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Key Falcons position battles on defense as we head into mandatory minicamp

The defensive line is essentially one big competition.

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

We’re on to the last short preview of upcoming position battles on the Falcons roster before mandatory minicamp, and it’s a deeply muddled defense. Outside of Dante Fowler, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and A.J. Terrell, there are basically zero slam dunk starters on this side of the ball, which means the competition will be fierce and the surprise could be numerous.

Let’s dive in.

Defensive line and outside linebacker

Contenders: It’s a very long list

Open spots: A lot

I’m not including Dante Fowler, etc. here because they’re listed as outside linebackers, but realistically they’ll play defensive end as well. We don’t know how often the Falcons will wind up playing out of a 3-4 front, but Pees ran a nickel defense 73% of the time back in 2018 in Tennessee,

The reality is that almost every job is open except for Jarrett’s and Fowler’s, given that both players will be heavily relied upon in 2021. In a 3-4, both end jobs are up for grabs, and in a 4-3, every spot in the rotation is going to be subject to some level of competition. The Falcons are counting on scheme and being able to throw plenty of guys at the problem making up for a lack of elite talent outside of Jarrett, and fervently hoping that guys like Marlon Davidson take a big step forward and make a big impact.

In a 4 man front, I’d expect to see a lot of Fowler, Jarrett, Davidson and Steven Means as nominal “starters,” with plenty of Tyeler Davison, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, John Cominsky and rookies Ta’Quon Graham and Ade Ogundeji. It’ll be interesting to see how those roles shake out, and whether players like Jon Bullard and athletic nose tackle Olive Sagapolu can push their way on to the roster in a very, very crowded field.

Then there’s outside linebacker in 3 man and hybrid fronts, which is maybe the most interesting question the team faces. Atlanta’s going to lean heavily on what they hope is a resurgent Fowler season, but there’s no slam dunk, high end second option off the edge for this team to roll out. Barkevious Mingo and Brandon Copeland have both done it in the past with decidedly unimpressive results—Copeland did have one season where he put up a few sacks—and I’ll be interested to see how much Tuioti-Mariner, Means and maybe Ogundeji we get out of the gate. The reality is that all of these problems are going to be tackled by multiple players, but who winds up at the forefront is still a relevant question. I really don’t have any idea who’s going to wind up being this coaching staff’s preferred choices.

#2 cornerback

Contenders: Fabian Moreau, Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Delrick Abrams, Chris Williamson

Open spots: 1

I’m only expecting the first three to really hang around this competition deep into the summer, and the team’s early praise for Oliver in a nickel role suggests he’ll be competing harder for that role. Again, the Falcons are likely to play a ton of nickel, so that role will be a starting one.

But the outside spot opposite A.J. Terrell is obviously critical. If Terrell builds on his fine rookie season and becomes a terrific starter, teams will adjust by trying to pick on other players. Getting the strongest possible option out of a motley bunch is important here.

My expectation is that it’ll come down to Sheffield and Moreau, and the big question looming over that battle is what Sheffield will bring to it after a forgettable 2020 season. He has the size, speed and (at least on paper) physicality to be a quality starter, and this might be his last chance to prove he can thrive as a starter in Atlanta. If he’s not able to impress early on, he’ll likely lose ground to Moreau, who has had quality stretches for Washington in the recent past and is much more of a ballhawk. I’m still leaning Sheffield, but again, he’ll have to really impress to fend off the new challenger.

Slot corner

Contenders: Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, Avery Williams, Tyler Hall

Open spots: 1

Oliver’s probably the early favorite here, as he was unquestionably better once he moved inside last year. Dean Pees will like his tackling ability, willingness to help out against the run and blitzing acumen, as he’s displayed all of those pretty consistently even when he’s having misadventures in coverage.

His primary challenger figures to be Darren Hall, the 2021 draft pick and a natural ballhawk. The Falcons have struggled for years now to get interceptions at corner, and Hall and Moreau were obviously added with that in mind. If the rookie is ready to go, he should at least be able to work his way on the field in relief of Oliver, but I would expect the veteran to win the job.

Tyler Hall should be involved in this competition but will likely find himself just hanging on for a practice squad or deep reserve role.

Safety

Contenders: RIchie Grant, Duron Harmon, Erik Harris, Jaylinn Hawkins

Open spots: 2

The result of the grand reshuffling at safety is that the Falcons are bringing three new contenders in for the free safety and strong safety jobs. All four of the players listed above are likely to cycle in, as Dean Pees is fond of using multiple safeties and every one of these guys are capable players.

I’d expect Grant to grab the starting free safety spot, at least nominally, because he’s such an intriguing talent and the team drafted him in the second round to take on a major role right away. That will leave Harris and Harmon fighting for the starting strong safety job, and I’m not sure who to give the edge to today, given that both are coming off largely forgettable seasons for shaky defenses, but Harmon’s stronger career track record would presumably give him a slight edge. Even if he winds up being a reserve, you should expect to see plenty of Harris and even Hawkins, who will get time in three safety sets and on special teams. As is the case with the defensive line, it’s really more of a question who will get the most snaps, not who is going to play 60 snaps per game.


Who do you have winning some of the battles on defense?