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How much defensive improvement is fair to expect from the Falcons in 2021?

Is Grady Jarrett right about the talent level here?

Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Last week, Grady Jarrett expressed quite a bit of confidence in the talent level of the Falcons defense. That’s what you’d expect a team’s defensive leader to do, but the tantalizing thought is what it would mean if he was right.

We talked about the offense last weekend, and the sentiment in the fanbase seems to be that a major improvement on that side of the ball is very much within reach. If that’s the case, Atlanta has a chance to at least flirt with contention this year, even if trade rumors you’re probably tired of hearing about are casting a pall over that possibility.

Of course, they’ll get a lot closer to contending if they can play quality defense as well, and that looms as a particularly big question mark for 2021. Despite Jarrett’s confidence and Dean Pees’ affable confidence in his new team’s willingness and ability to run and hit, the defense has fooled Falcons fans for stretches so many times in recent years before an inevitable collapse sets in that it’s hard to believe they’ll finally figure it out now. That’s especially true with so many papered-over needs along the defensive line and in the secondary, including an essentially rebuilt safety group (albeit one with an exciting rookie in Richie Grant) and not a single pass rusher who mustered more than 5 sacks a year ago.

If you were going to be optimistic about this group, you’d point out that they allowed more than 24 points just twice after Dan Quinn was fired—both times against the Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers—and did so with a scuffling Dante Fowler, very little Marlon Davidson, and Takk McKinley jettisoned into the free agency void midseason, among other setbacks. You’d point out that Dean Pees has never presided over a truly bad defense, that the talent level is not significantly worse than it was a year ago, and that...well, sometimes it’s nice to have hope. That’s not an arrow pointing toward greatness, but it may be an arrow pointing toward consistent competence if a few things break well.

The usual caveats apply if you’re more skeptical, as there are few obvious elite talents on that side of the ball and I thought Raheem Morris did a fine job of getting more out of what he had on hand a year ago. It’s difficult to see a path to significant improvement that doesn’t involve big leaps from multiple players on defense, and while that’s possible, it’s tough to say it’s likely from where we sit today. I’m ready—indeed, probably too ready—to believe we’ll see at least some modest gains given my expectations that Dante Fowler, Marlon Davidson, A.J. Terrell and others will take steps forward, but after a decade-plus of being burned by even modest hope in the defense I can’t go further than that until I see it with my own eyes.

So that’s where I land, in the very early month of May, with slight improvement feeling real and more significant improvement a TBD. How much improvement are you expecting from this defense, if any, and what might that mean for Atlanta’s fortunes in 2021?