The Falcons defense has been more anchor than advantage for what seems like aeons. At its best, that side of the ball has been a sporadic asset, as it was at times in the 2016-2018 stretch, or at its opportunistic best under Mike Smith. Mostly, though, the Falcons defense has been lousy, with a handful of stars working hard to overcome systemic failure.
If that sounds harsh, consider the past two years in Atlanta, where under one of the most respected defensive coordinators in recent NFL history, the Falcons fielded one of the worst defenses in the league. Over the past three seasons, they’ve been almost hilariously inept at getting to the passer. That can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the talent level on the roster, but if we’re being frank, that’s a massive factor.
That will change this offseason, either because the defense will improve with an influx of talent or the “we don’t have enough talent” excuse will evaporate. Dean Pees leaves with some optimism in his heart about a defense that limited scoring over the past several weeks of the season, so perhaps the totality of the need will prove to be a bit less than we think. What is clear is that the Falcons are likely going to leave this offseason with multiple starters added to the defense, and it would not be astonishing to see them turn over about half of their starting lineup.
The Falcons need to upgrade everywhere on defense, in other words, but here’s a rough order of operation for their biggest needs.
You have Grady Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham coming off a significant injury, and Timothy Horne today. Jarrett is a certified star and defensive leader, Graham has the upside to be a plus starter, and Horne impressed as a rookie undrafted free agent, but that’s a group that needs additional help.
The proof is in the production: The Falcons not-so-quietly fielded one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, a problem at every level but one that starts up front, and of course could not rush the passer at all for a third straight season. Getting a terrific-to-dominant option to pair with Jarrett and another quality rotational piece to join Horne, Graham, and maybe no-brainer re-signing Abdullah Anderson will make a huge difference for this line.
Richie Grant is locked in as a starter, and if he irons out some of his decison-making and tackling issues, he’ll be a very good one. Beyond that, though, the Falcons have some big decisions to make at safety.
Jaylinn Hawkins held down the starting job most of the year, but the team rotated him with Dean Marlowe in the early going and does not appear to be sold on him handling those duties long-term. If that’s the case, you need another starter and you definitely need depth, with essentially no one beyond Grant and Hawkins proven and under contract. Getting a high-end option to pair with Grant and a quality fourth safety with Hawkins moving to a reserve role would put this team in a much stronger position than they were in this past year.
Arnold Ebiketie has promise and so does DeAngelo Malone, and despite two quiet years in a row, the Falcons clearly like Adetokunbo Ogundeji as at least a key reserve. That means they have a solid foundation, and Lorenzo Carter feels like he could be a pretty easy re-signing.
You may be sensing a theme, but what’s missing here is at least one high-end starter, the kind of relentless pass rusher who is a nightmare for quarterbacks and helps elevate everyone around him. The Falcons have been missing that player and presence for a small eternity now, and you could argue very convincingly that getting that option is the top priority of the offseason.
A.J. Terrell is here. Casey Hayward is under contract, as are Darren Hall and Dee Alford. If Hayward is completely healthy, you have one great starter, a capable second one, and useful young depth.
That’s not really enough, obviously, particularly because there are no guarantees that Hayward will be healthy after missing most of the year. The Falcons might find that one of Hall, Alford, or new addition Jamal Peters can surprise and take on an expanded role, and they might re-sign Isaiah Oliver again to give them a very capable nickel. Might, might, might.
Given the uncertainty beyond Terrell, the Falcons shouldn’t plan to stand pat. Adding another capable starter and drafting a corner to develop if they’re not satisfied with their depth seems like a smart move.
So much depends on whether Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen are going to be counted on to start. If that’s the case, they still could use veteran help, either a Rashaan Evans re-signing or another capable addition. If that’s not the case, the Falcons might have to invest heavily at inside linebacker to get by while they wait for Andersen in particular to be ready.
Assuming Andersen takes a step forward—I know what they say about assumptions—and Walker’s at least thought of as a capable reserve, I think you’re looking at one semi-affordable starting-caliber addition here. That’s still a big deal, but it’s not the biggest priority the defense has.
How would you rank these needs?