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Projecting the starting Falcons defense in 2020

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With NFL free agency, the draft, and the UDFA class all behind us, it’s finally time to start projecting the Falcons starting lineups in 2020. Today we take a look at the defense, where Atlanta invested four draft picks and a major free agent signing.

NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With NFL free agency, the 2020 draft, and my first 53-man roster projection behind us, it’s finally time for us to start taking a very early look at the potential starting units on the Falcons. My comrade Dave Choate already took a look at the Falcons offense, and today I’ll be turning my attention to the defense. Atlanta added four rookies to that side of the ball in the draft, including their first and second-rounders in CB A.J. Terrell and DT Marlon Davidson.

In today’s NFL, teams generally play two basic variations of defensive personnel: base package and nickel package. Base is generally played against heavier personnel—AKA less than 3 WRs. Nickel is played against 3 WRs, which is the most common formation in the NFL. Don’t pay too much attention to the name “base”, as Atlanta will be playing in their nickel formation more than 50% of the time.

The Falcons’ base package is most often the “4-3 under”, which is the formation I’ll be detailing below. For the nickel package, I’ve chosen the “4-2-5 NASCAR”, which is also one of the most frequent nickel formations for Atlanta. Keep in mind there are likely to be many variations of these basic formations—these are just two examples.

Base Package

7T Weakside EDGE: Dante Fowler Jr.

The Falcons’ big free agent signing is adept against both the run and pass, and should be the starter in the base package on the weakside. He’ll likely rotate for rest with players like Steven Means, Charles Harris, and Austin Larkin.

3T DT: Grady Jarrett

Atlanta’s star DT is likely to be a fixture on both the base and nickel defense, playing as many snaps as his stamina allows. He’ll be backed up at this spot by Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner.

1T NT: Tyeler Davison

Davison had a tremendous season against the run in 2019, and will be expected to reprise the NT role in 2020. He’ll likely be backed up by Deadrin Senat, who has barely seen the field since 2018.

5T Strongside EDGE: Allen Bailey

While Bailey disappointed as a pass rusher in 2019, he’s still a very good run defender at 5T. He’ll likely be backed up here by other EDGE/DT hybrids like Marlon Davidson and John Cominsky.

Weakside (WILL) LB: Foyesade Oluokun

The Falcons have limited options at LB, which means Foye Oluokun is a heavy favorite to take over the starting WILL role. He’ll be backed up by Mykal Walker (who can play all 3 roles) and LaRoy Reynolds.

Middle (MIKE) LB: Deion Jones

The star in the middle of the defense, Deion Jones is a force against both the run and pass. Depth behind him is limited however, with just Mykal Walker and LaRoy Reynolds capable of filling the role.

Strongside (SAM) LB: Mykal Walker

The rookie LB should have the inside track to start at SAM, as he only really has to compete with free agent addition and XFL standout Edmond Robinson. The loser of the battle will be the primary backup.

Left CB: A.J. Terrell

First-round pick A.J. Terrell will be thrown into the fire immediately in 2020, as there simply aren’t many other good options on the roster. Options to back up outside CB are Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Josh Hawkins, and Jordan Miller (once he returns from suspension).

Right CB: Isaiah Oliver

On the other side (the Falcons play sides instead of designating CB1/2 most of the time) will be third-year player Isaiah Oliver, who struggled early in 2019 but improved over the course of the season. Options to back up outside CB are Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Josh Hawkins, and Jordan Miller (once he returns from suspension).

FS: Ricardo Allen

Whether Ricardo Allen or Damontae Kazee start is probably likely to change based on the opponent, but I think Allen has the edge in the base package due to his sure tackling. Whoever isn’t starting will be the primary backup, plus a likely fifth safety like Chris Cooper.

SS: Keanu Neal

If Keanu Neal is back healthy in 2020, he’ll be a fixture on the defense and should take the lion’s share of snaps once again. Behind him is rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who should provide a more reliable upgrade than their previous options.

Nickel Package

7T Weakside EDGE: Dante Fowler Jr.

Dante Fowler is tabbed to be the Falcons’ primary pass rusher in 2020. How well he fares in this role will likely determine how good the defense is overall. He’ll rotate with players like Steven Means, Charles Harris, and Austin Larkin for rest.

3T DT: Grady Jarrett

Atlanta’s star DT is likely to be a fixture on both the base and nickel defense, playing as many snaps as his stamina allows. He’ll be backed up at this spot by Marlon Davidson, Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner.

3T DT: Marlon Davidson

The Falcons are likely to play a lot of double 3T “NASCAR” packages based on their personnel decisions, and rookie Marlon Davidson appears to be the favorite to start in that role. Other rotational options are second-year player John Cominsky, Allen Bailey, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner.

7T Strongside EDGE: Takkarist McKinley

Takk will finally have a quality player opposite him in Dante Fowler, and he’ll be expected to provide consistent pressure as the secondary pass rusher. Hopefully he’ll finally reach his potential and remain healthy in 2020. Behind him are rotational players like Steven Means and Austin Larkin.

Weakside (WILL) LB: Foyesade Oluokun

The Falcons have limited options at LB, which means Foye Oluokun is a heavy favorite to take over the starting WILL role. He’ll be backed up by Mykal Walker (who can play all 3 roles) and LaRoy Reynolds.

Middle (MIKE) LB: Deion Jones

The star in the middle of the defense, Deion Jones is a force against both the run and pass. Depth behind him is limited however, with just Mykal Walker and LaRoy Reynolds capable of filling the role.

Left CB: A.J. Terrell

First-round pick A.J. Terrell will be thrown into the fire immediately in 2020, as there simply aren’t many other good options on the roster. Options to back up outside CB are Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Josh Hawkins, and Jordan Miller (once he returns from suspension).

Slot CB: Kendall Sheffield

Arguably the most impressive of the Falcons current CBs in 2019, Kendall Sheffield turned in a very good rookie season playing primarily in the slot. He’ll man this role once again in 2020 and hopefully continue his strong play. Depth options are Blidi Wreh-Wilson—who is comfortable on both the inside and outside—and Ricardo Allen, who has manned the role admirably in emergency situations.

Right CB: Isaiah Oliver

On the other side will be third-year player Isaiah Oliver, who struggled early in 2019 but improved over the course of the season. Options to back up outside CB are Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Josh Hawkins, and Jordan Miller (once he returns from suspension).

FS: Damontae Kazee

It’s still an open question as to which of Atlanta’s FS options will start, but I’d give Damontae Kazee the leg up in the nickel package. He’s not quite as reliable in coverage as Allen, but his playmaking ability is desperately needed on the back end. Behind him will be Ricardo Allen and possibly a fifth safety option, like Chris Cooper.

SS: Keanu Neal

If Keanu Neal is back healthy in 2020, he’ll be a fixture on the defense and should take the lion’s share of snaps once again. Behind him is rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who should provide a more reliable upgrade than their previous options.


What are your thoughts on the projected starting defense for the Falcons in 2020? Are there any available free agents you’d like to see Atlanta add to bolster the unit? What do you think the biggest strength and weakness of the defense are?