Yesterday, we took a look at the state of the offense and the team’s outstanding needs there, uncovering plenty of issues but also the sense that the offense will probably be pretty good in 2021 even if they don’t make major additions.
It’s difficult to feel the same way about the defense, which played some admirable games a year ago but has bled pieces and had holes to begin with. The Falcons cut ties with or lost both starting safeties, significant pieces of their defensive line rotation, and a couple of useful cornerbacks, and the end result is a defense that at the moment looks incredibly incomplete. Fortunately, the Falcons are very obviously not done yet.
There isn’t a single position group where the Falcons absolutely do not need help, so let’s just rank them by how dire the need is at this moment.
This is perhaps the stickiest remaining need on the entire roster. The addition of Erik Harris gives Atlanta a seasoned safety who just started 12 games a year ago, but in an ideal world he’d be a top reserve rather than a definite starter. Jaylinn Hawkins is inexperienced and was drafted by the last regime, making it difficult to project him for a prominent role at the moment. T.J. Green has bounced around as a reserve, and while I like his chances of making the team if Atlanta doesn’t make many additions, I doubt he’d be in line for a major role either.
That’s three reserves, and while I think the team would ultimately be fine with Harris getting a starting gig, it’s hardly ideal to just hand the keys over. Atlanta badly needs at least one promising, high-end starter here, and would ideally acquire another option as well. This safety class offers plenty of value on Days 2 and 3, and if the board lines up well for them, Atlanta should absolutely think about trying to walk away from the draft with a potential long-term starter at safety, because otherwise it’ll be bargain shopping with uncertain options this summer, which could result in a very shaky safety group.
Pass rushers/defensive ends
In a 4-3 front, your starting defensive ends today would likely be Dante Fowler and either Jacob Tuioti-Mariner or John Cominsky, depending on whether the new staff believes he belongs at defensive tackle or defensive end. In a 3-4 front, you’d probably be looking at Fowler and either Barkevious Mingo or Brandon Copeland at outside linebacker, with Grady Jarrett, Cominsky, Marlon Davidson, and Tuioti-Mariner mixing in at end.
The upshot here is that regardless of how Dean Pees chooses to align his fronts, the Falcons need pass rush help. Again, options may shake loose this summer and Atlanta will have 8 selections beyond the first round to try and add help, but this is not going to be something the team successfully improves by leaps and bounds in a single offseason, and they’ll be heavily reliant on a bounceback year for Fowler and (they hope) better-than-expected contributions from some of the guys already on the roster.
If the Falcons don’t make this a priority on the second day of the draft—and given the number of priorities they have, that’s a distinct possibility—it’ll fall to Pees and his blitz-happy gameplanning to scheme pressure on on opposing quarterbacks.
The addition of Fabian Moreau, like Harris, was intended to give Atlanta an experienced veteran who has starts under his belt in this league. Like Harris, he could step into a starting job if Atlanta doesn’t acquire more players in the near future.
Unlike safety, cornerback is not a total black hole. A.J. Terrell was a starter throughout his rookie season and fared pretty well, some rookie hiccups notwithstanding, and is a player I feel enormously confident about going forward. Moreau, Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield are all relatively young and have worthwhile traits (Moreau’s coverage chops have been praised in the past, Oliver is physical and fared well as a nickel corner last year, and Sheffield is fast and aggressive), and Tyler Hall looks like he could be a stellar special teamer and deep reserve worth developing. It’s a problem that Atlanta does not have a slam dunk #2 starter, but they do at least have multiple players competing for starting jobs.
On this defense with all its issues, that makes corner a lesser trouble spot. That’s a bit like saying a boat with two small holes in it is more seaworthy than a boat with no bottom, but let’s be optimistic.
The team needs another credible pass rushing threat to play outside linebacker in 3-4 fronts, but otherwise they’re in good shape. Deion Jones remains one of the league’s best athletes at linebacker and is quite capable in coverage. Foye Oluokun took a step forward a year ago and is, at worst, a credible starter and someone whose pass rushing potential could be explored further by Pees. Mykal Walker was far more impressive than I would’ve expected from a rookie linebacker after a lost offseason, and Copeland and Mingo are both solid veteran additions. This won’t be an elite group, but it may well be a very good one.
This position group is in the best shape of any of them on paper. Grady Jarrett is a legitimate stud, Marlon Davidson had a lost rookie year but has a ton of promise, John Cominsky is at least a very solid rotational option, Tyeler Davison is a fine run stopper, and Deadrin Senat may get a chance to the show off the promise fans have invested in him for years now. You could add more talent here, of course, but if Davidson takes a major step forward the Falcons will be in great shape, and they’re in fine shape already.
Defensively, the Falcons are a long way from looking like an elite unit, but there are some building blocks here with Jarrett, Debo, and Terrell. Expect Atlanta to use the draft to pry loose a couple of potential starters and several depth pieces, but it’s not clear how they’ll be able to add enough pieces to make it anything more than an intermittently interesting defense in 2021. The offense will have to carry a lot of the load, but my hope is that the Falcons can start assembling the pieces of their next quality defense, and do enough this year to help win some games.