Another year, another upcoming season filled with question marks across the defensive line. There is a different feeling compared to the past three seasons. In past seasons, there were mostly feelings of dread when assessing the state of the Falcons’ defensive line. That isn’t the case this season. There is actual enthusiasm about what the front office has put together to address the most problematic area on the roster for years.
By drafting two edge rushers in the first three rounds and signing an explosive edge rusher entering his prime, the Falcons are taking encouraging steps towards building a capable defense for the future. They also have a few intriguing young players that showed flashes last season.
After producing the fewest sacks and generating the lowest amount of pressure in the league last season, the organization is doing what it can to give Dean Pees more to work with. Let’s fully evaluate the defensive line following a very active draft.
The big dog: Grady Jarrett
The heart and soul of the Falcons won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Jarrett signed a new three-year deal, which was welcome news following trade buzz. Jarrett is coming off a down year by his lofty standards, but there are still not many defensive tackles that can do what he does every week.
His wicked get-off, knack for slicing through double teams, bulldozing guards into backfields, and generating pressure make him one of the most complete defensive linemen in the league.
Jarrett is a ferocious competitor and an incredible leader. There is no doubting his work ethic. There is no questioning his desire to be great. He is everything a coach wants from a player. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the Falcons had to keep him.
A rebuilding franchise can’t allow all of their top players older than 26 years old to move on and play for a better team. There are certain players that have a powerful influence and need to be valued more than ever during a difficult time. Jarrett is that type of player and should be more productive in 2022.
The hopeful key figures: Arnold Ebiketie, Lorenzo Carter, Marlon Davidson
“The doctor of the pass rush” is here to inject life into a Falcons’ group that hasn’t been productive since 2017. Ebiketie is a relentless edge rusher who can generate consistent pressure with his power, violent hands, and crafty moves. His high football IQ is evident as well when watching him on a snap-to-snap basis. Whether it’s blowing past a left tackle or making a hustle play in chasing down a skill position player, Ebiketie normally finds himself around the ball.
This is the type of player the Falcons desperately needs on the defensive line. To have a complete edge rusher has been on the team’s wish list for several years now. Ebiketie isn’t necessarily big and can struggle at the point of attack against the run.
Expecting him to play all three downs from the start may be an audacious decision. Despite those slight question marks, there are numerous reasons to be excited about a potential future cornerstone of the Falcons’ defense.
Coming off a career year in 2021, Carter joins the Falcons with some buzz after coming into his own as an edge rusher. Although he only signed to a one-year deal, expectations should be high for a player not only entering his prime but also cost the team a fourth-round compensatory pick in 2023. Considering how big this rebuilding job is in Atlanta, they can’t afford to let fourth-round picks go to waste. Carter has to deliver off the edge.
If Davidson wasn’t a former second-round pick and the Falcons had more capable defensive tackles on the roster, he would be in the next category. His first two seasons in the league showed very little of a player that can be a key figure, thrilling pick six of Tom Brady aside. That doesn’t mean the coaching staff won’t give ample opportunities in 2022, or that his talent can’t win out with those opportunities.
The opening is there for him to line up alongside Grady Jarrett when the defense plays nickel. He could also contribute in base packages as well. It’s just a matter of Davidson making significant strides going in a pivotal third season.
The intriguing rotational players: DeAngelo Malone, Anthony Rush, Ta’Quon Graham, Vincent Taylor
Due to the free-agent signing and second-round status, Carter and Ebiketie will likely open the season as the primary edge rushers. That shouldn’t stop Malone from having some type of role. A tremendous athlete like him will find his way on the field. His blistering speed and length (33-1/8-inch arms) can give opposing tackles fits. Despite being a bit undersized, Malone can be a difference-maker off the edge, particularly in specific packages that Pees should be greatly excited about.
Rush and Graham both had their moments last season. They showed enough as run defenders that gave the coaching staff optimism going into 2022. Rush’s mammoth size and ability to power through double teams produced some eye-opening moments. That included an impressive forced fumble against Jacksonville, where he got into the backfield and blasted into James Robinson, forcing a turnover that led to a touchdown. Graham is a versatile option, while Rush proved he could be a productive nose tackle in an expanded role.
Taylor converted his success into a one-year deal with the Texans. His progress was quickly derailed by suffering a torn Achilles in Houston’s home opener against Jacksonville. Taylor could end up developing into a solid contributor if he can stay healthy. The defensive line isn’t particularly big on the interior outside of Rush.
The competition for roster spots: Ade Ogundeji, John Cominsky, Quinton Bell, Jordan Brailford, Nick Thurman
Editor’s Note: Undrafted rookie free agents aren’t listed.
After showing glimpses of promise in October, Ogundeji failed to make a notable impact over the second half of the season. His lack of play strength and pass-rushing moves made it easy for right tackles to neutralize him. Based on the Falcons adding three edge rushers this off-season, he is going to have to earn his place on the roster.
Cominsky is similar to Ogundeji in being a defensive lineman that showed flashes to start his career. Those flashes haven’t materialized into meaningful production. There was optimism he could be a dangerous interior pass rusher. Not staying healthy and winning over the coaching staff has made him an afterthought on the defensive line. Cominsky knows he is going to need a strong preseason to make the team.
The rest of the group is unproven. Bell is on his third team in four years after being cut by Las Vegas and Tampa Bay. The same goes for Brailford following unsuccessful stints in Washington and Minnesota. Thurman actually played for the Falcons in their Week 16 loss to Buffalo. Before that, he bounced between Houston, Tampa Bay, and New England. It would be a major surprise if any of these three players earned a place within the defensive line rotation.
Outlook: There is hope but it’s still a major work in progress
That should be the slogan for the entire Falcons defense in 2022. In what was an arduous off-season, the front office managed to do enough to improve the defense on paper. It’s still a unit filled with mystery, particularly on the defensive line. There is no telling what type of production the three new edge rushers will generate. What we do know is that they will offer much more than last year’s abysmal group of edge rushers.
They won’t be as undisciplined and frustrating as Dante Fowler was. They won’t be as one-dimensional as Steven Means. Ebiketie, Carter, and Malone offer plenty of burst and power off the edge. How all three players get integrated will be fascinating to watch during the early stages of the season. If Davidson can live up to his potential and Rush or Graham can emerge as a capable run-stopping defensive tackle, this defensive line could grow into being a dangerous unit. It has been a long time since we could say that about the Falcons.