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One question for every Falcons position group, Part II: The defense

The defense looks drastically different than it did at the end of 2022. With so many new faces, how quickly can their impact be felt in 2023? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If you're reading this, I hope it means you've read Part I of this two-part series. As a refresher, we're taking a deeper look into the Falcons 2023 roster as it currently stands, highlighting one burning question for each position group. So, if you haven't read Part I of the series, in which the offensive position groups are highlighted, go do that right now.


Or don't. You can read about the defense first and go back and read about the offense after. I am not picky about the order in which you read, just that you read. But I digress, let's get to the defense, a unit that looks drastically different than it did at this time last year.

Interior defensive line

How big will the impact of offseason moves be for this group Day 1?

This position, perhaps more than any other, got the biggest bump from 2022 to 2023. If last season showed us anything, it's that the Falcons had to pump money into the interior of its defensive line. Grady Jarrett, for all his power, needed help. Ta'Quon Graham did a good job in his starting role alongside Jarrett through the first half of 2022, but when Graham was sidelined with a season-ending knee injury, the need to bring along the defensive interior was evident. So, the Falcons pumped money and resources into the defensive front.

They went out and got someone defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen knows well, David Onyemata. Then, Eddie Goldman came out of retirement. Then, with a move that got the league talking, the Falcons added Calais Campbell, who can essentially play wherever the Falcons deem necessary on the defensive front. Graham will return, too, hoping to pick up right where he left off, which was a really good spot for the former fifth-round pick. The Falcons also have depth pieces returning as well. Timmy Horne and Jalen Dalton may be backups, but they do have starting experience, having to do so when Graham suffered his knee injury.

With all of this said, it begs the question: How quickly can these additions make an impact? How soon can we see offensive linemen pull off a double (even triple) team of Jarrett because they have to account for Onyemata, or Graham, or Campbell? How urgent is the need for offensive coordinators to account for more veteran talent along the Falcons defensive front?

It should be evident on Day 1.

Edge rusher

Did the Falcons do enough to see change within this position?

It was interesting, really, how the Falcons prioritized the interior of the defense in order to (they hope) improve pass rush. Where many said the Falcons' top priority this offseason was bringing in pass rushers, the Falcons didn't really follow that line of thinking in a traditional way. Sure they made moves. They brought back Lorenzo Carter, and signed Bud Dupree, and, yes, we'll include Campbell in this conversation, too. But was there a splash signing for edge rushers? Perhaps not really if you're considering Campbell won't be a traditional outside edge rusher in this defense. Did the Falcons draft a top edge rusher? Perhaps not really if you don't consider Zach Harrison in the third round as such.

When it comes to how to view this position group, perhaps you're looking too closely at the optics of it and should instead focus more on the unconventional way of which the Falcons are trying to help its pass rush by building inside, out. The Falcons are banking on having the right pieces in place, like Carter and Arnold Ebiketie and maybe even Ade Ogundeji and tack on Dupree, too. But they're mainly hoping they've done enough around this group (within the interior and on the backend of the secondary) to change the Falcons pass rush stats.

Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie #47 does strength and conditioning during phase one at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)


Who will emerge as the defensive quarterback?

For the last two years, this role has changed. First, it was Foye Oluokun, who's now with the Jaguars. Then, it was Mykal Walker before an injury sidelined him for a couple games and the responsibility passed to Rashaan Evans for the remainder of the 2022 season. Who's to be the vocal leader of the Falcons in 2023? Well, it'll be interesting to see who emerges.

The Falcons signed Kaden Elliss this offseason. Like his Saints teammate Onyemata, Elliss joins up with a friendly face in Nielsen. The Falcons saw Troy Andersen's role expand as his rookie year went on. From role player to starter by the end of 2022, Andersen's responsibilities grew as he did. Then, there's Walker, who's role remains a bit of a mystery. We know how Nielsen feels about Elliss, having coached him already. We know what he thinks of Andersen, having talked a little bit about him and his unique skillset in his introductory press conference. We don't know what he thinks of Walker, who's on the last year of his rookie deal.

Chances are its Elliss or Andersen who steps into the leadership role needed for this position, with Walker acting in similar fashion to that of the packages he was in on late in 2022.


What can we expect from new faces?

This question isn't unlike that of the question posed to the defensive interior. The Falcons added Jeff Okudah, Mike Hughes and Clark Phillips III to this position group via trades, free agency and the draft. All three should have a role in the secondary and on special teams, but the extent of their roles and their production remains a mystery.

Take Okudah and Hughes for example. Both are former first-round picks. Both have limited experience in their years in the league because of a plethora of injuries they've individually had to work through. There's a chance their potential as professionals has not yet been reached.

How will Okudah look opposite A.J. Terrell? How can Okudah emerge in his own right? If the Falcons move Hughes inside to nickel, how will he fair? And what of the pieces of depth the Falcons have? Dee Alford, Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong and recently acquired Tre Flowers and Phillips? The 2022 season showed the Falcons how important depth is at cornerback, did they do enough to secure it in 2023?

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah does strength and conditioning during phase one at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)


How can the Falcons make the most of the trio of which they have?

Jessie Bates III, Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins, the Falcons have a pretty good trio at safety. Bates was the biggest splash the Falcons made in free agency, while Grant and Hawkins have grown into reliable safeties for the Falcons in recent years. There's not much to discuss with this group because they seem quite set within their individual roles as well as their role within the defense as a group. It's not necessarily about how this group will be used but it's more about how they can best be used.

We've seen Bates, Grant and Hawkins a lot. They're all experienced at their position at this point. So, how do the Falcons put them in the best position to succeed? That's the question I have for this group.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in that work for the 2023 season.

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