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Who are Atlanta’s in-house starting options on defense?

Atlanta has a couple of no-brainer starters and some intriguing young options, but the cupboard is pretty barren.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images

The Falcons will likely turn over close to half their starting lineup on offense, but they at least have several worthwhile building blocks and young players with promise there. On defense, the situation is a little more urgent and dire, even if two of the better players on the entire roster are on that side of the ball.

Before the offseason really gears up, then, it’s worth looking at who the Falcons already have in the building as starting options and how compelling they are, given that the team will make a lot of moves but can’t replace every starter.

Defensively, the Falcons figure to have three slam-dunk starters, one likely starter, and some options at every level, but a majority of their free agent dollars and at least a couple of draft picks should go to their weakest side of the ball. Let’s talk in-house starting options before free agency kicks off.

Defensive line: Grady Jarrett & Ta’Quon Graham

Jarrett is a defensive leader, an absolutely critical player, and someone new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen sounds excited about. He’ll be a starter, and is one of a small handful of defenders the Falcons can count on for high-level play.

Graham is the other potential starter, and it likely depends on who the Falcons add and Graham’s growth in the spring and summer. He played pretty well throughout the season until injury knocked him out of the final few games, and at worst Graham figures to be a significant piece of the defensive line rotation. Atlanta has major needs here, but does have two building blocks.

Outside linebacker/edge rusher: Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone & Adetokunbo Ogundeji

Three options here, but only one is a player I’m fairly certain will start. That would be Ebiketie, who quietly was effective until an injury seemingly slowed him over the final few games, and who just needs to build on that rookie campaign to be a solid-at-worst starter for Atlanta.

Malone will be in consideration if the Falcons don’t make a major move at the position, but I find that notion improbable in the extreme. Ditto Ogundeji, who has taken on starting snaps over the past two seasons but hasn’t shown the kind of growth the team was likely anticipating in 2022. The likeliest outcome is that the Falcons add a high-end starter to pair with Ebiketie, and Ogundeji and Malone serve as depth.

Inside linebacker: Troy Andersen & Mykal Walker

It appears the Falcons are interested in bringing back Rashaan Evans, and I’d expect him to start if he returns. The team will also effectively start Andersen, whose potential is obviously intriguing to the coaching staff, which likely means Walker’s slotted in as a reserve.

If the reports about Evans are true and he will be back, it feels like this group will most closely resemble what the Falcons had in 2022. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—Evans was solid and Andersen has nowhere to go but up—but the team will be counting on their ability to coax more out of these players and surround them with more talent if they stand pat.

Cornerback: A.J. Terrell & Casey Hayward

Maybe Dee Alford or Jamal Peters surprises, but right now it looks like the Falcons will be down to Terrell and Hayward as starters after Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong had extended auditions that indicated they’re better off as quality backups. Terrell is one of the better cover cornerbacks in the NFL, but Hayward is no lock to return after a significant injury that cost him most of the season and an easy contract out for Atlanta.

Despite having quality reserves under contract and Terrell atop the depth chart, the Falcons could really use another starter here. They’ll likely only hold on to Hayward if they’re A) confident he’s healthy and B) they don’t snag another starter in the draft.

Safety: Richie Grant & Jaylinn Hawkins

Grant feels like he’s locked into the starting lineup after an uneven but mostly successful season as a starter. That’s not necessarily true of Hawkins, who had his big moments but lost some snaps to Dean Marlowe early in the year and struggled for stretches in coverage. Still, Atlanta does have one locked-in starter and a capable young players with starting experience here in case they can’t land a high-end option, and that’s a damn good start.

You’ll expect to see Jarrett, Ebiketie, Andersen, Terrell and Grant starting, which is close to half of a starting lineup. It’s just that the Falcons don’t have a ton of compelling starting options beyond that five, and they need depth as well. That’s why so many resources can and should go toward the defense, and if they wind up snagging players who push Ebiketie and Andersen into supporting roles, so be it. You can’t really argue with any which way the Falcons elect to improve a defense that hasn’t delivered since 2018.

Who are you expecting to start out of these in-house options?