We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. We’re moving along to a position group where the competition will be refreshingly among young players with upside: Outside linebacker.
Atlanta had the worst pass rush in the NFL last year, and I’m not sure it was particularly close. That’s not entirely on the outside linebacker group, but there’s no point in denying that however fond of Steven Means, Brandon Copeland, and others that Dean Pees may have been, they certainly did not produce.
The Falcons took a hard look at that group and dynamited it this offseason, leaving last year’s draft pick Adetokunbo Ogundeji as the sole returning player (aside from a couple of reserve/future contracts, who won’t figure into a starting job). They dipped into free agency and got a bargain on Lorenzo Carter and then double-dipped at the position in the draft, adding Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. Not all of those moves will work out—at least right away—but having a young group with promise is refreshing after years of cobbling something together.
Here’s what to expect for the training camp battle in 2022.
The recent history at outside linebacker
Let’s tell some sad stories about the outside linebacker group, also known as the defensive end group under Mike Smith and Dan Quinn, and how pass rushes become doomed.
In 2012, the Falcons had John Abraham in his final season with the team, with the immortal Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann logging plenty of time at defensive end as well. Post-Abe, the team’s listed starters have been Biermann and Osi Umenyiora (2013), Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux (2014), Vic Beasley and Tyson Jackson (2015), Vic Beasley and a rotating cast of characters including Takk McKinley (2016-2020), and last year, Steven Means and Adetokunbo Ogundeji/Brandon Copeland/Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Aside from one huge season from Beasley, an impressive one from Adrian Clayborn, and some solid ones from McKinley, that’s largely been a distinctly mediocre group of guys for a very long time now.
That’s in spite of significant money and significant draft selections going to try to fix the pass rush and give this team capable pass rushers. It’s why the Falcons effectively just put a bandage over the position group last year, and why they’re starting fresh in 2022 outside of Adetokunbo Ogundeji, a player the team is clearly high on, and why they’ll likely spend big again next year to add more talent unless this quarter is wildly successfully.
There are four players right now who should be expected to have major roles in this pass rush and will be vying for starting jobs. Don’t be surprised if there’s another veteran addition here, but that player will be a reserve and rotational piece rather than a starter, I’d suspect.
The major free agent import for this defense, and a player virtually guaranteed to have a major role in this re-tooling outside linebacker group. Carter’s never been a hugely productive option in his brief NFL career with the Giants, but critically he’s both young and fits the profile of what this team is looking for.
A long (6’5”) player with plus athleticism, Carter is capable in coverage, useful against the run, and a solid if unspectacular pass rusher. He does a little bit of everything well—aside from occasionally tackling, as he’s missed eight in two out of the last three seasons—in other words, and at 26 years old still may have untapped upside we have yet to see. His floor is a capable, well-rounded starter and his ceiling is an above average starting outside linebacker who can terrorize quarterbacks with his quickness. That makes him an obvious candidate to start this year, and he could earn a long-term deal with a quality 2022.
The sole incumbent in this group, Ogundeji is a player outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino has talked up as a potential “bellcow” for the group. We saw him provide a lot of snaps for the team in his rookie season, clocking in at 9th on the team in terms of his defensive snaps, and he proved to be a significant contributor on special teams as well.
What we didn’t see was any kind of above average play by the rookie, as he was solid against the run, largely unremarkable as a pass rusher, and solid enough in limited coverage opportunities. The playing time and experience should help him find his footing in his second season, and the coaching staff hardly is going to sour on him based on a quiet rookie season when the entire defense was so shaky. Ogundeji will need to show he’s taken strides as a pass rusher in particular to push for a starting role.
The tools and strength are there for Ogundeji, and a second-year leap is certainly well within the realm of possibility, even with all the new additions crowding the outside linebacker room a bit. At worst, he’ll once again be called upon to be a significant piece of the rotation and a fixture on special teams, and will provide a durable young option for a team that still needs all the help they can get.
So much of my hope for a better pass rush both now and in the future rests in the hands of Dr. Arnold Ebiketie. Fortunately, his talent suggests he could be a force in this league.
An explosive, athletic pass rusher, Ebiketie has the tools to be an above option pretty quickly, with the only real obstacle being his adjustment to the pros. He’ll need some work to be a plus run defender and will undoubtedly have the typical rookie struggles we see from pass rushers in terms of consistency, but he’s the highest-upside option in the building and will play right away.
There’s not much more to say, really. Ebiketie looks like he could be great, and at the very least he’s going to be better than what Atlanta trotted out a year ago. I’m extremely excited to see what he can do.
A player the Falcons clearly had their eyes on throughout the pre-draft process, Malone brings intriguing athleticism (you’re sensing a theme here) and a relentless motor to this group. As Kevin Knight noted, he doesn’t have ideal height and weight, but almost everything else about him suggests that he can stick around in this league.
Malone’s likely to settle in as a reserve initially, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have a role given this team’s thin depth and Malone’s very obvious ability. I’d expect him to play less than the other three mentioned here, but it’s not hard to see Malone impressing in a limited role and pushing for a bigger one in 2023.
Who wins the battle?
This will be a heavy rotation, so it’s not exactly critical which two guys win jobs if they end up playing 50% of the defensive snaps in a given game compared to 40% for the reserves. Still, we have our guesses.
Carter and Ebiketie figure to have the best blend of upside and ability to offer pressure right away, and so they’re the two I expect to be at least nominal starters. Ebiketie should be here for a long time if all goes well, while Carter is going to be pushing to turn this one-year audition into a long-term deal of his own.
In the end, you’ll see all four of these players with significant 2022 roles, but expect Carter and Ebiketie to lead the team in snaps and starts when all is said and done. That’s the most promising young duo the Falcons have had since those brief, heady days when Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley seemed like the future in Atlanta, and we’ll have to hope this group can offer the kind of production we dreamt of back in 2017.