Yesterday we looked at the offense, and today we’re going to examine the Falcons defense to see who is actually under contract for Atlanta next year and better understand a handful of things:
- Do the Falcons have the makings of a capable foundation for their defense in 2022, or will this be somewhat of a teardown?
- Are there players who are under contract who might not return, either as starters or to the roster more generally?
- Are there any free agents who feel like strong bets to return?
Let’s take a closer look at the contract picture on defense in Atlanta and their expected cap hits. All information listed here comes to us via Spotrac and is rounded up on the last digit.
DL Grady Jarrett - $23.83 million
DL Tyeler Davison - $5.01 million
DL Marlon Davidson - $1.86 million
DL Ta’Quon Graham - $912,653
DL John Cominsky - $1.09 million
Jarrett is a stud, and his contract may be extended this offseason. Davison is one of the team’s most logical cut candidates given that he’s falling out of the rotation at the moment and the Falcons will save nearly $4 million against the cap by moving on, but if he has a strong final seven game stretch it’s possible he’ll be back regardless. Davidson and Graham should get plenty of run next year and do have plenty of promise, so this group at least has the one star and a couple of solid options.
It would not shock me to see someone like Anthony Rush return as a cost-effective run stopper—he’s a restricted free agent—but unless Graham and/or Davidson make major strides, Atlanta will probably want to augment this group.
OLB Ade Ogundeji - $885,000
The cupboard is pretty bare here. Ogundeji will hopefully be at least a solid rotational player here and the team may bring back someone like Brandon Copeland or James Vaughters, but right now I’d expect Dante Fowler to be headed elsewhere and there’s nobody else here to speak of.
Given that, and given this team’s seemingly eternal struggle to find capable edge rushers, I’d expect this to be a major free agent priority and/or an early draft need.
ILB Deion Jones - $19.48 million
ILB Mykal Walker - $1.08 million
This is going to be one of the more interesting position groups on the roster. The Falcons have to start over at outside linebacker, but they’re going to need to make some big decisions here. That starts with Jones, who will be making close to $20 million and is having an up-and-down season. It continues with Walker, who hasn’t gotten much playing time and seems more likely to be a reserve under this regime over the long haul than a starter alongside Jones. You have to make a decision on Foye Oluokun, too, who is a free agent and should command a nice contract even if he also has been having an up-and-down year. Emmanuel Ellerbee is a restricted free agent, as well.
There’s a possibility, however remote, that the Falcons essentially detonate what they have at inside linebacker and start over.
CB A.J. Terrell - $3.9 million
CB Kendall Sheffield - $1.15 million
CB Darren Hall - $1.03 million
CB Avery Williams - $885,038
The Falcons will need to draft or acquire another starter, in all likelihood. Sheffield has barely been on the field owing to injury and won’t be counted on as more than a deep reserve, and Williams will need to make significant strides to be more than a reserve himself. That leaves Terrell as one of the better young cornerbacks working in football right now and Hall, who has played relatively little but has fared pretty well when he’s been on the field. Ideally, Hall plays well enough down the stretch to earn a real role and the Falcons go draft one more quality starter.
S Richie Grant - $1.88 million
S Jaylinn Hawkins - $1.06 million
The Falcons will want three starting-caliber safeties on the roster, and re-signing Erik Harris or Duron Harmon might be an option they entertain. The most important thing here is ensuring they have Grant ready to be one of those starters, because there’s no question Hawkins has already proven he can be. Having two young safety starters would be a huge deal for this defense, especially two who are willing and able to cause turnovers.
The cupboard isn’t quite bare, but you’re not going to make a very tasty stew with these ingredients.
Grady Jarrett is at least a short-term building block and A.J. Terrell is a long-term one, and the hope is that Grant and Hawkins will turn out to be at least capable starters for a few years. Beyond those guys, almost nobody has yet stood out as a player the Falcons can count on to be an above average starter, to say nothing of an elite one, and Atlanta will likely make significant changes to the defense as a whole because of that. Getting a bunch of affordable veterans in the door on one year deals let them use this as a bridge year and determine whether any of those players are worth keeping around, but beyond maybe Erik Harris, Fabian Moreau and Brandon Copeland, I can’t see them prioritizing any of their 2021 signings.
Ideally, the Falcons would be able to pour most of their resources into revamping a defense that has badly needed a makeover for years now. The offense’s current struggles and uncertainty around skill position players means Atlanta won’t quite get to do that, but coming out of the offseason with at least one legitimately impactful pass rusher, a starting-caliber cornerback, and quality depth almost across the board is an imperative if Dean Pees and company don’t want to get blown off the field every week.
It’s going to be a long and interesting offseason in Atlanta, to put it mildly. Tomorrow, we’ll briefly tackle special teams.