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Figuring out the revamped Falcons defensive line

For the first time in years, there is genuine excitement about what Atlanta’s defense could produce up front. How they align is the first step towards visualizing a possible legitimate pass rush and solidified run defense.

San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the more common exercises when examining a defense is figuring out how the coaching staff will decipher their defensive line packages amongst a crowded group. It’s been quite some time since the Falcons put together an intriguing talented defensive line on paper. That last occurred in 2019 during Dan Quinn’s brief return to being a defensive coordinator. By bringing back Adrian Clayborn and Ra’Shede Hageman, along with signing Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison, the Falcons boasted a fascinating group of defensive linemen on paper.

What looked good on the depth chart never materialized into on-field production in a hugely disappointing season. Former first-round picks failed to emerge as consistent pass rushers, while veterans outside of Davison struggled to make valuable contributions around Grady Jarrett.

The coaching changes, free agent signings, and younger talent are more appealing four years later. Ryan Nielsen is bringing a new bigger plan with his defense of wanting greater size on the defensive line and depth across the secondary. Investing significantly in proven top-tier talent in the trenches creates plenty of optimism for a group that consisted of largely unproven players last season.

Those younger players received valuable experience and showed commitment toward expanding their respective games. With an exciting group of players on the defensive line, it’s time to consider how they could line up in base and nickel packages.

Base Alignment

RDE: Bud Dupree

While Lorenzo Carter fared adequately against the run last season, it’s hard to envision Nielsen deciding to start an edge defender weighing around 250 pounds in base. Dupree is a physical, violent figure who wears down tackles and creates openings for his teammates to make stops near the line of scrimmage.

Although Dupree will be counted to deliver as a pass rusher, he is the biggest pure defensive end on the roster. Arthur Smith has been vocal about how much of a tone-setter he is. Following two difficult injury-plagued seasons in Tennessee, the former first-round pick feels reinvigorated in Atlanta. This has all the makings to be a hugely influential move to bring much-needed power off the edge and strengthen an undersized run defense.

NT: David Onyemata

After years of experimenting with players at nose tackle, it was time to sign one of the most battle-tested nose tackles in the league. Onyemata has been incredibly durable his entire career. Embracing taking on double teams and playing significant snaps are a few of the many qualities the Falcons have lacked on their defensive line over the past five seasons.

Although he is coming off a down season by his high standards, Onyemata is thrilled to continue his career alongside Nielsen and knows the infrastructure around him could reduce his workload. That should help keep him fresh to be one of the central figures in stopping opposing running games. While New Orleans built a tremendously well-rounded defensive line, they never had someone quite like Atlanta’s defensive stalwart playing alongside him on the interior.

DT: Grady Jarrett

There is nobody on the roster more ecstatic at the moment than the two-time Pro Bowler. After years of being mostly surrounded by undrafted players and underperforming veterans, the pieces are aligning for Jarrett to have the best support system around him since 2017. He hasn’t played under 800 snaps since 2018. Various coaching staffs have depended on him to fill in at nose tackle and edge rusher due to a lack of talent in those areas.

The number of sacrifices Jarrett has made for the organization is a testament to his character. It’s time for him to play fewer snaps, despite remaining as the best defensive lineman on the roster. His blistering first step, snap anticipation, and extraordinary agility makes him a handful to contain. While it would be great to see him primarily line up as a three-tech on passing downs, he is too valuable of a player not to use on running downs.

LDE: Calais Campbell

Considering he lined up on the left for most of his time in Baltimore and plans to play off the edge, this is the ideal starting spot for one of the most versatile defensive linemen in NFL history. Campbell’s astonishing length, powerful hand usage, and high football intelligence make him such a unique force. No matter the situation in his career, he played at a high level.

The coaching staff’s preference for bigger defensive linemen off the edge and prioritizing overwhelming tackles with sheer force bodes well for maximizing Campbell’s capabilities. There has to be a plan to monitor his usage at 36 years old, especially since he has missed time over the past three seasons. Nielsen will look to devise how to punish teams on early downs with him, along with seeing how Campbell can mix inside on clear passing downs.

Nickel Alignment

RDE: Lorenzo Carter - Bud Dupree

A reduced role should do wonders for Carter after he was counted on far too heavily last season. For Carter to play 909 snaps last season indicates how poorly structured the defensive line was. He flashed as a pass rusher during his four-year tenure in New York. With his athleticism, there is a realistic possibility of him being a more effective edge rusher.

His coverage ability shouldn’t be discounted, as his ability to spot drop and cover space could be hugely valuable for Nielsen’s creative fronts to generate pressure. That will help unlock Kaden Elliss’ dynamic skill set in those moments. Dupree should receive a fair amount of snaps to provide a solid blend of power and speed with Carter.

RDT: Ta’Quon Graham - David Onyemata

Before suffering a season-ending MCL injury in November, Graham was putting together another promising season after a decent rookie year. There is enough evidence from his performances to suggest he will be given opportunities to be utilized as one of the main interior pass rushers. His impressive get-off and motor make him an intriguing weapon in a suddenly crowded rotation.

There will be instances where he’ll be counted on as a run defender, which he made his mark last season with 15 stops in 193 run-defending snaps, per Pro Football Focus. For all the defensive overhaul in the off-season, Graham deserves to prove he belongs in a key contributing role. Onyemata can certainly play his fair share of snaps in the nickel package, given his experience and ability to occupy blockers to create space on twists for his teammates to collapse the pocket.

LDT: Grady Jarrett - Calais Campbell

Jarrett and Campbell will be depended on as the most consistent pass rushers on the roster. While they could line up alongside each other on passing downs to create chaos, it seems more likely that Campbell will take a more reduced role on the inside. There is no way a 36-year-old player can be utilized as an every-down lineman.

His remarkable athleticism is still incredibly valuable, particularly with batting down passes, which could happen often with the state of quarterback play in the NFC South. That said, Jarrett will play more snaps with his impressive durability and knack for accelerating past guards. He is coming off one of his better seasons as a pass rusher last year.

LDE: Arnold Ebiketie

Expectations will be heightened for the second-year edge rusher following a forgettable rookie season. A late-season wrist injury hindered his development to an extent, as his snaps declined over the final four games of the season. He didn’t offer nearly enough as a pass rusher when healthy for a unit in dire need of a spark.

When things clicked for Ebiketie, it came predominantly against second-string tackles in games against San Francisco and Chicago. What was encouraging was how he held his own against the run and showed a desire to use different pass-rushing techniques against opposing tackles. There should still be plenty of optimism for his future, especially with him working under the tutelage of Nielsen. The goal should be for him to solidify his spot as the most consistent edge rusher on the roster with his array of skills.

Potential contributors to round out the group

There is always the possibility of talent emerging into dependable rotational players or breakout starters. Zach Harrison, DeAngelo Malone, and Eddie Goldman are capable of breaking into this group. Harrison’s measurables fit the prototypical standard of what Nielsen wants from his edge defenders. He will be brought along slowly, hopefully soaking up all the wisdom from Campbell and other veterans during the year.

Malone will need a productive preseason to play his way into the rotation. Although he is undersized and seems to be on the outside of the rotation looking in, there isn’t an edge rusher on the roster with more explosiveness than him. That ability to burst around the edge could elevate him, considering the lack of agility at the edge rusher position.

Goldman has only played one full season since 2019, which makes him a wildcard. Nose tackles are extremely valuable, with more teams looking to run the ball more often. If he can recapture his old form as a space eater, the former second-round pick will carve out a place in the rotation.

The idea of the Falcons having this many capable players across the defensive line must be refreshing for everyone associated with the franchise. They have been relying on hope for too long in attempting to find mostly late-round gems and one-year signings to bolster an anemic pass rush and stop the run. Hope can’t be considered a strategy for success.

Adding above-average starters and battle-tested veterans will bring much-needed ferocity to the entire defense. It will fall on the coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments to put them in the best position to flourish while helping the younger talent elevate their games to push the Falcons to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.