Now that the dust has settled a little bit on free agency, we have a chance to take a closer look at the roster the Falcons have assembled. Obviously, we’ve still got the draft and a ton of UDFAs to add to the mix, but we can get some insight into their possible plans going forward. Atlanta was active in pursuing free agents on the defensive line, adding one of the top players in Dante Fowler and bringing back strong NT Tyeler Davison. They also let some important contributors walk away, like Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn.
Before we jump in, here’s a quick rundown of everyone Atlanta currently has under contract at EDGE and DT:
Let’s take a closer look at how the Falcons might deploy their current roster of defensive linemen in both base and nickel packages.
Base Package 4-3
In the Falcons’ base package 4-3 under, the defense will generally have 4 down linemen and 3 LBs. This package is designed primarily to stop the run, but also must have players capable of covering TEs and RBs out of the backfield. Atlanta’s scheme is primarily a 1-gap, penetration-focused attack, but certain positions may be asked to 2-gap depending on the opponent and situation. Obviously, having a set of players who can both stop the run and rush the passer (at least to some extent) is ideal, as NFL teams use play-action frequently.
7T (Weakside) EDGE: Dante Fowler Jr. (Reserve: Takkarist McKinley)
In the Falcons’ base package, the 7T weakside (aka the side of the formation with fewer players) EDGE is primarily responsible for setting the edge in the C gap. He’ll also be in a strong position to rush the passer from a wide alignment in the event of play-action. Dante Fowler is best suited for this role, with his excellent athleticism and play strength against the run. Behind him, Takkarist McKinley is another good option, and the Falcons will likely rotate the two with another player like Steven Means to keep everyone fresh.
3T DT: Grady Jarrett (Reserve: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner)
The 3T DT (or “under tackle” in the Falcons’ 4-3 under alignment) is a penetrator and gap-shooter—both in the base defense and in the nickel. His objective is to beat his opponent off the snap and cause immediate disruption in the backfield—ideally resulting in a sack or TFL. Grady Jarrett is perfect for this role and is one of the best at his position in the NFL. Behind him, however, the Falcons have very little. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is the most likely candidate to take snaps in Jarrett’s absence, but the fall-off from Jarrett to him is steep.
1T NT: Tyeler Davison (Reserve: Deadrin Senat)
The 1T NT in the Falcons’ base package is a run-stuffer first and foremost. His job is to occupy multiple blockers and clog running lanes in the middle of the offensive line, freeing up the LBs to make plays. Tyeler Davison was excellent here in 2019 and has returned for 2020, which should once again give the Falcons a strong run defense. Behind him is Deadrin Senat, who has barely played since looking promising in his 2018 rookie season.
5T (Strongside) EDGE: Allen Bailey (Reserve: John Cominsky)
In the Falcons’ base package, the 5T strongside (aka the side of the formation with more players) EDGE is generally a bigger, more run-focused edge defender who can set the edge and potentially take on multiple blockers. Depending on the formation and opponent, the 5T may be asked to 2-gap—this position is actually much closer to a 3-4 DE than a 4-3 DE in terms of play style. Allen Bailey is ideally suited for this role, as he was a 3-4 DE for the Chiefs throughout his career and has a versatile skillset. Behind him, second-year player John Cominsky has a similar size archetype and can fill a similar role.
Nickel Package 4-3
In the Falcons’ nickel package 4-3 under, the defense will generally have 4 down linemen and 2 LBs. The goal is to create penetration and disruption as quickly as possible, and this package will almost always be a 1-gap, attacking scheme. This is likely to be the defense Atlanta deploys most frequently, and will have a ton of variations. Modern NFL offenses are much more unpredictable when running 3 or more WRs, so defenses can’t simply sell out to stop the pass every play. The above scenario is a typical third-down defensive formation, but early down nickel sets will more closely resemble the base package. Atlanta also likes to roll out their “NASCAR” formation, with two 3T DTs and two 7T (or wider) EDGEs. That is exclusively a pass-centric alignment, typically deployed in obvious passing situations.
7T-9T (Weakside) EDGE: Dante Fowler Jr. (Reserve: Steven Means)
In early-down situations, the role of the weakside EDGE will be fairly similar in the nickel package to the base package. In obvious passing situations, however, the weakside EDGE will focus entirely on pass rush and may align even farther out at 9T depending on the opponent. The objective is to disrupt the QB as quickly as possible, with the ultimate goal being a sack and/or turnover. Dante Fowler makes the most sense here, due to his athleticism and pass rushing ability. Behind him will likely be a rotation of players, including Steven Means.
3T DT: John Cominsky (Reserve: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner)
The 3T DT in the nickel package has essentially the same exact role as the base package: penetrate and cause disruption as quickly as possible. With Adrian Clayborn gone, second-year player John Cominsky has a chance to take over Clayborn’s inside/outside role. He’s got the highest upside of anyone currently on the roster at the position, and could be quite good here. Behind him, the Falcons will likely rotate players like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Allen Bailey.
1T NT: Grady Jarrett (Reserve: Deadrin Senat)
In the nickel package, the 1T NT takes on a similar role to the 3T DT. With fewer blockers to contend with, the NT is focused on attacking and disrupting the QB and/or backfield. The role is somewhat interchangeable with the 3T—and the Falcons frequently run multiple 3Ts in obvious passing situations—but as the 1T is most likely to encounter multiple blockers, it needs to be a “true” DT. Grady Jarrett is the obvious choice, as he’s shown how effective he can be when lined up against the center. Behind him will be a rotation of players like Deadrin Senat and Tyeler Davison.
5T-7T (Strongside) EDGE: Takkarist McKinley (Reserve: Austin Larkin)
In the nickel package, the strongside EDGE typically shifts to more of a pass-rushing focus. Setting the edge is still a primary objective, but getting to the QB is a higher priority based on the personnel. Takkarist McKinley has played on both sides of the formation throughout his career, and can continue to do so across from Dante Fowler. Both are likely to be moved around frequently to take advantage of specific matchups. Behind him will be players like Austin Larkin and Steven Means—more traditional 4-3 DEs.
Taking a closer look at the Falcons possible defensive line formations has given us a closer look at their needs. For starters, the EDGE rotation actually looks fairly solid. I’d like them to add another impact player there, but rolling into the season with Dante Fowler, Takkarist McKinley, Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, Steven Means, and Austin Larkin wouldn’t be terrible. There’s a good mix of pass rushing, run defending, and inside/outside versatility here.
On the other hand, the DT group is very thin. Grady Jarrett is a star and Tyeler Davison is an excellent run-defending NT, but outside of them there is very little. Can Deadrin Senat take on a larger role? Possibly. But Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is an undersized option who hasn’t really made a mark in limited action. The only proven interior pass rusher on the roster is Jarrett. Atlanta really needs to add an interior pass rusher in the draft to fill out this group. Otherwise, we’re one Jarrett injury away from having essentially nothing on the inside.
If the Falcons were to add an impact EDGE or DT early in the draft—say, K’Lavon Chaisson or Javon Kinlaw—I think this defensive line group would actually have the potential to be quite good. As it stands now, I think it’s solid but unspectacular. Any injuries to starters would put the whole thing in jeopardy of turning bad, though.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the defensive line? Do you think the Falcons should target DL early in the 2020 NFL Draft?