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.
1) Grady Jarrett
When initially creating this list, the first thought that came to mind was that it will be a no-brainer to rank Jarrett at number 1. There is no more dominating force or elite football player on Atlanta’s defensive side of the ball than Jessie Tuggle’s son.
This is the second year in which I am doing this countdown, and Jarrett has now been #1 both times.
Let me just start by letting PFF explain Jarrett’s dominance over the past couple of years, in tweet form of course:
Most games with a PFF grade of 80+ since 2018 (defenders):— PFF (@PFF) August 21, 2020
Aaron Donald - 11
T.J. Watt - 9
Grady Jarrett - 7 pic.twitter.com/DWDXtw3C50
The highest-graded interior defenders of 2019:— PFF (@PFF) August 18, 2020
1. Aaron Donald: 93.6
2. Cameron Heyward - 91.5
3. Calais Campbell - 90.3
4. Grady Jarrett - 90.1
5. Fletcher Cox - 89.5 pic.twitter.com/DZr8tn564s
Jarrett’s overall PFF grade in 2019 was by far the highest on the defense, and just a hair behind Julio Jones for best on the team overall.
Jarrett was second among all DTs in the NFL with 17 tackles for loss in 2019, behind only Aaron Donald who had 24. Atlanta’s number 97 was second among all DTs with 40 run stops last season as well, behind only Cameron Heyward who had 44.
He led all Falcons defenders in both of those categories and in QB hits (with 16), and was also second on the team with 7.5 sacks despite lining up on the interior of the defensive line and facing double teams for the majority of the game.
Grady Jarrett has gotten better and better with each passing year and he was rewarded with his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season (though there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was snubbed in 2018).
The defense’s success in 2020 will be centered around Jarrett’s dominance, with the hope that the complimentary pieces around him will be better than they have been the past few years. Number 97 will demand constant added attention, and that should open things up for Dante Fowler and Takk McKinley along the edges, as well as rookie Marlon Davidson next to him. And if the offense makes the decision to not double Jarrett then it likely won’t turn turn out well the opposing quarterback and/or running back.
Jarrett is in the middle of his prime, entering his age-27 season, and is locked into a long term contract which has three years remaining on it after agreeing to a 4 year/$68 million deal last offseason. The Clemson alum will be anchoring Atlanta’s defense for years to come.