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Falcons offseason roundtable: Defensive edition

The quiet period of the offseason continues as training camp starts in a month. It’s time to have a long discussion about the Falcons’ slowly improving defense.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As what has become a yearly tradition for the Falcons, the defense enters the season with several unknowns. There are positional question marks on all three levels of the defense. Outside of the cornerback position, it’s hard to declare any other position as a legitimate strength. There are also some concerns on whether the modern game has passed Dean Pees by, which will come up at some point in this upcoming roundtable discussion.

Unlike the past two seasons, there is genuine optimism for defensive improvement. The front office finally made adding edge rushers a priority in an efficient manner. They are trying to be more creative at linebacker following last year’s major disappointment with Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun.

Signing a legitimate number two cornerback in Casey Heyward was another significant positive move. The defense looks somewhat assembled for the first time since 2019. Let’s hope things don’t immediately fall apart as they did in that forgettable season.

It’s going to be a jam-packed discussion with Cory Woodroof and Everett Glaze participating for the first time. They are joining Dave Choate, Kevin Knight, and me to analyze the defense. If you want to check out Dave, Kevin, and I get into the offense, you can view it here.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Out of all the new edge rushers on the Falcons’ roster, which player has the most upside?

Dave Choate: It’s Arnold Ebiketie, a player who (maybe ominously) I’m more excited about than any pass rusher joining the team since Vic Beasley. Ebiketie plays with confidence, is already a smart and capable player, and has much room to grow into something special.

I don’t know if he’ll ever be among the league’s sack leaders, but he has double-digit sack upside and could become the first consistent force for good as an edge rusher that this team has had since John Abraham. Maybe that’s setting those expectations too high, but I’m a believer.

Cory Woodroof: Arnold Ebiketie is the one who intrigues me the most, as I’m sure is the case with most Falcon fans. The fact that he came out of college with first-round grades and fell to Atlanta in the second is enticing enough, but the team hasn’t found a consistent pass rusher in the early rounds of the draft in ages. If Ebiketie can be that presence, it changes the tenor of the defensive front.

Everett Glaze: I truly think this edge rusher group has a chance to make some noise in the long run. Although I absolutely loved the Ebiketie pick, the player I think could be a stud in the league is DeAngelo Malone.

There’s so much I love about his game. He’s a tad light for the position currently, but this kid is fearless and plays bigger. He has a good bend, has a very good first step, and is stronger than you’d think for a player his size. I’m excited to watch how his development progresses in the league.

Kevin Knight: This is actually a tough question, because the Falcons added a lot of talent at EDGE this offseason. If you’re talking pure athletic upside, it’s probably veteran Lorenzo Carter. A “perfect 10” in terms of RAS (at LB, technically, though he’s still elite at DE), Carter is an elite athlete who may finally be putting it all together. However, in terms of long-term upside, I think it’s Arnold Ebiketie. It’s rare to see a young pass rusher so dedicated to the technical side of the game, and that gives me a lot of hope for Ebiketie’s development. He’s also an excellent athlete too, with an 8.90 RAS.

Allen Strk: Lorenzo Carter’s yearly progression can’t be overlooked. To become a disruptive player after being essentially written off in New York is commendable. That said, Arnold Ebiketie has to be the pick here. His array of pass-rushing moves and ability to bend makes him an ultra-exciting prospect. There is usually a concern about how a young edge rusher uses their hands.

Ebiketie’s tape showcases how intelligent and violent his hand usage is. It also features plays of him blowing up runs and setting the edge impressively. It wouldn’t be surprising for Ebiketie to play the second-most snaps on the defensive line (Grady Jarrett will play the most) this season. He is that pro ready to go along with having tremendous upside.

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Does Dean Pees enter this season with significant pressure on him after last season, or should he receive a clean slate with what should be an improved roster?

Dave Choate: I don’t think there’s much pressure on Pees at the moment, but I wonder about his long-term future with the team. We all knew the group he was working with last year was light on talent and that he was upfront about the time it would take to fully implement his defense. With talent added, young players growing, and another offseason to install, I think everyone expects improvement and will get it. The lack of “must-win now” pressure on this team more generally means Pees will get the time he needs, and his track record suggests this defense is going to make real strides sooner rather than later.

That said, Pees is the oldest coordinator in the league, one of the oldest coordinators in NFL history, and has already retired once. The defense may flourish in 2022, and he decides to stick around for a while because he’s enjoying himself, and Dick LeBeau did coach until he was 80. It may depend on how well things are going, so the ideal scenario is probably an improvement with Pees continuing to enjoy himself, and sticking around as the defensive coordinator for a few seasons while Atlanta’s hopefully thriving.

Cory Woodroof: I think Pees is too good at what he does to ever feel pressure, but I also empathize that his toolbox was bare last year. His scheme didn’t fully latch on with the roster last year, but there were enough flashes to see some players begin to play well in it.

In year two, it’s imperative that more players fit what Pees wants to do, and can grasp the complexity of what he’s calling. Nobody will have a fully clean slate going into this season on the coaching staff, as is tradition with you coming off a down year, but time will tell if Pees can field more of what he’s used to seeing this fall.

Everett Glaze: I think Pees is being given more rope than people believe due to his experience and the respect that he’s earned in the league. Fontenot is currently in the process of transforming the roster to give Pees the talent he needs to properly run his scheme successfully.

While I do believe that it’s expected that this defensive unit needs to show some improvement in his second season as defensive coordinator, the fact that this team is still in the process of a rebuild still grants Pees some breathing room to make this a solid unit.

Kevin Knight: I think it’s somewhere in the middle. Last season’s performance was influenced by a number of factors outside of Pees’ control. Namely, a roster full of expensive holdovers from the previous regime and virtually no cap space to make any meaningful additions. The Falcons were forced to play a lot of poor scheme fits (Tyeler Davison, Deion Jones), and the results were not good. As the year went on and the team managed to get the rookies up to speed and find some contributors on the waiver wire (Anthony Rush), things got a little bit better.

Most of those poor scheme fits and bloated contracts have been jettisoned for this season, with one notable exception. With a little bit of breathing room against the cap, Atlanta was able to add pieces that actually fit Pees’ defense. While it’s still pretty far from being “talented”, there’s no reason the unit shouldn’t take significant steps towards “average” this season. I’d largely give Pees a pass for 2021, but if the defense is bottom-of-the-league again in 2022, he should be on the hot seat.

Allen Strk: Considering his success for nearly two decades in the NFL, Pees was expected to help elevate a severely limited defense last season. He didn’t do that at all. His propensity to want to play Cover 2, despite not having the personnel to do it, allowed quarterbacks to carve his defense up. Not being able to scheme up pressure for a unit in dire need of help in generating pressure was disappointing.

Outside of the defense limiting big plays and A.J. Terrell having a sensational season, it’s hard to find many positives from Pees’ defense in 2021. There should be pressure on him going into the season. Pees must alter his coverages and design pressures more effectively to bring the best out of this defense. Time will tell if he will actually do it. At least you can count on Pees’ great mentality to provide hope.

NFL: JAN 09 Saints at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Which two inside linebackers will end up being the opening day starters?

Dave Choate: Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker are my picks. Evans is a Pees favorite. He was signed to be at least a bridge starter, and his physicality and aggression against the run will be welcome for Atlanta. Walker has been good enough in his limited opportunities to start, and I think he’ll end up winning the battle this summer if all things are equal.

I’m operating under the assumption that Deion Jones will be on the move once he’s healthy, and that Nick Kwiatkoski to a greater extent, and Troy Andersen to a lesser extent, will still be in the mix. Regardless of how this shakes out, it’s a good linebacker group.

Cory Woodroof: Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker will be the starters. It seems a little questionable right now if Deion Jones remains as a Falcon this fall, and if he is, slot him in for Walker. But if the team can pull off a trade, Evans, a veteran of Pees’ scheme, and Walker, a continually budding talent who is trending upward, feel like the obvious candidates, with Nick Kwiatkoski as a valuable third linebacker and the hyperathletic rookie Troy Andersen taking a year to chisel himself into a hopeful starter down the road.

Everett Glaze: This is a very interesting question, as the linebacker group is underrated in regards to its overall talent and depth. The starting group will greatly depend on what is to become of Deion Jones before the season begins. I think it’s a given that Rashaan Evans is going to be one of those starters. If Jones stays and shows some progress in the scheme, it’s possible that he ends up as the other starter.

My best prediction? When it’s all is said and done, I say Mykal Walker is a dark horse to start the season alongside Rashaan Evans if he shows improvement from last season. However, given the talent and experience Pees has at the position, that could certainly change as the season progresses.

Kevin Knight: This is tough, because it may depend on whether or not the Falcons can trade Deion Jones prior to Week 1. Even if he remains on the roster, I think the starters—at least on early downs—will probably be Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker. Evans had his best years under Pees and fits his system really well, as the scheme can limit his coverage responsibilities. The team has been talking up Mykal Walker a lot this offseason, and his size, physicality, and athleticism make him a better fit than Jones.

There will certainly be some rotation on passing downs, particularly if Jones remains on the team. While Jones was a massive liability against the run last year, he’s still a great coverage player and will probably play in most passing situations. Veteran Nick Kwiatkoski is a well-rounded reserve who can step in if needed. Rookie Troy Andersen will probably see the field at some point, particularly if Jones is traded. He’s simply too talented to stay on the sidelines for long, and he’ll be active on special teams.

Allen Strk: Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker would be my picks without hesitation. Deion Jones is clearly not in the team’s long-term plans. Nick Kwiatkoski has legitimate starting experience and overachieved in Chicago and Las Vegas. His lack of range in coverage does hinder his overall upside. It wouldn’t make sense to start two physical linebackers known for their run defending capabilities in Evans and Kwiatkoski. As intriguing as Troy Andersen is, all signs are indicating that the coaching staff will take it understandably slow with him.

Walker has shown enough flashes over the past two seasons to justify a starting role. He’ll need to fully prove it this summer, as the linebacker group is crowded and filled with talent. Walker should be up to the challenge with how well he can cover and close down skill position players. Evans seems to be the only linebacker that will start by default. Time will tell if that is a mistake, given how much he struggled in Tennessee at times. His history with Pees will likely benefit him as the immediate replacement for Foye Oluokun.

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

What is one area you want to see Richie Grant improve the most in?

Dave Choate: In his otherwise glowing pre-draft profile of Richie Grant, ESPNer and always Falcoholic in our hearts Eric Robinson wrote that Grant could use work cleaning up the angles he takes to the ball carrier and his tackling more generally. In his limited opportunities in 2021, I think we saw that play out multiple times, and I’ll be looking to see him clean up those bad habits as he steps into a starting role this year.

Let me say this, though: I think the idea that Grant was unprepared and lousy last year is a little silly. The coaching staff clearly did not play him as much as any of us would have liked and he made some very real mistakes in his opportunities, but Grant has all the tools to be at least a quality starting safety in this league. I’m just looking for Grant to put it all together in year two, and if I’m being honest, I think he will.

Cory Woodroof: Coverage. Grant will likely master his fundamentals much better in his second year, including his spotty tackling. He needs to handle coverage responsibilities better if he is going to live up to his draft status and cement himself as a starter in the secondary.

The Falcons have a pretty promising secondary on paper, but the safety group still remains a question mark as to who will step up. Jaylinn Hawkins feels like a safe bet to do just that, but Grant growing into a starter this fall would make you feel a lot better.

Everett Glaze: I wasn’t as hard on Richie Grant as most fans and some analysts were. Yes, you want to see promise out of a second-round pick in his rookie season, but given the injury to Isaiah Oliver, Grant saw more time at nickel rather than safety. I keep saying the transition to the league isn’t as easy as some want to make it out to be.

However, time spent playing in the slot should certainly help improve his coverage chops in year two. I just want to see better field awareness from Grant in his second year. He will have every opportunity to take over one of the starting safety roles, as this is the point for him where he’s had a full season and offseason to gain a clear understanding of Pees’ scheme and his role in the scheme.

Kevin Knight: I watched a ton of Richie Grant in college since I’m a UCF fan, and to be honest, his early struggles didn’t really surprise me. What did surprise me is that the team didn’t let him take his lumps, because with those mistakes often came some splash plays too. Grant is an aggressive, physical safety with good range who often relied on his athleticism to overcome miscalculations. At UCF, it was rarely an issue. In the NFL, he’s no longer one of the best athletes on the field.

Playing your role and eliminating mistakes are two of the tenets of Dean Pees’ defense, particularly for safeties. For Grant, the path to more playing time and a successful career is obvious: continue to learn the scheme and cut down on the errors. In short, he needs to improve his discipline and rein in his aggression a bit. When he does, Grant can be a force in Pees’ Cover 2 system. He’s really a perfect fit for the scheme, as he’s rangier than a typical box safety but much more physical than a single-high free safety. I’ve got high hopes for him in 2022.

Allen Strk: Grant’s primary issues stem from being either out of position or undisciplined. There were too many occasions where he failed to make a standard play in the open field. It came from either over-pursuing or taking a poor angle a safety can’t make when closing down the ball carrier. His overall positional awareness needs improvement the most. The missed tackles didn’t come from having poor tackling technique or being undersized.

Grant is a legitimate downhill hitter who can be an enforcer if he puts it all together. Nobody can question his willingness to hit. What has to be questioned is his inability to read the game in front of him and make plays a starting-caliber safety should make without hesitation. Grant has to make strides both positionally and instinctually to be the player the Falcons expect him to be on the back end.