Atlanta’s now weeks into the new league year and has been steadily adding to the roster. The 2022 NFL Draft will significantly change this team’s outlook if they land a few difference makers—hell, even just a lot of depth would be welcome—but the Falcons have taken real steps to shape their depth chart through free agency over the past month.
In light of that—and on the heels of the Rashaan Evans signing yesterday—it seemed like a good time to take a deep breath, step back and look at where the depth chart stands on both sides of the ball with less than a month to go until the draft. None of what follows is official or anywhere close to final—the Falcons still have more than 20 roster spots open, after all—but will give us a sense of where the team needs to add and where they’ve been able to add credible starting options to a defense that badly needed the help.
Tomorrow we’ll get into the offense, but today, let’s talk defense.
DL Grady Jarrett
DL Anthony Rush
DL Ta’Quon Graham
DL Marlon Davidson
DL Nick Thurman
Assuming the Falcons don’t trade Jarrett—and every report indicates they’re trying to extend him—he’ll be a fixture on this line for the eighth straight season. He’s one of the best in the business and the only star in the Falcons’ front seven, so hopefully Jarrett’s back and set to wreak havoc.
Graham quietly played the third-highest snap totals on the defensive line a year ago, and I think he’s both a player the coaching staff likes and a player who has the talent to be a starter. If Atlanta doesn’t add an obvious upgrade, go ahead and pen him in to the starting lineup, and I like his chances of making a bit of a leap in his second season.
Atlanta will want to add more options to this defensive line, but Rush should be penciled in for something like 30-40% of the defensive snaps as the team’s nose tackle. He was stone solid in that role once he stepped into the lineup last year, and the Falcons will feel better about having a player they’re comfortable with after souring on Tyeler Davison and cycling options early in the 2021 season.
The depth here is thin, though that won’t last with the draft just around the corner. I remain hopeful that Davidson will prove to be a force to be reckoned with, and if he’s at least a high-end reserve this defense will greatly benefit. Thurman will be in the mix for a spot this summer, especially if the team doesn’t add more talent.
OLB Lorenzo Carter
OLB Adetokunbo Ogundeji
OLB James Vaughters
OLB John Cominsky
OLB Quinton Bell
OLB Jordan Brailford
Atlanta has a pressing need for a game-changing talent here, but if they can add a player with that kind of upside, this group actually becomes pretty interesting.
Carter picked up all his sacks at the end of the 2021 season, but he’s only 26 years old, remains an excellent athlete, and will be stepping into a defense where he won’t lack for snaps or opportunity. Ogundeji is a player the Falcons have talked up relentlessly since last summer, and with a year under his belt hopefully he’ll be able to add to his production as a pass rusher. Carter, Ogundeji and an early round rookie is the start of something, and the Falcons will have the cap space to keep Carter around if he breaks out in 2022.
Vaughters stepped in and played pretty well in his 2021 opportunities and is excellent depth for this group. After the team effectively mothballed Cominsky while switching him back to outside linebacker, he’ll start the spring locked into the position. He’s still just 26 years old, too, and hopefully will at least be able to be a contributor on 15-20 snaps per game. Bell and Brailford will compete for one spot or practice squad slots, depending on whether the Falcons add to the group.
ILB Deion Jones
ILB Rashaan Evans
ILB Mykal Walker
ILB Dorian Etheridge
ILB Rashad Smith
I’m genuinely uncertain how this will play out, as I fully expect Evans to start but am not 100% sure Jones will be on this roster by the time the season starts. Walker and Evans would provide this team with a bigger, more physical set of starters, which seems to be the direction the team is moving in. We’ll have to see how this plays out after the draft.
If Jones is here, the Falcons will mix the recently-signed, hard-hitting Evans with Debo’s range and speed, with Walker serving as the team’s top reserve at the position. The hope in that scenario would be that Jones bounces back in a big way and returns to his play-making heydays, giving Atlanta a capable option for covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Evans would deliver the big, reliable hits and has been at least semi-capable in coverage in his own right the past two years.
If the Falcons instead add Walker to the starting lineup—or if they mix him in with Evans getting a little run as a pass rusher—they’ll be choosing someone who has proven to be aggressive and pretty solid in coverage in his limited chances the past two seasons. Unless the team adds another player, Etheridge will round out the group as a special teamer and deep reserve.
The uncertainty around Jones creates uncertainty around the entire position, but obviously if he stays and bounces back a bit this looks like a very solid group. If they do move him, it’ll be important to add more talent to the group behind Evans and Walker.
CB A.J. Terrell
CB Casey Hayward
CB Isaiah Oliver
CB Darren Hall
CB DeAundre Alford
CB Avery Williams
CB Kendall Sheffield
CB Lafayette Pitts
CB Cornell Armstrong
CB Corey Ballentine
This is the best position group on the roster, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close.
If Terrell can keep up the momentum from his breakout season, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in football and a tremendous starter. Hayward is getting older, but is still terrific in coverage and a reliable second cornerback opposite Terrrell. Oliver looked great before his injury last year, and if he’s healthy should step right back in as a reliable nickel for Dean Pees and this defense.
That is, on paper, a really strong group of starters. The depth is quality, as well, with Hall showing pretty well in his limited 2021 opportunites, Alford looking deeply intriguing as he jumps over from the CFL, and Williams still young and capable of much more than he showed in his limited opportunities in 2021. Sheffield didn’t get on the field much but still has solid size and excellent speed to build on, while Pitts, Armstrong and Ballentine can credibly compete for a couple of practice squad spots to provide further on-call depth.
It’s always foolish to assume everything will go to plan, but on paper this is a very good and deep group. I’m legitimately excited to see how it shakes out this summer.
S Richie Grant
S Jaylinn Hawkins
S Erik Harris
S Dean Marlowe
S/CB Teez Tabor
S Luther Kirk
The possibility of Kyle Hamilton being the selection at No. 8 feels legitimate, so it’s hard to pencil any of these players in. While there’s significant uncertainty with who will start even if they keep this group intact, the Falcons have done a nice job of giving themselves options on a budget.
My assumption is that Grant steps into the starting lineup. The 2021 second round pick didn’t get a ton of run on defense last season, but the Falcons went and got him because they loved his playmaking potential, and he’s had a year to learn and adjust to the NFL game. It would be an upset if he didn’t get first crack at a huge role in 2022, and I’m still hoping he’ll excel with the opportunity.
Hawkins needs to be lightly penciled in. He got real run earlier in the year but wasn’t playing much by the end, and it was not entirely clear if that was just coaching staff preference or the aftermath of injury. He remains a physical playmaker in the making, albeit one who made some very visible mistakes along the way, and I’d love to see him get a real shot at starting for an entire season in a year where the Falcons need to be willing to throw things at the wall and see if they stick.
Harris started the majority of games a year ago until he got injured, and if he’s settling into a depth role, he’s a very strong reserve who can credibly step in and deliver spot starts if someone’s injured or falters, as well as a player the Falcons like for his leadership. Marlowe started nine games for the Lions a year ago and was unspectacular—you don’t want him being targeted in coverage, but he’s a reliable tackler—but brings significant experience and solid skill set to the table as a reserve. Tabor rounds things out with versatility—he’s played both safety and cornerback—and special teams value.
Pees likes to mix in more than just two safeties, so you’ll see Harris and Marlowe even if they don’t start. This won’t be a great group unless Grant and/or Hawkins blossoms (or, of course, if they add someone like Hamilton), but it’s solid and fairly deep.
The Falcons are obviously not done adding to this defense—they have 20-plus roster spots still open and the draft hasn’t happened yet—but you can see this side of the ball beginning to take shape. What positions are you hoping the team adds to in the coming weeks?