Fixing the problem won’t be easy because a solution is unlikely to come from free agency. The Falcons are strapped for cash under this year’s salary cap, and talented pass-rushers traditionally command a premium in the veteran market.
It means help is more likely to be found in the 2022 NFL draft. One prominent analyst has the Falcons using the eighth-overall pick on a raw edge-rusher who could make an immediate impact as a rookie.
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Talented Edge Divides Opinion Among Draft Observers
In his post-Divisional Round mock draft, CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson sends Michigan’s David Ojabo to Atlanta. Wilson’s reasoning is based on the Falcons still being tethered to quarterback Matt Ryan and his expensive contract.
Ryan’s presence means general manager Terry Fontenot would be wise to focus on defense, according to Wilson: “QB will be a consideration here but Matt Ryan has two more years left on how deal and it feels like he’ll be the starter for at least another season. So instead of taking a flier on a QB in a weak class, the Falcons address their defense where Ojabo won’t have to sit for a year before taking the field. He can be a difference-maker from jump street.”
It’s a sound argument when Spotrac.com shows Ryan is set to count $48,662,500 against this year’s cap and a further $43,612,500 in 2023. This quarterback isn’t leaving town in the near future.
Ryan staying put can be a silver lining if the Falcons are able to put more talent around him this offseason. The process should start with bolstering a defense that showed signs of promise during 2021.
Ojabo offers the infusion of playmaking talents Pees needs to make his schemes more effective. The 21-year-old recorded 11 sacks and forced five fumbles during his final season with the Wolverines.
Many of those contributions showcased Ojabo’s impressive athletic range, his agility and closing speed, attributes highlighted in this clip from NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein:
Not everybody is convinced though.
Some, including The Athletic‘s Josh Kendall, believe Ojabo hasn’t put enough good football on tape to justify being a top-10 pick: “He had one breakout season at Michigan (11 sacks, although only one tackle for loss other than those sacks). In 2020, Ojabo had one tackle. Players with one big breakout year make me nervous. Against eventual national champion Georgia in a College Football Playoff semifinal game, he didn’t have a sack. He didn’t even have a tackle. On top of that, even his ardent backers acknowledge he’s not ready as a run defender.”
Those concerns are understandable but in stark contrast to Wilson’s view Ojabo can make a difference “from the jump.” The latter is a sentiment echoed by Kendall’s fellow writer at The Athletic, Dane Brugler. He also named Ojabo the Falcons’ best option at No. 8, citing the player’s “ceiling at a premium position” as grounds for making the pick.
Whichever side of the argument you take regarding Ojabo’s potential, there’s no doubt the Falcons need to take a risk or two to improve their weak pass rush. More pressure will unlock the other talents across Pees’ defense.
Falcons’ Core Defenders Need More Pressure up Front
The pass rush is non-existent, but there’s no shortage of talent elsewhere on Pees’ unit. Shutdown cornerback A.J. Terrell is a prime example.
He emerged as a breakout star in his second season, proof that trusting a player’s potential is often worth the wait. Terrell was outstanding in 2021, but he’ll get his hands on more than three interceptions next season if the Falcons can generate greater pressure up front.
Others will also benefit from more heat, including middle linebacker Foyesade Oluokun. He led the league in tackles this season, but Oluokun would have extra room and freedom to operate if blocking was slanted toward an edge player capable of getting in the backfield on every snap.
Then there’s defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. He’s still a disruptive force, but one who drew too much attention from opponents in 2021. Few would be able to double and triple-team Jarrett if there was more to worry about from the edges of Atlanta’s front seven.
The Falcons have been trying to cobble together a pass rush with retreads and unproven youngsters. It won’t work half as well as putting a bluechip athlete on the outside and turning him loose every week.