For the Atlanta Falcons, there aren’t any positions that do not need an infusion of talent. Arguably (but not many would argue), the trenches are at the top of the list.
In regards to the defensive tackle position, the new regime of Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith and Dean Pees are in the process of completely revamping the group due to specific qualities they want in the position.
A brief history of the position
The previous regimes, dating all the way back to 2008 under Coach Mike Smith, valued smaller, quicker tackles up front that had the ability to beat players off the snap and shoot gaps in a one gap, attacking style even front. Think Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and so on.
While the tackles that were drafted and acquired via free agency had those qualities, there was a glaring weakness in regards to strength, size and stoutness at the point of attack. In most cases, that caused the front to get bullied a lot by more physical teams.
Under Terry Fontenot’s regime, a different type of defensive tackle is valued. While athleticism is definitely important, there’s an obvious focus on size, strength and arm length. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees doesn’t like being bullied in the run game, and considering he runs more of an odd alignment up front, size and length are valued.
Grady Jarrett is the unquestioned leader of the defensive line. However, due to the fact that offenses only have had to account for him on every down, he’s gotten double and tripled teamed. As a result, while he was still remarkably effective considering those obstacles, his stats and game impact suffered. If the Falcons are to get better up front, they have to have some players not named Grady Jarrett who can and do step up.
After some work in the draft last year and free agency so far this year, there are actually some intriguing names to review for the 2nd defensive tackle position when camp starts.
Here are some players that we should keep our eye on during training camp.
Camp battle contenders
Drafted in the 5th round by the Falcons in the 2021 NFL draft, Graham is an intriguing prospect with good strength and outstanding length (35 inch arms). Coming out of Texas, Graham showed a quality ability to stack and shed defenders. He certainly has the physical stature of an NFL defensive tackle, and on the back end of his rookie season, showed flashes in the run game.
While not incredibly quick off the snap, he’s proven so far that he has ability to figure heavily into this team’s rotation and should only get better. The main question I have in regards to Graham is if he’s worked on his hands and pass rush moves to be a valuable piece of the Falcons’ interior pass rush, something this team badly needs. I, for one, am quite eager to see how he progresses in his sophomore campaign.
This is undoubtedly a make or break season for Davidson. Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2020 draft, many analysts (myself included) viewed Davidson as a bit of a tweener. Possessing plus athleticism for a player his size, Davidson saw snaps outside mostly in Auburn and shows good burst off the snap, but he has an issue with power and strength (sound familiar?).
Coach Dan Quinn valued versatility up front, which is why Davidson was so appealing. The hope was that he’d be a pass rushing 3 tech for the previous regime, but Davidson got hit with injuries that obviously thwarted his development. I have given Davidson the benefit of the doubt in regards to how his career has gone, but this will be the year where the rubber has to meet the road for him. He’s shown flashes when he has played and should have a valid shot at more reps this season at the 5-tech in Pees’ scheme. However, given the shift in terms of what’s valued at the position, he will have to stand out to gain an opportunity for more snaps in the 2022 season.
Fontenot picking up Taylor in free agency was certainly a low risk/high reward move. Taylor is another physical player with good length (34 3/8 inch arms), and he’s active in the passing game. Taylor was slated to start with the Houston Texans last season, but that campaign was cut short due to a season ending ankle injury.
If healthy, Taylor can provide valuable depth at the 5 tech. However, for me, the question is if the younger players like Graham and Davidson take a clear step up this season, will a veteran like Taylor be on the final roster when all is said and done? Either way, I’m just eager to see how he looks going into camp, especially coming off his injury last year.
Out of all the former Chicago Bears that the Falcons have signed via free agency, and there are many, Eddie Goldman is clearly my favorite. A 6’4”, 335 pound nose tackle, Goldman is as stout against the run as we could hope for. Goldman also has an ability to collapse the pocket in the passing game, and he has solid athleticism for a player his size.
Goldman had some stellar years for the Bears before opting out of the 2020 during the COVID pandemic. However, after his return, his play dropped (likely due to the layoff in 2020), and the Bears cut him ultimately for cap reasons as he ended up being a rotational player. Given that he’s stout in the run game and can provide pass rush assistance, he’s very likely the de facto starter in the middle of the line.
Who wins the battle?
The Falcons have a few other players that will be competing for a role along the defensive line, but, to me, these are the primary contenders. I don’t have a set prediction because I think the competition will be fierce with so many players vying for roles. After the acquisition of Goldman, players like Anthony Rush will likely end up being quality depth pieces going forward. I have absolutely loved how general manager Terry Fontenot has addressed the defensive tackle position during this roster transition.
This group has the potential, on paper, to be a solid and versatile unit. I do expect this defense to be better against the run than they have been in previous years, but the true question is how much better will they be in regards to the pass rush? Either way, in my opinion, this will be one of the most exciting camps in recent memory because the competition will be fierce.