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A closer look at Falcons defensive positional battles heading into Week 3 of preseason

Atlanta’s defense is taking shape ahead of the season, though whether that shape is good or not remains to be seen.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Yesterday, we looked at the status of some of the battles for starting and reserve jobs on offense, with some of them seemingly too close to call. That’s not really the case with the defense, where playing time and the team’s options have made it pretty evident who is going to be at least the starter in name at a bunch of positions. Things are a little less settled down the depth chart, but let’s focus on some of the bigger battles here.

Do note that with a Dean Pees defense, in particular, there will be enough rotating at some positions that the term “starter” loses a bit of meaning. A good example will be Steven Means, who I fully expect to be listed as a starter heading into the season but may be out-snapped by some of his listed backups depending on the week and the matchup.

2nd starting defensive ends/defensive tackle: Jon Bullard

Obviously, Grady Jarrett is a no-brainer here as the #1. In 3-4 looks he’ll play end and in 4-3 looks he’ll be wreaking havoc on the interior, but either way he’s the team’s most impactful defender.

The question heading into camp was how the Falcons would align their personnel and whether Marlon Davidson or John Cominsky would start next to/opposite Jarrett, or whether newcomer Jonathan Bullard would be able to steal a spot. With Davidson and Cominsky dealing with some minor injuries recently and Bullard shining in games, it certainly appears that he’ll be the nominal starter, even if others figure to rotate in quite a bit. For a player who is fresh off a year with Seattle where he didn’t start a single game, that’s a very big deal, and Bullard’s positional versatility and the pass rushing punch he’s shown in Pees’ defense to this point makes him an intriguing player.

Starting outside linebackers: Dante Fowler and Steven Means

Again, Fowler was sort of a no-brainer, given that he’s going to be by far Atlanta’s most established edge rusher in 2021. The question was whether he’d be healthy and available (he is) and who would start opposite him.

Means appears to be the other starter, though again you’ll see Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Brandon Copeland and rookie Ade Ogundeji heavily involved in the rotation. What Means offers is rock solid run defense, solid pass rushing skills and plenty of experience, including an 11 game stint as a starter last year where he was one of the team’s most consistent defenders.

Fourth inside linebacker: Dorian Etheridge

There’s not much intrigue with the reserves, honestly. Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky and Ta’Quon Graham are locked in along the defensive line, with one of Chris Slayton or Eli Ankou likely set to join them. At corner, Darren Hall has been good enough to stick in a reserve role and Avery Williams will likely make it for his special teams value alone, with Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins probably set at safety alongside maybe T.J. Green.

Etheridge and Erroll Thompson are competing for this job, though, and both have been good enough throughout camp that it should come down to the wire. I’ve got Etheridge based on his hugely impressive first week of preseason and quality instincts, and setting him to settle in behind Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and Mykal Walker.

#2 cornerback: Fabian Moreau

Moreau trotted out there for a short stint in the preseason game last Saturday, but I’m not reading into that and assuming he’s not safe. All indications we’ve had this summer are that Moreau has locked up the job opposite A.J. Terrell and will have a fairly long leash in that role, as there hasn’t been a meaningful challenge for that job from Kendall Sheffield (due primarily to injury) or rookie Darren Hall.

Moreau projects as a one-year stopgap starter for now, but he’s young and capable enough to be here longer if he excels in the role. Let’s hope he does.

Nickel back: Isaiah Oliver

Like Moreau, Oliver hasn’t really been challenged for this role, though certainly Hall has had his moments and seems like a strong bet to push for the job next summer. Oliver’s in the final year of his rookie contract, and is stepping into a role he did well in a year ago on Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich’s defense.

Dean Pees appears to be banking on him building on last year, with Oliver’s physicality being particularly appealing in his nickel role. If he’s good this year for a full season, he could parley that into a nice contract somewhere, even if it’s not Atlanta.

Starting safeties: Duron Harmon and Erik Harris

The team does not appear to have seriously considered starting Richie Grant or Jaylinn Hawkins to this point. Both have bright futures—I’m bullish on Grant eventually becoming a high-end starter—but for now Atlanta’s seemingly settled on the two veterans on one year deals. Neither Harmon nor Harris has played a preseason snap to this point, a sign of where they stand in the pecking order.

Don’t be surprised at all to see Pees getting Grant and Hawkins in the game plenty, and if T.J. Green sticks as I suspect he will, the Falcons will have several players they’ll feel comfortable moving around the secondary when the situation calls for it.

As I said, this is mostly pretty light on intrigue at this point, but that’s probably a plus for the defense. This group is a long ways away from being the most talented group in the league, but the hope remains that the talent they have added and the addition of Dean Pees will give them more of a lift. Having a good idea of who they’re starting and who will be heavily involved as reserves now is a comfort, especially as we fret over left guard on the other side of the ball.