While the offensive side of the ball is where Atlanta’s identity lies, Dan Quinn’s unit hopes to improve on their No. 20-ranked total defense from 2019. That improvement could be key to getting Atlanta back into the playoffs for the first time in three years.
In case you missed it, we recently counted down the five most important players on the offensive side of the ball for the Falcons going into 2020. Now, we’re going to do the same exercise with the defensive unit.
Just like with the most important offensive players, I would like to note that this isn’t a direct list of the five best players on the defense side of the ball, but rather the five players whom the team can least afford to perform poorly or to lose to injury/suspension — whether that’s because of their incredible talent or because of the team’s lack of positional depth.
3) Dante Fowler Jr.
If ever there was an immensely important need for a free agent addition to live up to the big contract he received, this would be it.
After having very little success in drafting and developing a suitable pass rush over the years, the Falcons had no choice but to spend a premium on Dante Fowler Jr. in the form of a 3 year/$45 million this offseason. It’s a contract where the cap hit will swell from $6.66 million this year to $18.66 million next year.
The signing will have to pay off in 2020, with good production from Fowler, for the Falcons to get back to the playoffs and for Dan Quinn to save his job.
Atlanta racked up a putrid total of 28 sacks in 2019 — fewer than any team other than the Miami Dolphins — and two players who accounted for 12.0 of those sacks (Vic Beasely Jr. and Adrian Clayborn) left in free agency.
Dante Fowler has been brought in to help replenish that total, and to make things easier for those around him (such as Takk McKinley) to successfully get to the quarterback.
Fowler is coming off of the best season of his career in 2019, where he was top 10 in the league in both sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (18), as well as 15th with 35 QB pressures. He also generated a new career high with 34 run stops just for good measure.
While the argument is often made that Fowler benefited from playing alongside the most dominant defensive player in football in Aaron Donald (and it’s a fair one), the Falcons possess their own game-breaker at the defensive tackle position in Grady Jarrett, who will demand plenty of extra attention along the interior of the defensive line.
Much like Takk McKinley (who checked in at number 5 on this countdown), Fowler will be a key figure in Atlanta’s playoff hopes. With Atlanta’s CB corps so inexperienced overall, and savvy veterans the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees residing within the NFC South, the pass rush will have to get home far more than it did in 2019 for the Falcons to have success in the division and beyond. That’s why Fowler was paid all that money.