With the start of the NFL Combine less than a week away, colleges preparing to host pro days and free agency set to open in a few more weeks, the football calendar is about to hit one of its busiest seasons. And with it, teams have a plethora of decisions to make and that - of course - includes the Falcons. With the second-highest cap space in the league, Atlanta should be in a lot of these conversations league-wide.
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The expectation for the Falcons is that this offseason looks vastly different than the last two offseasons under Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith. For starters they have more money to play with, but that doesn't take away from a foundation that has already been formed in Atlanta.
With this in mind, let's break down this 2023 team by positions and highlight one of the (many) burning questions each position has to answer by the start of the 2023 season. The offense got us started on Tuesday. Now, let's take a deeper dive into the defense.
Who do the Falcons bring in to help Grady Jarrett?
It's not a matter of "if" the Falcons will bring in a plethora of interior defensive linemen, it's a matter of "when." Interior pass rush is a problem in Atlanta. Arthur Smith has said it. Terry Fontenot has said it. Dean Pees - before he retired - said it. Then, the Falcons went out and hired Ryan Nielsen, a man who's bread and butter is coaching up defensive linemen. If you need an example of who he's coached, look no further than Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson.
The Falcons have Grady Jarrett, and Nielsen spoke highly of him in his introductory press conference, saying there is - of course - a spot for Jarrett in his defense. Then, there's Ta'Quon Graham who made a subtle impact for the Falcons prior to his season-ending knee injury in November. He'll be back. But there's a lot of work the Falcons have to do to get this specific position group where they need it to be. It can't just be Jarrett striking fear into opposing coordinators. The Falcons need more to fear.
It could be a situation where the Falcons use the draft and free agency to build up this position around Jarrett. They'll have a chance to look at about 50 defensive linemen at the Combine next week, edge rushers included. Then, there's the start of free agency two weeks after. And there are some intriguing top talents on the open market, too: Players like Philadelphia's Javon Hargrave, Washington's Daron Payne and New Orleans' David Onyemata (who was, you guessed it, coached by Nielsen). The expectation should be that the Falcons use both avenues to build up their interior defensive line.
Will the Falcons prioritize edge rushers in the 2023 NFL Draft?
Since the 2022 season ended, there has been a large contingency of draft experts and analysts who have the Falcons taking an edge rusher with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. At the end of January, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah linked Iowa's Lucas Van Ness to the Falcons while ESPN's Mel Kiper had the Falcons taking Clemson's Myles Murphy, as did PFF's Marcus Mosher.
By last week, the idea of an edge rusher to Atlanta was still burning strong among the experts. Diante Lee of The Athletic had the Falcons taking Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson. Meanwhile, Danny Kelly of The Ringer, NFL.com's Eric Edholm, ESPN's Matt Miller and Kiper - again - had the Falcons taking Murphy with the No. 8 overall pick.
With a couple months separating us from the start of the 2023 Draft, is this really how the Falcons are leaning? At least early in the process, that's what the draft analysts are thinking.
How likely is it that the Falcons bring back Rashaan Evans?
Evans is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason after signing a one-year deal with the Falcons last year. However, he was a big part of the Falcons defense even in his lone year in Atlanta. Mykal Walker - who is still on his rookie deal - was originally given the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of the defense. By the middle of the year, though, that responsibility had been handed over to Evans, who held onto the role until the season's end.
As the season went on, too, Troy Andersen saw his role expand, as he got more and more playing time alongside Evans. By the season's end, it was Evans who had played in 98 percent of defensive snaps.
If the Falcons choose not to bring him back, it sends them back to the drawing board in terms of how this inside linebacker group is constructed, as well as how it operates within the defensive unit. They'll need to prioritize the group, as they'll be in search of starting-caliber reinforcements. Andersen and Walker can't be expected to hold down the position alone.
Where will the Falcons look to fill out depth behind A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward?
It will be nice to get Hayward back, first and foremost. The veteran cornerback's season-ending shoulder injury was a loss the Falcons defense never really recovered from. They had a carousel of corners working opposite Terrell, so it goes without saying it'll be nice to have more consistency at the position if possible.
Enter Hayward, who has one more year on his two-year deal with Atlanta.
However, when it comes to this position, the Falcons should be thinking about the days beyond 2023. The best time to strike an extension with Terrell could be soon, before his rookie contract ends. Terrell isn't getting any cheaper. You also have to think about bringing in some young talent to work behind Hayward in 2023. It's not out of the question that the Falcons could use a Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick on a cornerback. The Falcons may be in a solid position with Terrell and Hayward returning in 2023 but they know they can't rest on their laurels when it comes to this position group.
Are the Falcons sold on Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins development?
When the Falcons cleaned house at the safety position two years ago (letting Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee go), they began the process of rebuilding the safety position. They had already picked up Hawkins in the 2020 Draft, and would soon pick up Grant in the draft the next year. Now, the duo are starters on this defense, playing a vast majority of the snaps for the Falcons, together, in 2022. If the Falcons feel this duo works, the expectation is that this won't change too much in 2023. Are the Falcons pleased with 1) their decision to draft these two, and 2) their development in their first years in Atlanta? If so, this position may not be one we talk much about this offseason.
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos on defense from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.