PFF, ESPN Reveal Falcons’ Biggest Weakness

Marlon Davidson

Getty PFF has named the "biggest weakness" on the Falcons' roster.

Pro Football Focus ranked every roster in the NFL for ESPN, and the Atlanta Falcons didn’t fare well. The rebuilding group assembled by general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith was rated as the second-worst group in football.

Only the Houston Texans ranked lower than the Falcons, who still have several holes on the roster. The lack of love is hardly a surprise since the quarterback situation is in a state of flux following Matt Ryan being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, while the wide receiver group looks weak after Calvin Ridley was indefinitely suspended for betting violations.

Both of those positions are a worry, yet neither should be the Falcons’ main concern, according to PFF. Instead, the analytics site named another key area as the biggest weakness on the team.

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Falcons Weak in the Trenches

PFF’s Ben Linsey, writing for ESPN.com, identified the defensive line as the Falcons’ sore spot: “The Falcons’ defensive line is in a better spot than it was a season ago. However, it still has the potential to be Grady Jarrett and a bunch of other guys if second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie doesn’t hit the ground running. Even Jarrett wasn’t quite as effective last season as he has been throughout much of his career. Jarrett’s 67.6 PFF grade in 2021 was his first sub-80 grade since the 2016 season (62.7).”

What’s interesting is how Linsey framed his critique of this front. First, he notably classed Arnold Ebiketie as a member of the D-line.

This isn’t an oversight, but rather an example of schematic overlap common in football’s X’s and O’s. The Falcons run a multiple version of the 3-4 system, so technically the defensive line could be classed as the three big bodies in the middle.

Yet, outside linebackers in a 3-4, where Ebiketie will likely feature as a rookie, often act as glorified defensive ends, rather than playing in space. So it’s okay to assess the options on edges when questioning the quality of this defensive front.

Ebiketie is a rookie, although the Falcons’ second-round pick is highly touted coming off a season in which he logged 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss at Penn State:

The Falcons are expecting Ebiketie to boost a feeble pass rush, but he’s yet to play a down in the pros, so his inexperience is an obvious concern. It’s the same for third-round pick DeAngelo Malone, who logged eight sacks at Western Kentucky in 2021.

It’s going to be a tall order for two first-year players to revive a dormant pass rush that recorded just 18 sacks, the fewest in the NFL, a year ago.

The onus is more likely be on Lorenzo Carter, who joined the Falcons from the New York Giants in free agency. Carter has talent, but he’s never notched more than five sacks in a season at the pro level.

There are still question marks on the edges, but Linsey also sounded an ominous warning about Grady Jarrett. He’s the one member of this group offenses need to double team, and the Falcons can’t afford for Jarrett to regress.

In fairness to Jarrett, any decline in his play last season owed more to a change in scheme than other factors. Coordinator Dean Pees generally likes his linemen to play two-gap techniques and absorb blocks to keep linebackers clean, rather than attack downhill.

This approach doesn’t truly suit Jarrett, who is at his best when he can play aggressively in a single gap. Nor does it help Jarrett that those around him have failed to impress.

Marlon Davidson was a second-round pick in 2020, but he’s struggled to make his presence felt during two seasons. The same is true of Ta’Quon Graham, who made just seven tackles as a rookie in 2021.

The numbers are disappointing, but Falcons Digital Managing Editor Scott Bair said the team believes “Davidson and TaQuon Graham can progress and develop into quality defenders and help Grady Jarrett up front.”

It’s a risky approach to gamble on so far unfulfilled potential, especially when there are still more than a few proven linemen left in free agency who could help the Falcons.


Free Agency Can Fix Falcons’ Obvious Weakness

Even a cursory glance at Spotrac.com’s list of linemen remaining on the market shows some names that should interest the Falcons. A veteran nose tackle like Brandon Williams or Linval Joseph would fit what Pees wants for his base defensive front.

There’s also Eddie Goldman, a former second-round pick of the Chicago Bears. Goldman has a connection of sorts, having been drafted by Ryan Pace, who is now working as a personnel executive for the Falcons.

There are also some experienced edge-rushers to keep an eye on, including Justin Houston. The 33-year-old has 100-plus sacks on his pro CV and is a Georgia native who played his collegiate football with the Bulldogs, so he could be open to a homecoming:

Fontenot and Smith have options to turn this defensive line from a weakness to a strength at a reasonable cost. Many of these veterans could be added on a short-term deal that wouldn’t stress the cap too much.

Ultimately though, the D-line as it stands may not prove to be the Falcons’ most troubling problem. That distinction could easily belong to the quarterback depth chart, where Marcus Mariota is likely to start after two seasons as a backup with the Las Vegas Raiders, or else third-round pick Desmond Ridder will get his chance.

Whoever starts will be targeting an unconvincing group of wideouts. Eighth-overall pick Drake London needs to live up to expectations, while Damiere Byrd is the best of the veteran recruits, despite making just 26 catches last season.

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