The Atlanta Falcons have been searching for a standout pass-rusher ever since Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016. There hasn’t been a double-digit sack artist on the team since, with 2021 the nadir, when the Falcons got to opposing quarterbacks a league-low 18 times.
This offseason has been largely defined by general manager Terry Fontenot’s efforts to bolster the pass rush. He drafted a pair of edge defenders and signed a versatile rush end in free agency.
Those moves will make a difference, but Fontenot may have to wait another year to land a legitimate, game-changing pass-rusher. Then Fontenot could sign a 2023 free agent he played a part in drafting for the Falcons’ rivals, the New Orleans Saints, back in 2018.
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Former Saints First-Rounder Tipped for Falcons
In a look at where the top 24 projected players in 2023 free agency may land next year, Fansided’s Sayre Bedinger named Marcus Davenport a fit for the Falcons.
It’s an intriguing possibility since Davenport looks like a player on the rise. He recorded a career-high nine sacks in 2021, but the Saints may have a tough time putting the franchise tag on Davenport next year, according to Bedinger: “the New Orleans Saints moved around so much money in the 2022 offseason, you can’t help but wonder when that kind of maneuvering is going to catch up to them and they just simply won’t be able to spend. Davenport had a big 2021 season and with a new contract on the horizon in 2023, he could be a tag-and-trade candidate if he plays well again.”
If this scenario arose, Bedinger believes the Falcons could move in thanks to Fontenot’s connection: “Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot came from the Saints organization and obviously had a hand in trading up to draft Davenport.”
Fontenot was in the Saints’ front office when the NFC South franchise dealt three picks for the right to draft Davenport. The Saints sent the 27th pick in 2018, along with first- and fifth-round selections the following year to the Green Bay Packers, before using the 14th-overall choice on Davenport.
It’s difficult not to call the Packers winners of the trade, despite Davenport’s obvious talent. He’s gifted, but he’s also notched a mere 21 sacks through four seasons and has yet to start an entire campaign.
Last season still proved to be a breakout moment for Davenport, who established a niche for playing stronger later in games, per PFF NO Saints:
Davenport also began putting impact plays together more consistently, according to Chris Rosvoglou of The Spun:
Numbers as impressive as those earned Davenport a spot on a list of the top 30 players set for next year’s free-agent market. The list was compiled by Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic, who pointed out why Davenport will be sought after: “He’s coming off a career season in which he produced nine sacks and 16 quarterback hits in 11 games. Durability has been an issue for Davenport. He’s missed 17 games in four NFL seasons. But young, versatile pass rushers with upside are always in demand. Davenport is another player who has a lot to gain with a strong 2022 showing.”
If Davenport does stay on the field longer this season, then he should be near the top of the Falcons’ wish-list a year from now.
Davenport’s a Good Scheme Fit for Falcons
Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees runs a hybrid defense that mixes in four-man fronts along with the 3-4 base look. The true key to Pees’ system is versatility, a trait Davenport embodies effectively.
While he’s ostensibly a traditional defensive end with his hand in the dirt, Davenport can move around and rush from a variety of alignments. A sack against the Carolina Panthers from 2019, highlighted by Establish The Run analyst Brandon Thorn, showed some of Davenport’s flexibility:
Davenport attacked from a standup position and a particularly wide alignment. Those things should appeal to Pees and his 3-4 leanings.
Being able to operate like an outside linebacker is one thing, but Davenport has also proved disruptive by sliding inside and rushing as a defensive tackle. It’s what he did for this sack of Tom Brady against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, per Jeff Nowak of Audacy Sports:
Moving able pass-rushers around to create confusion and exploit mismatches in blocking schemes is vital for creating pressure. Having Davenport next to Grady Jarrett along the interior would ensure the Falcons bring more heat on third downs.
There’s an obvious need for an edge defender with Davenport’s upside in the Falcons’ front seven. Yet, Fontenot won’t have to spend big in 2023 if any of this year’s recruits strike it rich.
New Faces Will Improve Pass Rush in 2022
The most high-profile of those new faces is second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie. He logged 9.5 sacks, forced a pair of fumbles and made 18 tackles for loss at Penn State in 2021.
Ebiketie is the key to reviving a dormant pass rush quickly, but he’ll need help from fellow rookie, third-round pick DeAngelo Malone. The latter was hugely productive at Western Kentucky, per PFF College:
Malone and Ebiketie have the raw skills to make waves as rookies, but a lot will still hinge on the performances of this year’s free-agent arrival, Lorenzo Carter. The former New York Giants’ starter is a perfect scheme fit who finished last season with five sacks in four games.
There are more options at Pees’ disposal this season and the quantity should make a difference to Atlanta’s sack totals. If not, Fontenot and the Falcons will be looking to spend big in a year for a pass-rusher on the rise.
They won’t find many better than Davenport.