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Atlanta Falcons Roster Preview – Defense

Welcome back to your Falcons internet expert edition of the Atlanta Falcons roster preview. Much like last week’s offensive edition (linked below), this is the Internet experts review of where the roster finished up last season and how that compares to initial look this season. I’ve been on NFL Game Pass and Madden all winter. I’ve read every Todd McShay, Mel Kiper, Bucky Brooks, etc article on our team, meaning I must know more than all of them now as I am a conglomerate of all their thoughts filtered through the crap to provide only the true experts review. After all that, I’ve concluded, the Falcons need to bring back the all black uniforms! I feel all other stories fail in comparison to this issue. The fans have been clamoring for it and management is now just blatantly ignoring our wishes. #FalconsBlackout lets make it a thing.

Offense Preview Link : Here

Falcons 2019 Depth Chart

Cornerback:

Defensive Back (DB) has been one of the most consistent positions under TD’s tutelage as General Manager. He’s had a knack for spotting top end talent and late round flyers who provide both top end starters (Desmond Trufant, Brent Grimes) or quality depth players who can fill in a pinch. This year the Falcons will be banking on it from Isaiah Oliver who will be taking over for Robert Alford. This isn’t much of a surprise as the Falcons switch back to a press style defense under Quinn as play-caller. This is just a style of defense that Alford isn’t well suited. He constantly would be out of position with his hips and feet trying to press at the line causing the many defensive holding calls Falcons fans have come to expect from Alford.

Oliver is a bigger DB and showed some quality play in limited time last season. One thing I love about Oliver is he is great playing the deep 3rd of the field off press coverage. You can see it in the pros on the INT against Henske, but go back to his college tape and you see it consistently (shown below). I love the way he uses leverage off the line to play to his advantage. Notice on the first two highlights below he’s using inside leverage to force a very tight window for the QB to fit it into. They miss, he makes them pay. You can see a couple more plays at the 1:00 mark. That’s the ideal fit for Quinn’s Cover 3 system, but the question remains can he do it in the NFL.

The two draft picks are also intriguing players. First, I like CB’s from the Pac12 like Oliver. They play against spread offenses giving you good tape to watch and gauge on a players abilities. Jordan Miller is an intriguing project player. His tape is physical, but he’s not very big. Quinn could see him as a guy he can get 10-15lbs of muscle on and turn into a NFL caliber CB. Kendall Sheffield is lightning fast, and you simply can’t coach speed. OSU doesn’t press a lot so that will be a transition, but Sheffield is a good open field tackler. I’ll be interested to see if Quinn doesn’t try him in the Nickel spot for his tackling and speed. However, Rico should be the starting nickel and keep Kazee at FS. I’m an internet expert. I am obviously right about this Dan Quinn, so do it already 😂

Overall: we should see a slight upgrade as I believe the DL has improved (more on the next), but I am hesitant to move it to the B+ range until we see more from Oliver and whoever wins the NB job.
Sniper Shot: One story to watch this year is Miller and Sheffield’s play. The writing could be on the wall for Trufant if he struggles this season and either one of these two steps up next to Oliver.

2018 Final Grade : 72

2019 Initial Grade : 80

Defensive Line:

This is the position I am sure most are here to see. In Atlanta, we’ve only been clamoring for a defensive line since the Discman was a big thing. Outside John Abraham and a few good seasons with Patrick Kerney, discmanthe Falcons have just been a disappointment in getting QB’s on the ground. The league has gotten more and more pass happy, but here the Falcons stand with what looks to be average at best pass rush. However, my take is the DL will appear much better than it has in seasons before. This may not equate to stat numbers, but can translate on the scoreboard.

First, the Falcons have depth again with some Swiss army knife type players. Quinn wants to rotate and use fresh legs. One thing we know for sure from 2016 is Quinn wants to challenge his players to compete, but he does so in a strategic way trying to emphasize things players do well. What I like about this line is the depth. At DE, Clayborn is a well rounded player who still appeared to have tread on the tires. He enjoys playing with Quinn as he asked to be released and chose to come back to ATL. Then you have Jack Crawford who can be an outside-in type player. He’s agile enough to play at the end during heavy sets, and strong enough to slide inside on spread sets. At the DT spot, Davison will be used in the base formation as a NT. This pick up has been widely slept on as NT is just not glamorous, but he did his job eating blocks in the underrated 3-4 defense the sAints ran last year. Hageman is a flyer, but he has all the ability in the world. If his head is on straight, he could easily work himself into starter snaps by years end. Senat had some highs and lows as a rookie, but he by no means looked inept out there. It’ll be interesting to see his snap share with guys like Crawford or Hageman in the nickel look as more teams run from spread formations. Hageman could be a force up the middle at times during the 2016 season. John Cominsky is an interesting late round pickup as a potential DT. He moved interior guards at the senior bowl and had to be doubled at times. 👇

For the starters, we’re still waiting for that dominant force to appear on the defensive line. Quinn believes he can get Beasley back to the QB. While I share the frustration at times with Beasley’s seemingly inability to affect opposing QB’s, I do think he is underrated overall as a player. He’s stout in run defense, and is disciplined in maintaining his edge. If Jarrett and someone else gets the middle of the pocket pushed, that could open Beasley’s speed rush more. Fans are also hoping to see more development from Takk this season. His second year in the NFL didn’t see a major leap, but this will be the first time we’ve seen him under Quinn’s complete control. At times against the Bengals last season, Takk showed us what he’s capable of when he’s going on all cylinders as a pass rusher.

Overall : The Falcons clearly focused on upgrading depth more so than finding top end starters. Hageman & Clayborn are the only guys added this offseason that you can look at and say he could possibly come in and have an impact in deciding a game or two this season. The bigger things is the depth and rotation on heavy sets. Falcons have been pretty lackluster in terms of short yardage defense. Offenses were successful in picking up more than 2yds on nearly 75% of short yardage situations. Quinn clearly added bigger bodies to the interior. This should help the Falcons get goal-line stops which plagued the team last season. Still concerns on how much pressure can this line really deliver and probably even more importantly, can it do it when it matters most?

2018 Final Grade : 68

2019 Initial Grade : 80

Linebacker:

Linebacker is a position I feel isn’t getting enough love from Quinn & TD recently. There is going to come some decisions in the next year around this position and the players on the roster. Both Campbell and Jones will be coming up on free agency, and this is compounded by the fact Julio and Jarrett want pay raises. TD and Rich Mckay are cap wizards and they seem to find ways to make money available for players, but the writing is going to be on the wall for some of these guys.

Duke Riley hasn’t inspired confidence in fans as a steady player at LB. He did show some improvement as a nickel linebacker and may earn snaps there again this season, however, we will need to see a big leap to think about him becoming a starter in 2020. Foye Oluokun looks to be a nice pickup from Yale last season and earned playing time even upon the return of Jones. For 2019, the Falcons go into the year with an honestly nice starting LB corps. Jones is an All-Pro caliber linebacker and the perfect hybrid speed backer designed for today’s NFL. Campbell took a big step last year as a leader and voice on the defense when Jones went down. While his season may have been “quiet” in most peoples eyes, he continues to be a long, rangy linebacker than can chase from the backside and cover TE’s one on one. He has shown promising development at using his tools without creating the penalties that really hurt him the first 2 seasons.

I would expect the Falcons to target a LB early next year as the position group thins out at the top. The depth isn’t great, but its a rare luxury to have starting quality players as depth something we do see on the lines now.

Overall : The Falcons come into the season in a better position with the return of Jones. The fact they allowed over 10pts less per game with him on the field should inspire some confidence. 3 big things: the return of Campbell to his natural position, further development of Oluokun, and the return of Jones to health will make this position group, will make this the best position group for the Falcons defense outside the safeties. If injury hits, it could quickly again become the worst. The fact none are A quality says that Quinn better be a really good coach. If they allow the 18pts/game we’ve seen from Quinn as a play caller, it would be a testament to him as a coach.

2018 Final Grade : 67

2019 Initial Grade : 87

Safety:

Safety is the only position I am confident with the players on the roster coming into the season. Ricardo Allen is a great deep field cover safety who can play sideline to sideline. He’s the best open field tackler on the Falcons which is key as he plays safety valve for Quinn’s single high safety defense. Keanu Neal returning to health is a big boost to this position. Neal gives Quinn a lot more flexibility in the nickel package teams run most often now. He’s essentially another linebacker at the safety position who makes receivers prepare for a level of physicality certain guys don’t want. The enforcer mentality at his size and speed definitely alters game plans of offensive coordinators. Check the record below if you’re unsure.

Behind Neal is Sharrod Neasman who looked good in limited action last year. He is not the enforcer Neal is and doesn’t have the size and range of Neal, but he is a quality depth player who will not break the defense if you need him to take snaps. Kazee is getting a look at NB, but I would expect with the draft picks this year he will also be the backup to Allen. The team also signed Chris Cooper who has a very interesting path from a freak accident in high school to a NFL prospect. They also added Afolabi Laguda who came out of Colorado in 2018 and was signed, put on IR for an undisclosed injury, then waived from the LA Rams. These guys will be competing to show the coaches why they must make a roster spot for them. Laguda would appear to battle Neasman for backup strong safety where as Cooper will try to earn a roster spot behind Rico with Kazee moving to corner back in order to get on the field after a great season in 2018. I’d give Cooper better odds at making the roster and put his probability at a 50%. He appears to have nice size and speed for the middle of the field. Question is does he have the instincts.

2018 Final Grade : 83

2019 Initial Grade : 91

Overall Notes:

This defense should improve simply from the additions of key players coming off injury last season. The Falcons do not have much depth and are relying on these guys returning to peak form. The Falcons do catch a slight break in the fact that most the key players went down early and will have almost an entire year to rehab. The concern still lies with the depth and the Falcons cannot afford to have 3 starters go down without finding themselves scrambling to find the right fit. I do not think they’ll experience the same level of injuries as they did in 2018, but injuries are a part of the game.

I also don’t think we can undersell Quinn’s proven impact on defense. Go back to 2016 and the fact the defense went from allowing 26/gm to 17 when Quinn took over play calling from Richard Smith. Go back to his time in Seattle to see how the Legion of Boom performed with Quinn leading the charge (or notice how they’ve been since). That proven track record and impact shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over. Based on this, the Falcons defense will be leaps and bounds better than last season. The ceiling could be much higher than those pundits think. As an internet expert, the overall unit play upon the return of Jones and Neal will greatly increase and has a ceiling as a top 5-7 defense in the entire NFL.

2018 Final Grade : 70

2019 Initial Grade :88

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