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Who can emerge? Who can lead? Questions for each Falcons position group: Defense - The Athletic

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by Tori McElhaney


Players report in a week and training camp gets underway shortly thereafter. To usher in the new season, The Athletic will take a look at each Falcons position group, posing one question each group will need to answer by the time Week 1 arrives.

Broken up into offensive and defensive units, here are some of the key questions to ask the likes of Dean Pees, every safety on the roster and the rest of the Falcons defense.

Defensive tackle: How quickly can Marlon Davidson ascend? 

Davidson didn’t have the rookie year many wanted from him. Likely, he didn’t have the rookie year he wanted, either. He was injured early and then had to be placed on the COVID-19 list. He didn’t see the field nearly as much as he needed to, and he didn’t have much of an opportunity to get into any type of flow. With that being said, Year 2 will be important for Davidson to prove he can be Grady Jarrett’s No. 2.

He’ll need to establish himself in 2021. He’ll need to have a healthy season, or as healthy as it can be for an interior defensive lineman. The Falcons don’t need another miss on defensive line. Deadrin Senat hasn’t amounted to much since he was draft in the third round in 2018. The hope is Davidson won’t follow that path.

When Davidson did see playing time in 2020, he flashed at times. He could be a player Pees enjoys using, but only if he can get into the rhythm he wasn’t able to in his rookie year. Until he does, we are left to wonder how impactful he can be in Atlanta.

Outside linebacker: Who will take charge of this group? 

The pressure is on Dante Fowler to be the answer. It’s why the Falcons picked him up last offseason. And in the wake of Barkevious Mingo’s release, the pressure has reached a boiling point. More than anything else defensively, the Falcons need to establish a pass rush. It’s been a weak spot in recent years, and Atlanta hasn’t found a viable way to build up its strength.

The previous regime thought it would be Fowler, but like Davidson, Fowler couldn’t get into any type of rhythm in 2020. It opened the door for Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Steven Means, who both did enough to warrant another year in Atlanta. But of the three, who’s going to create the consistent production this group needs? And if they can’t, who can?

The Falcons have the opportunity to pick up another outside linebacker via free agency (or even a trade). They have money to play around with now that Julio Jones is off the books. So, if they don’t believe these three can get the job done, perhaps there’s someone on the open market who they believe can. The next month will be important for this group to figure all of that out. But one thing is certain: someone — anyone — needs to step up.

Inside linebacker: Can this group lead? 

Between Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and Mykal Walker, this trio was arguably the most consistent the Falcons had on defense. Oluokun and Walker were a nice surprise in 2020, and because of their production, the expectation for the two goes up in 2021. Oluokun will be looked at as more of a leader in the coming season, and he has the wherewithal to be that. Walker can continue to grow in Year 2, and he may even make more of a jump in play with a year’s experience.

Then, there’s Jones. When the Falcons were crunching numbers back in March, Jones was someone the new front office saved by restructuring Matt Ryan’s contract. He’s been a prominent figure amongst the Falcons defense for years now. His consistency is paramount to the defense’s overall success.

The Falcons added Brandon Copeland this offseason to round out the position. He’ll play a key role within the group, too. And with these four, the expectation is that they will lead this defense. They should be the ones who shoulder that burden.

Cornerbacks: Who will emerge opposite AJ Terrell? 

It seems the Falcons have been looking for a lockdown corner for a while. Drafting Terrell was a decision met with frustration by the fan base but it has worked out. By rookie cornerback standards, Terrell was exactly what the Falcons wanted/needed. But the spotlight is less on Terrell throughout this year’s training camp. Sure he’ll need to perform well in 2021, but he’s proved he can handle himself. Any other corner on the roster? Not so much.

Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver haven’t been up to snuff in recent years. So, the Falcons picked up Fabian Moreau in free agency and Darren Hall and Avery Williams in the draft. If you’re putting money down on who gets the nod, Moreau may be the safest bet to make. But the others have an entire training camp to change the coaches’ minds.

Safety: What will this rotation even look like?  

No position group went through the turnover the safeties did. The roster makeup couldn’t look more different as Jaylinn Hawkins is the only player returning with even a smidgen of playing time in 2020.

The Falcons built this position back up through the signing of veterans on one-year deals and the draft. Expect Erik Harris and Duron Harmon to be heavily featured. They’re both on one-year deals and brought in to make sure the secondary isn’t solely made up of young faces.

And speaking of young faces, the Falcons’ second-round draft pick is one to keep an eye on. By several pre-draft accounts, Richie Grant was the best safety in the class. If he lives up to that title in his rookie year, that should earn him quite a bit of playing time.

There is no precedent for how this rotation will run, nor do we know how they’ll look together. It’s a good thing training camp is coming up because there’s a lot more than one question that this group needs to answer.



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37 minutes ago, JayOzOne said:

Would love to see Davidson develop into a true complement to Grady this season. The writer totally ignored Cominsky, but his development will be huge, too. If both of those happen and if either Ogundeji or Graham is a diamond in the rough, defense might not be a liability this season.

Funny you say that. Cominsky is an after thought to me too. Although I am fully aware many people on this board like him or think favorably of him. And thats fine, No harm no foul.

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1 minute ago, runshoot said:

Funny you say that. Cominsky is an after thought to me too. Although I am fully aware many people on this board like him or think favorably of him. And thats fine, No harm no foul.

This is going to be to prove himself. To date, he's more potential than proof.

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