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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Outside linebacker edition

If Atlanta is going to have a pass rush, this unit has to deliver.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Falcons need to improve their pass rush. Yes, yes, it’s a story as old as time (or at least since John Abraham was on the team, which may as well be ancient history at this point) and it’s one that will continue to frustrate all of us until it is fixed. So, will this group of outside linebackers under a new, highly regarded defensive coordinator in Dean Pees actually deliver?

Let’s take a look at why the answer is still a big question mark.

Starting Options

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dante Fowler Jr.

2020 stats: 14 games played, 23 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

One of the first moves new GM Terry Fontenot made was to get Fowler to agree to a pay cut. That should tell you what you need to know about his first season in Atlanta. After former GM Thomas Dimitroff brought him in for some big money, Fowler failed to deliver in a meaningful way for all of 2020. Some say it was the injuries he battled through and the way he was used while others point out he has only had one really stellar season in his career.

Both sides may have a point. Fowler did show he could be a double-digit sack guy if all the stars align properly, but that’s probably not going to happen in 2021. Atlanta is just hoping he can deliver a little more and stay healthier. If he can do that, the bitter pill of his 3 year (and now just 2 year) deal will be a little easier to swallow. If he puts up terrible numbers again, we’ll go into 2022 bemoaning the terrible contract he was given as we look for a replacement.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Barkevious Mingo

2020 stats (Chicago): 16 games played, 35 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 0 forced fumble, 0 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

The former first round pick has never lived up to being drafted number 6 overall in 2013. The most sacks he’s had in season was 5, which he got in his rookie year. Since then? The most he has netted was the 2.5 he got last year. He’s bounced around the league and his listing as a “starter” has more to do with the guys behind him than anything he’s done to earn it.

That said, he’s a cheap veteran who the team is hoping out-performs his entire career history. At best, he’ll be a part of a rotation of guys at outside linebacker who might get you a sack or two. At worst, he’ll be gone in 2022 and we won’t have to wonder what it means to do “Barkevious Mingo things.”

Key Reserves

NFL: Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

2020 stats: 16 games played, 31 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 3 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

The developmental project for the Falcons has turned into a nice rotational player. At just 24 years old, it’s possible he still has room to grow as a player. He’s improved each year he’s been in the league, showing a good bit of improvement in 2020 and even winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week once. He seemingly had a nose for finding fumbles last year, picking up 3 of them over the season.

Jacob may or may not be in-line for a starting role, but he has certainly earned a right to be a part of the rotation. If he can continue to develop, he could be a very good depth player who earns another contract going into 2022. That’s not bad for an undrafted guy picked up in 2018, and it’s certainly possible he can achieve greater heights for the Falcons in 2021.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Rookie Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Adetokunbo Ogundeji

2020 stats (college): 10 games played, 20 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Expected to sign 4 year contract

The fifth round pick is definitely a project player, but his potential upside looks big. He has the size and length you want in the position but is incredibly raw. Even still, he should see some snaps in 2021 as the depth at this position is somewhat thin as is. Don’t expect him to deliver much initially, however.

Outlook

This group will likely play some defensive end in Dean Pees’ defense, as well, and it’s possible players like Brandon Copeland and Mykal Walker will mix in with the group as well. Right now, it’s one of the biggest question marks on this entire roster, with players who either are mostly upside and projection or have a proven track record of playing solid but unspectacular football. We’ll see if they’re full of surprises in 2021 or not.