given the resources the Falcons have invested into defensive end in the Dan Quinn era, but it is the reality.

The Falcons can either attempt to create an elite defensive tackle grouping and live with solid play from their ends or try to swing for the fences and get a partner for Takk who can move the needle. Either way, they can’t miss again.