The Atlanta Falcons could try and bolster their interior defensive line rotation in the 2016 NFL Draft, but whether they choose to do so will center largely on how the team views second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
The Falcons have yet to overtly replace veteran Paul Soliai at nose tackle this offseason, unless they feel a current player on the roster can take over his duties as the run-plugger in the base defense.
That player could potentially be Jarrett, who saw some snaps in the role late in the season when Soliai was out with a calf injury. The team also has Joey Mbu, who spent much of last year on the practice squad after being an undrafted rookie free agent signing. Mbu also flashed some ability late in the season in Soliai’s absence.
The team may be also tinkering with the idea of playing veteran Tyson Jackson in that role, if certain rumors are true about Jackson gaining weight this offseason. Last year the Falcons asked Jackson to lose weight in order to get quicker and enhance the pass rush. Now it’s possible that the team has opted to go in the opposite direction.
At a rumored 340 pounds, Jackson has the mass to stuff the run but lacks the experience playing the nose. That makes the possibility of his transition to the role iffy at best.
That’s why it’s possible that the Falcons hope to come away from the 2016 draft with another via candidate to help fill the void left by Soliai. Such an addition won’t be a priority, but certainly there is room to improve. Any
If the Falcons go in that direction, it would mean that Jarrett remains on track to replace Jonathan Babineaux potentially as early as 2017 as the team’s primary pass-rushing defensive tackle. Adding a nose tackle limits Jarrett’s role in the base defense on running downs, freeing him up to be used more in the nickel sub-package on passing downs. Babineaux plays one defensive tackle position in the team’s nickel, while Ra’Shede Hageman plays the three-technique spot in the base defense.
Jarrett has natural skills to rush the passer and would be a good heir apparent to groom behind Babineaux in case the latter is not retained after the season. Babineaux turns 35 in October and 2016 marks the final year on the contract he signed a few years ago.
The possibility of Babineaux’s departure makes it so that the Falcons not only want to add a run-plugging nose tackle along their defensive line, but potentially an additional pass-rusher. If Jarrett is tapped to play the nose in the base defense, it could leave the team looking for another pass-rushing defensive tackle to succeed Babineaux a year or so down the line.
It would make sense if the Falcons tried to find that player in this year’s draft, since any additional pass-rusher up front can only help improve the team’s league-low 19 sacks from 2015.
Hageman hasn’t progressed a lot as a pass-rusher over his first two years in the NFL, and it’s unlikely that the Falcons will put a ton of stock in that changing between now and the start of the 2016 season. While Hageman provides flashes of dominance as a pass-rusher, the emerging reality may be that he is best suited to being mostly a two-down defender.
The Falcons also could opt to stand pat at the defensive tackle position given their limited number of picks. Without additional picks acquired via trade, the need for a defensive tackle seems more a luxury since the team’s current roster should be enough.
Even if Jarrett, Mbu nor Jackson are not proven as nose tackles, between the three of them there is reason to believe that at least one competent starter will emerge via competition. The addition of defensive end Derrick Shelby also gives the team another option to rush from the inside in nickel situations besides Babineaux or Jarrett.
The Falcons could certainly get by at defensive tackle with their roster as is, but if the right upgrade becomes available in the draft, the team should not hesitate to pull the trigger.