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Falcons 2022 free agent targets: Defensive line

The Falcons need reinforcements on the defensive line, but they aren’t far away from being good on the interior as long as long-time stalwart Grady Jarrett sticks around. 2022 features a deep free agent class at DT, and there are many intriguing FAs for Atlanta.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Las Vegas Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have a lot of questions on the defensive line heading into 2022. We all know the EDGE/OLB group is atrocious and helped contribute to the worst pass rush in the NFL last season, but the interior is in desperate need of a talent infusion as well. Grady Jarrett is a stalwart in the middle, offering high-end pass rushing and run stuffing ability, but the players around him have been largely disappointing.

2020 second-rounder Marlon Davidson has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness after his transition to a permanent interior role. Starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison wasn’t as good in the 3-4 and is a likely cap casualty this offseason. The most intriguing holdover might be 2021 fifth-rounder Ta’Quon Graham, who earned more playing time towards the end of the season and tested out as an elite athlete.

The Falcons need help here, but as long as Jarrett sticks around, it’s not as far off as you might think. While it’s likely at least some of it will come from the draft, a free agent signing or two could really elevate this group from “meh” to “legitimately good”. This offseason features a deep free agent class at defensive tackle, so let’s look at some potential targets for Atlanta.

High-end starters

  • Larry Ogunjobi, 28
  • Akiem Hicks, 33
  • B.J. Hill, 27
  • Ndamukong Suh, 35
  • William Gholston, 31
  • Quinton Jefferson, 29
  • Austin Johnson, 28

This offseason features a pretty substantial free agent group at defensive tackle—maybe one of the biggest of all. The headliner is obviously Larry Ogunjobi, who had a monster year in Cincinnati with 7 sacks, 12 TFL, and 29 solo tackles—but he’s likely to cost upwards of $10M/yr. Akiem Hicks is intriguing due to the Falcons connections to the Bears. As he’s 32 and coming off an injury-plagued season, it’s possible his price could be lower than usual. The next big name on the list would be the Bengals’ B.J. Hill, who seems to finally be hitting his stride as an impact pass rusher.

Stopgap starters/high-level reserves

  • Maliek Collins, 27
  • Bilal Nichols, 26
  • DaQuan Jones, 31
  • Jarran Reed, 30
  • Malik Jackson, 32
  • Sheldon Richardson, 32
  • D.J. Jones, 27
  • Solomon Thomas, 27
  • Harrison Phillips, 26
  • Justin Jones, 26
  • Johnathan Hankins, 30
  • Derrick Nnadi, 26
  • Brandon Williams, 33
  • Linval Joseph, 34
  • Christian Covington, 29
  • Darius Philon, 28

If you thought there were a good number of high-end starters on the market, just look at the class of starters and/or high-end reserves. It’s a massive group, and that could lead to some bargains if Atlanta is willing to be patient. I’d also consider Falcons pending restricted free agent Anthony Rush in this group—Atlanta will have to decide whether to tender him or re-sign him, and I think he’s worth it. Some standouts from this group:

Maliek Collins is a player I’ve always thought was a bit underrated. On a bad Texans team, Collins was still productive with 2.5 sacks and 9 TFL. DaQuan Jones was a player I thought Atlanta might sign last year due to his Dean Pees connection. He’s once again on the market as one of the NFL’s most consistent nose tackles. D.J. Jones, Solomon Thomas, and Harrison Phillips are all young players who started slowly but have started to come on with more time and experience. All could have their best football still ahead of them. There are also a number of reliable players, like Darius Philon, Brandon Williams, and Derrick Nnadi who should be able to fill at least a rotational role for cheap.

Reserves

  • Folorunso Fatukasi, 27
  • Carlos Watkins, 29
  • Nathan Shepherd, 29
  • Hassan Ridgeway, 28
  • Corey Peters, 34
  • Taven Bryan, 26
  • Vernon Butler, 28
  • Jaleel Johnson, 28
  • Danny Shelton, 29
  • Mike Pennel, 31
  • Jonathan Bullard, 29

There are also a number of intriguing buy-low reserve options in this class: players who haven’t put it all together yet, but have either flashed some production in limited opportunities or who clearly have talent but haven’t been able to get on the field much.

Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd were two guys I really liked coming out, but they never managed to do much with the Jets. Taven Bryan never reached his potential in Jacksonville, but could be a better fit in a different defense. Former Falcon Corey Peters is still producing at age 34, though he’s likely best as a reserve at this point in his career. There are also Falcons free agents Mike Pennel and Jonathan Bullard. Pennel is more of a run-stuffer, while Bullard is more of a pass rusher. Neither were very productive for Atlanta in 2021, but could be cheap re-signings.