As the Falcons finalize their 2020 roster, it’s worth remembering that all the evident improvements and maybe upgrades and possible betterments this team has been working on have convinced very few people outside of the building that this is a better squad than it was a year ago. If they do feel that way, they like this team because of the offense, not the defense.
That’s a sobering reminder of just how much the Falcons have to prove defensively, and to how many people. A further reminder came yesterday in the form of annual Pro Football Focus rankings of every NFL defense heading into the season, where the Falcons ranked just 28th.
Why? Mostly the secondary. Here’s the writeup:
Atlanta has one of the more underappreciated interior defensive linemen in the NFL in Grady Jarrett. He’s produced back-to-back single-season PFF grades above 90.0, forming a two-year grade that is the fourth-best at the position. In addition to Jarrett, linebacker Deion Jones is a standout on this defense — he has proven year after year that he has some of the best coverage ability at the position. His coverage grade since entering the league in 2016 trails only Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David. As great as those two players are for Atlanta, they can’t make up for the shortcomings of the secondary.
The Falcons’ cornerbacks and safeties combined to produce the third-worst team coverage grade a season ago, and the one player who prevented them from being last is no longer on the team (Desmond Trufant). The Falcons did make a great late signing for minimal cost in slot corner Darqueze Dennard, but there’s reasonable concern elsewhere. A (hopefully) healthy Keanu Neal will help matters some if he can get back to his rookie form when he was incredibly productive in coverage (sixth in 2016 in coverage grade).
It’s hard to argue with the idea that the defense has largely been Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones doing magical things with other dudes running around, even if it undersells the contributions of Ricardo Allen, Desmond Trufant, Takk McKinley and others. PFF and others look at this defense, even with the additions of rookie A.J. Terrell, Dennard, and pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., and see a group that has been downright bad for much of the past few seasons and isn’t going to miraculously get better overnight. Even my most optimistic projections for this year probably have the team has a league average defense, which would likely be enough to make them a contender for the 2020 season but isn’t going to make anyone feel like they need to eat crow.
My hope is that the Falcons do surprise those, like PFF, who think they’re simply not good enough to be considered more than a basement dwelling defense in 2020. The final 53 man roster will tell us a lot, but no matter who’s on it this team will need good health and major leaps forward from several players to shed their reputation as a lousy defense.