Consider the constellation of potential breakout stars on this Falcons team. There’s Kyle Pitts, recovered from injury and still one of the most intriguing pass catching options in the NFL. There’s Arnold Ebiketie, the talented second-year pass rusher who is hopefully ready to step into an expanded role on an improved defense. You can make credible cases for Desmond Ridder to be considered, for Drake London to be named, and for Bijan Robinson to be thrown out there because he could have such an insanely productive rookie season if everything breaks the right way.
What about Kaden Elliss, though? In some ways he would seem an odd choice given that he just did break out, turning his first extended action as a starter into unexpected pass rushing production. A core special teamer throughout most of his stint with the hated Saints, Elliss put up seven sacks a year ago despite not starting the entire year and playing plenty of inside linebacker, a spot that doesn’t always produce elite sack totals. Yet if that was a hint of what he can do with opportunity, perhaps that was just the tip of the pass rushing iceberg.
In a list of potential defensive breakout candidates from longtime analyst Bucky Brooks on NFL.com, Elliss is one of 11 candidates and one of two linebackers and the sole Falcon to make it. Here’s what Brooks had to say:
The former special teams standout created a buzz in league circles last season with his strong performance as New Orleans’ third linebacker and emergency fill-in for Pete Werner. Elliss notched six of his seven sacks over the Saints’ final nine games, showing the football world that he could thrive as a full-time starter. After inking a a three-year, $21.5 million deal with the rival Falcons, the former seventh-round pick could put up the kind of numbers that make him a household name by the end of the 2023 season.
There are several reasons to take this seriously. The first is that Elliss produced those seven sacks in just 11 starts, hinting that he could do more with even more expanded playing time. The second is that he’s once again working with a familiar face in Ryan Nielsen, who is coming over from New Orleans and is very familiar with Elliss’s ability and ideal role in this defense. The third is that Elliss really is talented, a player the Falcons feel they can move around and one who possesses the speed, strength, and skill to be a fearsome presence up front for Atlanta. There’s seemingly untapped upside here for a player still a couple of years shy of his 30th birthday, in short, and Brooks is looking at the traits and the opportunity and forecasting another big season for a player who will be counted on to be among Atlanta’s most productive pass rushers.
That last piece is important to reiterate. Ebiketie should improve in his second year and Grady Jarrett remains a stellar player, but the Falcons still do not have a double digit sack artist on paper and did not import one unless Elliss can be that guy. The investment in him and the dearth of high-end options outside of the players I’ve just mentioned and maybe Bud Dupree suggests that Brooks is on the right track. If the Falcons are going to improve a moribund pass rush, they’ll likely need to count on Elliss breaking out for the second straight year, this time even more impressively in a larger role.