With a new coaching staff and front office in place, the Falcons are going to look and operate a lot differently in 2021. New head coach Arthur Smith is bringing in a new offense, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be shuffling around the defense in what should be an improved Atlanta team this season. Meanwhile, new GM Terry Fontenot brings a ton of pro personnel experience with him from the Saints and is likely to emphasize free agency much more than his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff.
However, the Falcons will have a difficult offseason ahead of them. The salary cap for 2021 is still being negotiated, with projections ranging from $180M to $185M—or perhaps a little more. That won’t leave Atlanta with much breathing room, considering the team is likely to be anywhere from $20-30M over the cap to kick things off.
I already took a look at some veteran cuts and restructures the Falcons could do to free up nearly $40M in cap space. Those moves, combined with the nearly $6M in 2020 cap they should be able to “roll over”, should be enough to get the team under the cap and sign their draft class even in the lower cap scenarios. If the cap were to end up even higher—or perhaps even match 2020’s $198M number—the Falcons would be in great shape to make a few keep moves.
To prepare everyone for 2021 free agency, I’ll be doing a series of episodes breaking down potential free agency targets. You can check out the previous episodes here:
Part 1: Free Agency Basics
Part 2: Priority Re-signings
Part 3: Free agent RB targets
Part 4: Free agent OL targets
Part 5: Free agent TE targets
Part 6: Free agent safety targets
Part 7: Free agent EDGE targets
Today, I’m continuing my look at defensive free agent targets with defensive tackle. The team is fairly well stocked on the interior with Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky, and 2020 second-rounder Marlon Davidson. However, the Falcons could move on from Davison for salary cap reasons—and they might be looking for a more traditional 3-4 nose tackle for Dean Pees defense. In that case, there are a few interesting free agents—including some former Titans—for Atlanta to consider.
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2020 team: Titans
2020 stats: 49 total tackles, 12.5% missed tackle rate, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 11 pressures, 1 FF, 67.7 overall PFF grade
2021 OTC valuation: $6.6M/yr
A player I’ve advocated for the Falcons to sign in the past, DaQuan Jones is one of the NFL’s most consistent NTs. He’s got great size at 6’4, 322, capable of two-gapping and stuffing the interior in both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. Jones is a high-level tackler, putting up impressive numbers for a NT year-after-year and contributing a few splash plays every year. As a pass rusher, Jones is capable of pushing the pocket and creating pressure, but isn’t someone who will get you many sacks.
There’s a clear connection between new Falcons DC Dean Pees and Jones, who played together for two seasons: 2018 and 2019. The Titans also made the decision to re-sign Jones after Pees arrived in Tennessee. If Pees wants a more traditional 3-4 NT in Atlanta, Jones would make the most sense of all the available free agents. Jones knows the defense and the DC, and while he won’t be cheap ($6-7M/yr) he isn’t a “break the bank” free agent either.
2020 team: Raiders
2020 stats: 48 total tackles, 14.3% missed tackle rate, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 7 pressures, 61.6 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $4.7M/yr
If the Falcons are looking to go a little bit cheaper and younger at NT, they could look at Johnathan Hankins. After an electric start to his career with a 7-sack season in 2014, Hankins has cooled down quite a bit over the past three seasons with the Raiders. However, Hankins will be just 29 in 2021 and has graded out no worse than a solid starter since his rookie season.
Perhaps a change of scenery would help Hankins improve his play, as he’s a prototypical 3-4 NT (6’3, 340) with impressive athleticism for his size. Hankins is a productive tackler on the interior and can handle multiple gaps with ease. Early in his career, he was one of the rare NTs who could provide value as a pass rusher—but he’s struggled to create consistent pressure in Las Vegas. Hankins could be a good high-upside signing who won’t be prohibitively expensive ($4-5M/yr) and give the Falcons an upgrade at NT.
2020 team: Saints
2020 stats: 20 total tackles, 9.1% missed tackle rate, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 12 pressures, 57.8 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $2M/yr
If Sheldon Rankins had hit free agency after an 8-sack 2018 season instead of 2019, he’d likely be one of the highest-paid DTs in the NFL. Instead, he suffered a lingering injury that saw him wind up on IR to close out the season and took a 1-year deal. Then in 2020, injuries struck again as he was limited to just 12 games. Rankins has had flashes of elite production, particularly as a pass rusher, but those are several years in the past heading into 2021.
With Saints strapped for cash and new GM Terry Fontenot in charge of free agency in Atlanta, Rankins could be a logical high-upside reclamation project. After two injury-plagued seasons, Rankins’ price tag should be reasonable (~$2M/yr) and would give the Falcons another veteran piece to pair with Grady Jarrett. If it works out, Atlanta could have a truly fearsome interior for the first time in recent memory.
2020 team: Broncos
2020 stats: 14 total tackles, 6.7% missed tackle rate, 1.0 TFL, 3 pressures, 74.4 overall PFF grade (3 games played)
2020 OTC valuation: N/A
A recent cut by the Broncos, Jurrell Casey spent the previous 9 years of his career in Tennessee where he made a name for himself as one of the premier pass rushing DTs in the NFL. A stout tackler against the run and high-end pass rusher, Casey put up at least 5.0 sacks and 8 TFL in every season from 2013-2018. He had a slightly down year in 2019 (5.0 sacks, 5 TFL) and wound up traded to the Broncos in 2020 to help clear cap space.
Casey suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, appearing in just 3 games for Denver. He’s now a free agent entering his age 32 season, which will probably lead to a much lower price tag than he’s accustomed to. A chance to reunite with defensive coordinator Dean Pees—who Casey spent the 2018-2019 seasons with—could give the Falcons a leg up on signing him. It’s possible Atlanta could sign Casey to a cheap, incentive-laden deal to give the once-great defensive tackle a chance to revitalize his career.
2020 team: Cardinals
2020 stats: 15 total tackles, 6.3% missed tackle rate, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 5 pressures, 61.4 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $1.2M/yr
If the Falcons are looking for quality veterans who could provide a boost on the interior but also won’t break the bank, a strong candidate could be Cardinals (and former Falcons) DT Corey Peters. Peters was a fan favorite in Atlanta who always played at a solid or better level, but the team inexplicably let him walk for very little money back in 2015.
After spending six seasons in Arizona, Peters hits free agency coming off a down year in 2020. He appeared in just 9 games due to injury and will be 33 during the 2021 season. That means Peters will be quite cheap in free agency, and he was still playing at an average-or-better level when healthy last season. For near the veteran minimum, Peters could be a logical reunion candidate to provide some experienced depth to the DT rotation.
There are quite a few other depth players the Falcons could look at in free agency. Former Falcons DT Jack Crawford, most recently with the Titans in 2020, could make a return as a versatile inside/outside piece. Bengals DT Mike Daniels has been struggling with injury over the previous two seasons, but still has talent and could be a solid rotational piece. Famed run-stuffing NT Damon Harrison is coming off a down year in 2020 and will be 33 in 2021, but still has value as a base package player. Texans DT Carlos Watkins struggled mightily in 2020, but has had some good years in the past and could be a cheap depth signing.
I hope you enjoyed the latest episode in our 2021 Falcons Free Agency series! Please leave your comments below and let me know what other types of breakdowns you’d like to see. If you haven’t already, be sure to Like the video and Subscribe to our YouTube channel!