Fixing the NFL’s weakest pass rush won’t be easy for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Not when general manager Terry Fontenot is facing limited salary cap space and a roster bereft in other key areas, such as at wide receiver and along the offensive line.
Fontenot’s best bet might be to find a bargain or two in this year’s free-agent market. Fortunately, one unheralded edge-rusher from the AFC South could help the Falcons, among other teams, according to a leading analytics site.
ALL the latest Falcons news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Falcons newsletter here!
‘Undersized’ Player Can Continue ‘Solid Career’ in Atlanta
The Falcons are trying to build with players on the rise on the watch of Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith. Houston Texans’ defensive end Jacob Martin fits into that category, according to Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus.
Speilberger identified Martin as one of this year’s pending free agents on the defensive side who raised his stock in 2021: “Martin was drafted as an undersized 4-3 defensive end before quickly shifting to a primarily 3-4 base defense in Houston under Romeo Crennel, though Crennel is not married to his base personnel — much like his longtime partner Bill Belichick. In 2021, the Texans deployed Lovie Smith’s patented Tampa-2 defense behind a four-man front, and Martin recorded a career-high 67.3 grade in his first season as a starter to go along with 38 quarterback pressures.”
That flexibility and jump in numbers should alert a pass-rush-needy team like the Falcons, per Spielberger: “The teams below are creative and multiple with their looks upfront, and the Atlanta Falcons, in particular, are in desperate need of help on the edge at a cheaper price point.”
It’s a reasonable argument since 6’2″, 242-pound Martin is both a good scheme fit and a cost-effective choice. Beginning with the scheme, Martin fits what Atlanta defensive coordinator Dean Pees wants to do up front.
Pees is part of the Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel and New England Patriots lineage Spielberger mentioned. He called defenses for the Pats from 2006-10. Like Belichick, Pees built units based on versatile edge defenders capable of operating as both standup outside linebackers, or putting their hands in the dirt and acting as traditional ends.
The Falcons did the same thing under Pees this season, but the system didn’t yield many sacks. In fact, the Atlanta defense finished with a league-low 18 quarterback takedowns.
It was a total some, including WTF Stats, could scarcely believe:
More pressure is required from all over the front seven, but better pass-rushers will be hard to find for a team set to have $4,654,636 worth of cap space, according to OverTheCap.com.
New options are needed, but they’ll have to be found on the cheap. The question is will a bargain signing or two make enough of an impact to bolster this feeble pass rush?
Martin’s Numbers Don’t Promise an Upgrade
The base numbers don’t suggest Martin would provide the help the Falcons need. Yet, despite less than gaudy statistics, Martin still displayed the traits of a consistently disruptive force off the edge. Specifically, he showcased some of the swiftest takeoff speed in the league.
Writing for Sports Illustrated‘s Texans Daily, Aaron Wilson outlined how Martin knows few equals in this area: “Martin ranked third in the NFL for the fastest get-off among all defensive players after the first game of the season with an average time of 0.69 seconds. That ranked Martin only behind the Los Angeles Chargers’ Joey Bosa’s 0.51 seconds and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alex Highsmith’s 0.65 seconds.”
There were also some splash plays, including a safety at the expense of Kyler Murray when the Texans lost 31-5 against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7:
Martin looks like a safe bet, assuming the price is right, to take strides in the right system. The Falcons can offer the right landing spot, but signing free agents with potential upsides yielded mixed results in 2021.
Cordarrelle Patterson produced career-high totals for rushing and receiving yards. His production was in sharp contrast to Mike Davis, who didn’t repay the Falcons’ faith his banner 2020 season with the Carolina Panthers was the start of something special.
Rebuilding the roster on a shoestring means Fontenot and Smith have to get more of these kind of gambles right than wrong. Martin is worth a flier in either the second or third wave of free agency, but the Falcons will still need to add a more dynamic option, likely via the 2022 NFL draft.