Dante Fowler is the most impactful pass rusher the Falcons have added in many, many years. With that in mind, I thought we could take a quick look at Atlanta’s track record signing pass rushers (or guys who did a little pass rushing, at least) and see how they’ve fared handing out contracts in the past.
Fair warning: It’s not real pretty, but don’t let that make you think that Fowler isn’t a good player. The Falcons’ struggles have been a combination of poor evaluation, signing the wrong guy at the wrong time, and not spending a whole lot of money. Let’s get to it.
2011 - Ray Edwards: Huge flop
You have to put yourselves in the shoes of the 2011 version of yourself for this signing. The Falcons had to get John Abraham some help, and Edwards seemed like a godsend at a fairly reasonable price. He was coming off back-to-back years with 8+ sacks for Minnesota, was just entering his age-26 season, and would be joining a quietly solid line. Even if he capped out at 8 sacks a year and plenty of pressure, he’d be a huge addition, and a lot of us were excited about it.
Unfortunately, the Falcons missed big-time here. It’s not clear if there were warning signs about Edwards and his lack of interest in football at the time or not, but he registered 3.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 16 games in 2011—for comparison’s sake, Takk’s disappointing 2019 saw him register 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 14 games—and did absolutely nothing in nine games in 2012, when the team certainly could’ve used him. This is the signing that has given some pause for Dante Fowler, a clearly superior player.
2013 - Osi Umenyiora: Solid but unspectacular
The Edwards signing apparently led the Falcons to conclude that signing a young player to a big money deal was not the way to go, something that fit the Mike Smith veteran-heavy ethos perfectly. So they went and got Osi Umenyiora instead, and while they got more out of that signing than they did with Edwards, it was not a massive success.
In 2013, Osi put up 7.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in total, numbers pretty close to what he did the year before with the Giants. Remember, Osi was 32 at this point, so the falcons had to know they weren’t going to get massive numbers. In 2014, he managed just 2.5 sacks on 9 quarterback hits, though he did have an amazing 86 yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Based on his age, the contract given, and his recent production, the Falcons got about what they thought they would’ve from Osi. It’s just that the dropoff in 2014, his final year in the NFL, helped contribute to the team’s unfortunate finish, which got Mike Smith fired.
2015: Brooks Reed: A better run defender than a pass rusher
Reed was fine as a pass rusher, but with just 7 combined sacks and 20 quarterback hits in four seasons, he was hardly a force to be reckoned with in that regard. He was a good, versatile defender who did fine work against the run, however, so it’s not like the signing was at all a waste.
2015: O’Brien Schofield: Solid but unspectacular
Schofield had a quietly good 2015, putting up just 2 sacks but managing 13 quarterback hits as a relentless presence on a rebuilding Falcons defense. The next year he didn’t get to do much of anything, but the price was right and Quinn signaled early on that he was going to be much more reliant on a rotation along his defensive line than Mike Smith was.
2015, 2019: Adrian Clayborn: Great value
Clayborn is a player I’m hoping the Falcons can bring back once again. Both of his contracts in Atlanta have been affordable for the team, he’s averaged 5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits per season, and he’s been a stone solid run defender throughout. Considering contract, production, fit, and everyone else on this list, he is probably the best pass rusher the Falcons signed in the Thomas Dimitroff era. I love Clay, but that’s not a cheery thought, even so.
2016: Dwight Freeney: Solid but extremely helpful
The great Freeney joined Atlanta for but a single season, and his 3 sacks and 10 quarterback hits were in line with players like Edwards and Umenyiora before him. The difference was that Freeney also provided some stellar leadership and coaching, with Vic Beasley giving him considerable credit for his breakout year and the entire defense seemingly benefitting from his presence. Alas, that was his only year in Atlanta.
2017: Jack Crawford: Solid but unspectacular
Crawford’s 2017 was largely wiped out by injury and his 2019 saw him on a reduced snap count that saw his production plummet, even if he was still pretty useful on a per-snap basis. The 2018 season went much better for him as the most visible non-Grady Jarrett part of the defensive tackle rotation, as he posted 6 sacks and 9 quarterback hits on the year.
What can we get out of this? The Falcons have only made one fairly large splash in the Dimitroff era before this offseason, and that flopped miserably. In a must-win year, the Falcons have finally tried to sign a top-tier pass rusher, albeit one with only one year of elite production.
The team’s track record here is not inspiring. Clayborn is the most productive player on the list in terms of sacks, quarterback hits and pressures, and he’s always been best as a third or fourth option as a pass rusher, though his completeness as a player makes him a great addition to any defense. Everyone else has either flamed out, put up decent complementary numbers for a year or two, or were effectively brought on for veteran leadership purposes. Considering John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux were already here, the closest the Falcons have come to acquiring top-shelf pass rushers have been the draft picks they invested in Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley, and neither one has had stellar careers to this point.
This is all to suggest that if Fowler turns out to be great for the Falcons, he’ll be the first free agent pass rusher in more than a decade to work out for Atlanta. Hey, it has to happen eventually, right?