The Falcons needed to see a vast improvement at the defensive end position in order for the defense to take a step forward. After the initial drafting in the 1st round of both Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley, it was believed that the Falcons had two starting caliber DEs that would have long and productive careesr. Both ended up being very underwhelming and are now both no longer part of the roster.
As a result, former GM Thomas Dimitroff signed Dante Fowler, Jr to a multiyear agreement to assist with the pass rush. However, outside of that, the position seemed to be neglected as it was obviously one of the thinnest position groups on the roster, and it got thinner when the Falcons moved on from Takk McKinley.
Here’s a review of each player in the position group and their contribution in 2020.
Dante Fowler, Jr.
2020 stats: 12 Tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble
For a player that was brought in on a lucrative 3 year, $45 million contract, Fowler played well below expectations. Also a former 1st round pick, Fowler is expected to be a game changer on the defensive side of ball, but he just hasn’t done that.
Now to his defense, he did have an injury laden season and never seemed to be fully healthy. There’s still a chance he could provide an impact, but given his cap hit for the 2021 season, it’s going to be interesting to see how the new regime, lead by new Head Coach Arthur Smith, moves forward with him. He might have more success as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front if the Falcons hire Dean Pees, but that remains to be seen.
2020 stats: 8 Tackles, 1.5 sacks
Bailey was thrust into the starting DE role after the Falcons released Takk McKinley in the middle of the season. A solid run defender that’s strong at the point of attack, Bailey was never going to be the model of pass rushing consistency. However, he was solid at setting the edge against the run and flashed at times in pass rushing situations. Bailey is under contract next year but may wind up being a cap casualty.
2020 stats: 21 Tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Means was easily one of the more consistent DEs on the roster. Playing in a reserve role, his snaps obviously increased after the release of McKinley, and he was solid in all aspects. Good at the point of attack, a solid run defender and a solid pass rusher, Means was probably the most consistent of all the DEs on the roster in 2020. That’s truly a sad statement, but it’s certainly the case.
At age 30, Means certainly makes a case that he should be considered to be brought back to the roster in 2021, but it will greatly depend on the direction of the Falcons defense going forward.
2020 stats: 8 Tackles, 3 sacks
Charles Harris was brought to the team in free agency to add depth to the position. Also a former 1st round pick (am I sensing a theme?), Harris was looking to resurrect his career with the Falcons. To be completely honest, he actually flashed in the run and pass game. He showed burst off of the line of scrimmage and relentless pursuit with the snaps he did receive, and was arguably the most productive he’s been his entire career. Also a free agent coming into this offseason, I wouldn’t expect Harris to be retained, because he seemed to fall out of favor late in the year.
2020 stats: 24 Tackles, 1 sack
Tuioti-Mariner was the most surprising DE of this group. An undrafted FA that spent quite a bit of time on the practice squad, Tuioti-Mariner has showed a very steady improvement in first snap quickness and hand usage in his pass rush repertoire and is one of the most relentless competitors on the team. He’s truly like lightning in a bottle, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to improve. Tuioti-Mariner is an exclusive rights free agent for the 2021 season, so if the Falcons offer him a one year contract at league minimum, he wouldn’t be able to negotiate with other teams. He’s a player I’d certainly like to see back, but of course, it will depend on the direction of the new Falcons regime.
Outlook: Not great
This DE position group is part of the reason why Arthur Blank chose to go a different direction with the coaching staff. This group has had one decent season back in 2016, but has been a huge disappointment for as long as I can remember. There has to be a massive overhaul and a concerted effort to really turn this group into a strength on this roster. With new Head Coach Arthur Smith coming in, this group will certainly have to be a priority if he expects to have a true and consistent contender.
The Falcons will have to get better here in the offseason. With only Fowler and Bailey under contract (Tuioti-Mariner would be an easy re-signing, too), this team needs to prioritize picking up draft picks and affordable free agents. New defensive coordinator Dean Pees will know the kinds of players he wants, but it’s up to this front office to go out and get them.