Atlanta’s offseason spending spree included plenty of pieces added to a defense that badly needed those pieces. For all that, though, they only really added one major piece on the interior defensive line in David Onyemata, with Calais Campbell likely playing a part-time role there as well. The return of Eddie Goldman, who retired last summer, also might count.
While those additions will make a huge difference, there’s still room in the defensive line rotation for others to make an impact. No player has more to gain than Ta’Quon Graham, entering his third year fresh off an injury that derailed an otherwise impressive sophomore season. Even though he’s unlikely to play the same number of snaps per game as he averaged in 2022 with new additions, Graham figures to be able to seize a major role again in 2023, and what he does with that role could determine his 2024 prospects in this defense and whether he’ll re-claim a role as an unquestioned starter going forward.
It’s a pivotal year for Graham, in other words, and you know what that means.
What can Graham bring to the table?
Plenty. A quality athlete with an underrated, balanced skillset, Graham hasn’t drawn enough credit for his work and improvement since arriving in Atlanta.
Last year, an injury that robbed him of the end of the season and one really big miscue—we all remember the fumbled fumble recovery—overshadowed consistently quality work. Only three defenders (Grady Jarrett, Arnold Ebiketie, and Lorenzo Carter) were credited with more pressures for Atlanta than Graham’s 14 last year, and Graham played far fewer snaps than any of that trio. Only Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, and Dee Alford earned better grades against the run than Graham, per Pro Football Focus, and Graham was also sixth on the team in terms of run stops with (again) 14. He won’t turn 25 until December and is, at worst, an extremely capable member of the defensive line rotation.
Graham will need to be healthy to repeat that in 2023, and again, he’ll likely need to do so with fewer snaps. Still, the talent is there and expecting improvement is fair, given that Graham was dramatically better in Year 2 than his rookie season.
What are the stakes?
For Graham, considerable, as is the case with everyone else we’ve written about in this series. While he’s not a 2024 free agent, Graham can prove to a new defensive coordinator that he’s worthy of getting starter’s snaps in 2023 and that he should be a fixture on this defensive line going forward. If he does, Atlanta will likely prioritize a reasonably lucrative long-term deal for Graham at some point in 2024 or the spring of 2025, or he’ll be able to strike out and attempt to earn that nice contract elsewhere. If he fades into the background and winds up being a true reserve without a major role this year, the team seems likely to prioritize adding an upgrade in 2024 that might permanently push him to a pure rotational role.
The Falcons would like to see Graham excel, naturally. He’ll likely earn something approximating starter’s snaps in 4-3 looks and will share time with Jarrett and Onyemata in 3-4 fronts, and if he can play even as well as he did in 2022, the Falcons’ defense will be better for it. With unproven depth behind him, to put it mildly, Atlanta needs Graham to be healthy and play well to help unlock this defense’s potential. That’s especially true with Jarrett, Goldman, and Onyemata all either on the wrong side of 30 or pushing 30.
Graham can play a significant number of snaps and will likely be asked to do so. The question is what he’ll do with those snaps, but I think this one has a pretty easy answer.
I think it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll be a valuable member of the rotation, and with good health he’ll effectively start. His run defense was stellar for most of last year for a team that will pride itself on stopping the run, and there has been flashes of real pass rushing competence from Graham in his first two seasons. That, his youth, and the lack of competition for a role from anyone currently behind him on the depth chart should conspire to make him a major player for Atlanta.
Expecting him to improve further after he went from solid rookie to quality starter in year two seems more than fair, and if Onyemata shows his age and the rest of the team’s defensive tackle options outside of Jarrett aren’t inspiring, Graham will step in and deliver useful snaps. Even if he isn’t a true starter on defense, there will be chances for Graham to impact games every single week. And even with the Falcons focusing on improving the defensive line, there’s room for a rising young player to continue to make an impact.
I expect Graham to do just that en route to proving he deserves to remain a major piece of this defense for years to come, and we’ll hope he turns this pivotal year into that kind of opportunity.