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One burning question for every position group post-minicamp, Pt. II: The defense

Does Grady Jarrett (finally) have enough help? Can Jeff Okudah find (and sustain) top form? We discuss those topics and more as we head toward training camp

It has been fascinating to learn about this Falcons roster through windows of opportunity during the offseason program. We've come away from each one a little smarter and wiser, with greater understanding of how all these new faces mesh with incumbent veterans and a young foundation built primarily through the NFL Draft.


While we know a lot more now than we did about how this team will operate, there are plenty of burning questions remaining as the Falcons move ever closer to the start of training camp. Tori McElhaney discussed one for every offensive position group in last edition of this ongoing series. Now I'll delve into the defensive side of things, starting with the guys up front.


Interior defensive line

Does Grady Jarrett (finally) have enough help?

It sure looks that way on paper. David Onyemata was a huge signing for the entire defense and for Jarrett in specific, because he has another high-caliber, three-down player to work with battling interior offensive lines.

That won't eliminate double teams altogether, but it should slow the near constant attention Jarrett was paid in recent seasons, where he was schemed against and occasionally triple teamed to avoid No. 97 creating havoc. There are enough solid interior players to avoid that situation in 2023, even beyond Onyemata.

While he's an excellent pass rusher and run defender, there's more there to give the frontline guys a breather. Ta'Quon Graham's returning from a knee injury and looking to build on a strong sophomore where he did so many little things right and made a real impact on the defense. Timmy Horne made strides last season. Eddie Goldman and Carlos Davis are massive dudes who can certainly assist in run defense.

We've seen Jarrett shine despite not having tons of help around him. It will be interesting to see how he fares with threats joining him on the interior.


Edge rusher

Can the Falcons consistently get after the quarterback off the edge?

In recent seasons, the answer to that question has been no. You'd think that, with Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree on the roster, the answer in 2023 would automatically be yes.

I wouldn't necessarily go that far. While those guys have excellent track records rushing the passer, they haven't been downright dominant recently in that area. If one or both can find top form with the snaps they're given, the Falcons will be able to get after it. Dupree is finally healthy and supremely confident he'll get after it in Atlanta. You know Campbell will give fans quality snaps. Is that enough to be ferocious off the edge? Not unless they get support from the JACK linebacker/hybrid edge spot. They need Lorenzo Carter to be impactful. They need Arnold Ebiketie to take the next step and realize vast potential.

Coming at teams in waves, with different pass-rushing skill sets at different times, could make the college position group hard to handle. This isn't a situation where the Falcons can solely rely on one or two guys to put up massive numbers. If everyone, contributes, the Falcons can be impactful rushing the quarterback off the edge.


Interior linebackers

How good can the Kaden Elliss/Troy Andersen pairing be?

The sky just might be the limit with these two. No joke. Troy Andersen's as fast as most any skill player he'll be asked to cover. He's a sure tackler who, if he continues to develop, can be a heat-seeking missile going back or playing downhill.

Kaden Elliss had a breakout season in 2022, his first as a full-time starter. He had seven sacks and was all over the place in the New Orleans Saints defense. How will he do, however, without DeMario Davis playing next to him? That's a bit of an unknown.

So is Andersen's ability to execute consistently. He's young and learning on the job, which means mistakes will be made at times. If he can minimize them, make proper reads and play at breakneck speeds, he could break out as one of the league's top modern linebackers.

There's so much potential in this pairing, especially if they can play several years together. What can they get out of 2023? That depends on how fast they can build chemistry and work well together.



Can Jeff Okudah find top form?

A.J. Terrell is going to be his typical, shutdown self. There's little doubt about that. Can the Falcons be effective on the opposite side? That's something they haven't done well during Terrell's tenure.

There's hope, however, that Jeff Okudah can lock the other side down. The Falcons acquired him from Detroit this offseason and moved him right into a top outside cornerback spot. After watching him work, against Drake London especially, you can see why he was drafted No. 3 overall a few years back.

The man is so, so talented. He can flat cover when he's on. Can he stay healthy? That's an important question. If he can, will Okudah build off of a strong 2022 where he was tough to target? If that's the case, The Falcons secondary can be really good.

We don't know who will assume the slot cornerback spot – expect a heated battle between Mike Hughes and Dee Alford – but quality play from Terrell and Okudah could set the secondary up to be a team strength.



What happens with the safety spot next to Jessie Bates III?

Richie Grant gets the starting nod. That's the obvious answer, especially after seeing the first unit work during the offseason program. It's also the most likely, considering the second-round pick invested in Grant by this regime.

Jaylinn Hawkins had a strong offseason program, showcasing solid awareness and an attacking mentality going after the ball. The Cal product was effective in a three-down role last year, and may force his way into a rotation of some sort with Grant.

That remains to be seen, but it's something to watch moving forward. Bates will do his thing leading the secondary, but he'll need effective, complimentary partners working with him. That might be Grant, Hawkins or a combination of the two. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out this summer.

Take a look at the 2023 Atlanta Falcons in action during mandatory minicamp, presented by MegaFit Meals.

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