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A pre-training camp look at the Falcons defense

NFL: Atlanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we took a closer look at the state of the Falcons offense. Today, we turn to the defense ahead of training camp.

Atlanta’s probably making additions to the defensive line and subtracting from the cornerback group, and a Deion Jones trade remains a real possibility. What’s clear looking at this roster as it stands today is that just as they are on offense, the Falcons are banking on competition carrying the day on defense. What’s welcome is that this has the potential to be a much younger defense this year, one with considerable upside, if uneven 2022 results.

Let’s take a look at the state of the defensive roster, as it stands today.

Defensive line

DL Grady Jarrett

DL Marlon Davidson

DL Ta’Quon Graham

DL Nick Thurman

DL Anthony Rush

DL Jalen Dalton

DL Vincent Taylor

DL Derrick Tangelo

DL Bryce Rodgers

DL Timothy Horne

Light on proven talent, heavy on youth and promise. That’s the defensive line in a nutshell.

Grady Jarrett is obviously one of the best in football, an unquestioned leader on this defense, and the man you can count on to get the job done here. The only other players who seem pretty certain to have major roles are Graham and Davidson, the former because he’s a capable player with upside who was drafted by this regime and the latter because the potential is still very real even if the results have been majorly inconsistent.

After that, you have players with varying levels of promise competing for a handful of spots. Thurman has held on after joining the team late in the 2021 season and has been mentioned by Arthur Smith as someone who might be part of the rotation. Rush was a great addition at nose tackle a year ago and should have an inside track to a job again. Taylor has been a capable rotational piece for other teams, while Dalton has yet to make an impact but is still young and has a blend of strength and length that clearly intrigued Atlanta.

The remaining three players are all 2022 undrafted free agents likely pushing for practice squad spots, but Tangelo in particular is talented enough to think he might sneak onto the roster with a relatively unsettled group behind Jarrett. We’ve been clamoring for the team to get younger along the line for a while now, and they’re a mortal lock to do it in 2022.

Outside linebacker

OLB Adetokunbo Ogundeji

OLB Lorenzo Carter

OLB Arnold Ebiketie

OLB DeAngelo Malone

OLB Quinton Bell

OLB Jordan Brailford

OLB Kuony Deng

The top four here is pretty easy to figure out. Ogundeji is fresh off a so-so rookie season, but is a player the Falcons like a lot and will have a prominent role in 2022. Carter still has a ton of upside and will likely lead this group in snaps if he’s healthy, given that he’s the most proven pass rusher in the bunch. Ebiketie is the likeliest player of the bunch to turn into a special pass rusher with his tools, and should at least be productive in his rookie season in a large role. Malone may get fewer snaps than the other three I just mentioned, but the Falcons love him and he showcased some legitimate pass rushing skills at Western Kentucky. The odds are only one or two of these guys will produce at a high level in 2022, but all four have talent to be quality starters in the near future.

That leaves Bell, Brailford, and Deng fighting over what I’d assume is one spot. Bell has been around since last summer and might have a fast track to that spot, but Deng is the most promising of the bunch as a raw but intriguing pass rusher who has a lot of room for growth. I hope he at least sticks on the practice squad.

Inside linebacker

ILB Deion Jones

ILB Rashaan Evans

ILB Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB Mykal Walker

ILB Troy Andersen

ILB Dorian Etheridge

ILB Rashad Smith

LB Nate Landman

This group is deeper than I would have expected. There’s no concrete indication of whether Jones is going to be on the roster, but if he wasn’t the Falcons would have hyper-athletic mountain man Andersen, a proven, physical run-stopping presence in Evans, a useful starting-caliber linebacker in Kwiatkoski, and a linebacker who might someday be the best of the bunch in Walker. There’s three players there who could start and one lottery ticket who could be special, and remember, Jones could be coming back.

That’s a bit of a logjam, and that’s not even mentioning that Etheridge is a capable special teamer who looked good last summer, or that Landman has been impressive in the early part of the offseason program. I’m assuming the Falcons will still try to move Jones and keep the other four potential starters plus Etheridge or Landman, and that’d be a fun group.


CB A.J. Terrell

CB Casey Hayward

CB Isaiah Oliver

CB Darren Hall

CB DeAundre Alford

CB Lafayette Pitts

CB Cornell Armstrong

CB Corey Ballentine

CB Mike Ford

CB Matt Hankins

Here’s the group I might feel best about. Terrell is already one of the best young cornerbacks in football, and the Falcons have paired him with a savvy and very good starter in Hayward. Add in a healthy Oliver, who appeared to be coming into his own with the Falcons in 2021, and you have a capable starting trio.

The depth looks like it might be interesting, as well. I might be the biggest Hall fan in this fanbase, as I really like his physicality and aggression and think his best days are ahead of him, and he’ll be a capable fourth or fifth cornerback. His spot on the depth chart likely depends on how well Alford fares, as the CFL import has been faring well early on with the Falcons and has the talent to be a high-end reserve at worst.

After that, you have some capable contenders for a sixth and final spot. I put Teez Tabor on the cornerback list, but he plays both corner and safety and probably has the fast track to a roster spot owing to his versatility. Ford is a very capable special teamer, Ballentine has experience as a returner, and Hankins has real promise. Hell, Pitts and Armstrong have shown promise in their limited opportunities in the NFL, as well.

I feel very confident the five or six players who end up on the roster will be good ones, and that this cornerback group will be among the strongest position groupings on the team.

S Richie Grant

S Jaylinn Hawkins

S Erik Harris

S Dean Marlowe

S/CB Teez Tabor

S Brad Hawkins

S Tre Webb

Safety’s not quite the top-to-bottom strength cornerback is, as the group’s fortunes will depend heavily on whether Grant and Hawkins take a big step forward or not. I’m very bullish on Grant in particular—fans were way too quick to give up on him after a quiet rookie season—but Hawkins showed he has the ball skills and physicality to be a tone setter as well. If they both grow into starting roles this year, the Falcons will be in good shape both now and in the future. I recognize that’s an if, though.

Harris took his lumps from the fanbase for his more noticeable 2021 miscues, but he was a capable enough starter and will be terrific depth for this team if he doesn’t win a job this year. Marlowe is a capable special teamer and solid reserve as well, and as I mentioned above, Tabor’s versatility and special teams value probably gives him an inside track to a job. That’s likely your safety group for 2022.

That said, keep an eye on Hawkins and Webb. The Falcons liked Hawkins enough to give him more guaranteed money than most of the undrafted free agent class, while the versatile Webb earned his way onto the roster as a tryout player at rookie minicamp. I’m confident one of them will earn a practice squad spot if there aren’t major changse to the roster.

What roster battles on defense are you most looking forward to?