Last week, we took a closer look at what kind of shape Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn left the Falcons offense in, at least in terms of players who will be under contract in 2021 and beyond, now that both are gone and Atlanta will be in new hands next year. The conclusion was that they’re potentially set on the offensive line, have a great receiving corps, and have their veteran quarterback under contract, but there are lingering depth issues, holes at running back and potentially tight end soon, and obviously big questions about whether the next regime will want to move forward with Matt Ryan beyond next year.
That’s a long-winded way of saying the offense is expensive but, as you’d expect, in decent shape. What about the defense?
Below, we’ll look at players ages and contract status in 2021, the broad contours of deals and potential outs, and what
Dante Fowler Jr.: 27, 2023 contract expiration, 2022 out
Allen Bailey: 32, 2022 contract expiration, 2021 out
The single greatest failure of the Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn era was the inability for the team to find quality defensive ends. The draft capital that has gone into the position over the past decade-plus is pretty breathtaking, and the best players of the era have been Takk McKinley (unfortunately often hurt and likely headed elsewhere in 2021), Vic Beasley (who had one massive year but otherwise largely fell well short of expectations), and...Kroy Biermann?
The Falcons will go into 2021 essentially needing to start over. They may be able to bring McKinley back on a deal that fits within their cap picture and I’d welcome that, but Fowler is expensive and has not been very productive thus far in 2020. Bailey is a logical cut candidate who seems to be coming alive this year, and may be kept simply because it’s hard to rebuild a position entirely in the course of one year.
Atlanta’s long-term failures to sign effective free agents or draft difference makers will mean the next GM and head coach will have a bit of a frustrating conundrum on their hands at this position, and on a defense that looks more well-stocked than you might have thought coming into this story, that’s likely to be a problem that requires a lot of short-term effort to fix.
Grady Jarrett: 28, 2023 contract expiration, 2022 out
Marlon Davidson: 23, 2024 contract expiration
Tyeler Davison: 28, 2023 contract expiration, 2021 out
John Cominsky: 25, 2023 contract expiration
Deadrin Senat: 27, 2022 contract expiration
The Falcons are actually quite well stocked at defensive tackle, a stark contrast to defensive end. Jarrett is one of the league’s elite defensive tackles, a player who consistently grades out among the top few options in the league both against the run and as a pass rusher, and is at least a short-term building block for the next regime.
Beyond that things are less settled, but the team has plenty of options. Davidson figures to be a difference maker as soon as next year, even if this year has largely been lost to injuries and the reserve/COVID-19 list thus far. Davison is a quality run stopper having a quiet year who could be a cap casualty, but is at least a dependable player if Atlanta wants to keep him around. Cominsky has shown flashes of talent that suggest he can be a capable pass rusher in the middle, and nobody knows what the hell is going on with Senat but he’s affordable and always seems to play pretty well in limited action.
It’s anyone’s guess what the Falcons will do here under the next regime, but in Grady, Davidson and Cominsky, at minimum, they have the makings of a strong group.
Deion Jones: 26, 2024 contract expiration, 2022 out
Foye Oluokun: 26, 2022 contract expiration
Mykal Walker: 24, 2024 contract expiration
The Falcons have not always drafted well under Thomas Dimitroff when it comes to linebacker—at one point they were started two undrafted free agents in the late Mike Smith era, if you’ll recall—but they’ve been nailing it of late. The result is that while the next regime will have to re-sign Oluokun soon, they’ve got a very strong base for the linebacker group.
Debo’s been up and down the last couple of seasons, but he is coming off a vintage game against the Vikings and will hopefully build on it. He’s just 26 and his contract will be impossible to move without significant penalties until at least 2022, so he’s likely to be considered a building block for the next staff. Ditto Oluokun, who only has one more year under contract but has been arguably the team’s best non-Jarrett defender thus far.
Walker is at minimum solid depth and has shown great instincts and physicality in his young career, and he’ll be here forever on an affordable deal. Between the three of them, they should put linebacker in great shape for the short term and be an attractive position group for the next defensive coordinator to work with.
A.J. Terrell: 22, 2024 fifth year option
Isaiah Oliver: 24, 2022 contract expiration
Kendall Sheffield: 25, 2023 contract expiration
Jordan Miller: 24, 2023 contract expiration
This is an insanely young group, with Sheffield somehow being the oldest player under contract next year at cornerback. Terrell has already shown signs of becoming a great young corner, Oliver is still young enough to figure it out and has a couple of great plays mixed in with a frustrating year, and Sheffield has shown promise and athleticism, if uneven results. This could be a group you can build around, but Terrell at least looks like pretty close to a sure bet thus far.
We’ve seen nothing of Miller but he’s young and had a solid college career, so he hopefully can settle in as at least quality depth.
Ricardo Allen: 29, 2022 contract expiration
Jaylinn Hawkins: 24, 2024 contract expiration
The Falcons didn’t do a bad job of building the safety position, but unfortunately they appear to be cursed there. Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee are both free agents, and Neal is rounding into form but is still coming off two season-ending injuries in a row. Kazee just suffered his own this year.
Allen is still a solid, heady starter at this point in his career and figures to be an ideal bridge player for 2021, given his leadership qualities and all-around game. It’s anyone’s guess whether the new staff will pay to keep him into his 30s, but I’m grateful he’s here for now. Hawkins isn’t a lock to be a starter by any stretch of the imagination but will get a chance to prove himself as the third safety the rest of the way once he’s healthy. The team will have some big decisions to make on Keanu and Kazee in the offseason, and I genuinely don’t know if they’re coming back.
The Falcons are going to be extremely weak at defensive end and safety next year, with Fowler and Allen the only proven options at those two positions. Allen is solid but Fowler has a lot to prove the rest of the way, obviously, given his relative lack of production thus far in 2020.
Beyond those two major sore spots, though, this is a defense with some real pieces to build around. Jarrett and Jones are established, recognizable stars, but Oluokun is growing into one and Terrell looks largely terrific thus far. The team has done a nice job in recent years of stocking the cupboard with young rotational pieces at defensive tackle, linebacker, and cornerback, and the hope is that they’ll continue to grow under a new staff that might be able to get more out of guys like Oliver and Senat who have struggled a lot under the current regime.
It’s not positioned to be a great defense anytime soon, not without major defensive end and safety additions and a general uplift of the talent. But I do think the Falcons have built enough pieces to put an average defense on the field, something that would take them a long way toward contention in 2021, and the real shame of Dimitroff in particular being let go now is that he didn’t get to see how well some of these strong-looking picks will end up faring in the coming years.
Overall, just doing this exercise has made me a bit more optimistic about the state of the team, even if cuts, needed infusions of talent, and a general lack of depth across the roster are still significant limiting factors for the next GM and head coach. Next time out, we’ll look at special teams.