Bulletin board material, hopefully, for a line that has a lot to prove in 2021.
The Falcons defensive line is one of the biggest trouble spots for the team heading into the year, as David Walker and Aaron Freeman broke down on The Falcoholic podcast. The group has more question marks than the Riddler’s pajamas, yet there’s no question they’ll need to achieve at least competence for this defense to take a step forward in 2021.
Unsurprisingly, Pro Football Focus is not high on the Falcons defensive line, because I’m not sure many outlets are. Also unsurprisingly, Pro Football Focus has them ranked as the second worst defensive line in the league. Their writeup is light on reasons why they’re only above the Texans, honestly, but I’m sure you can supply your own reasons:
This ranking doesn’t feel fair to Grady Jarrett. He’s been the sixth-most valuable interior defensive lineman in the NFL over the past four years, per PFF WAR. There just isn’t much around him on Atlanta’s defensive line. Dante Fowler Jr.’s first year with the team was nowhere near what the Falcons were expecting when they signed him to a multi-year deal last offseason. He recorded a run-defense grade below 40.0 and a pressure rate well below 10% for the season.
The Falcons will be eager to see better seasons from both Fowler and a healthy Marlon Davidson in his second season after he earned a 58.1 grade on just over 100 snaps as a rookie.
It’s difficult to quibble with the idea that the line is likely to be uninspiring, and I say that as an avowed Grady Jarrett booster and one of Marlon Davidson’s biggest fans. The Falcons are, as I’ve written repeatedly, light on proven high-end options along the defensive line and will be counting heavily on competence from historically competent players, major growth from younger options and Fowler bouncing back to have a huge season under Dean Pees. That’s a consistent theme for most of the teams PFF ranks in the bottom third of the league, with the wrinkle that Atlanta doesn’t have some potentially elite young options who are just trying to find their way. They have, instead, the likes of Steven Means, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, John Cominsky, Jon Bullard, and rookies Ta’Quon Graham and Ade Ogundeji competing for spots, and while I think pretty much every one of those guys is a capable rotational player, it’s hard to imagine any of them dominating this season.
What the Falcons do have is a deep group of players who are solid, which is not exactly a comfort but does give Pees plenty of options to work with as he tries to gin up a pass rush and ensure a consistently solid run defense. I’m hesitant to put too much stock in the kind of many fortunate breaks it would take for players aside from Jarrett to be elite—Fowler could be very productive and Davidson very good if we’re fortunate—but even consistently solid would help the defense achieve something resembling decent play this coming year. Given the team’s cap challenges, their recent history of whiffing badly on top picks along the defensive line and our expectations for 2021, I’d probably take that.
You can check out the defensive line edition of the podcast below, as well, if you’re looking for a more nuanced take than that offered by PFF. We’ll hope the Falcons can and will make this ranking look foolish by season’s end, but obviously I wouldn’t put down a ton of money on that happening.