The Atlanta Falcons are hoping that their defensive tackle position takes a huge step forward this summer, thanks to the potential emergence of second-year player Ra’Shede Hageman as well as the addition of rookie Grady Jarrett.
Both players will be the main ones to monitor this summer at this position, as their ability to impact will have immediate fallout concerning the two veteran defensive tackles in Jonathan Babineaux and Paul Soliai.
Hageman is expected to take the next step by becoming a starter this season. The Falcons appear likely to employ him as a two-down run-defender, lining him up beside Soliai in their base defense. Hageman showed up to offseason workouts in tremendous shape by all accounts, signaling that he’s better prepared to put in the work that was at times lacking last summer.
Back then Hageman was marred by inconsistency, flashing the ability to dominate on one snap but then following that up with others where he struggled to disengage from third-string blockers. That carried over into the beginning of the regular season, but towards the second half of the year the Falcons were able to see those same flashes of dominance on a more consistent basis week after week.
The team is optimistic that he’ll only continue to build off the second half of the 2014 season and come in and show that ability to dominate with his power and quickness off the line more consistently in camp practices and preseason games.
If he does, then that will allow the Falcons to reduce the workload of Babineaux. According to Pro Football Focus, Babineaux has played the sixth-most snaps among defensive tackles combined over the past three years with 2,486 despite being on the wrong side of age 30.
Babineaux remains the team’s most disruptive interior pass-rusher, but due to lacking personnel and questionable coaching decisions was forced to spend a large chunk of the 2014 season playing outside at defensive end. If Hageman can emerge as a capable two-down run-stopper, it should allow Babineaux to do what he does best, which is to get after the quarterback on passing downs. Even though Babineaux may still see the majority of snaps at the position given the ubiquitousness of the passing game in the NFL, making him into primarily a pass-rush specialist should significantly lighten his workload and keep the soon-to-be 34-year old veteran fresher for the second half of 2015.
Similar to Hageman, the Falcons will be placing high expectations on rookie Grady Jarrett this year. Jarrett’s ability to immediately carve out a role in the rotation could lead to a lighter load for Soliai. Soliai is expected to man the one-technique nose tackle position in the base defense, where the Falcons hope to capitalize on his monstrous size as a run-defender.
Jarrett’s specialty at Clemson was pinning his ears back and getting after the quarterback, with comparable disruptive capabilities to Babineaux. This makes Jarrett a good bet to supplant Soliai on passing downs, keeping the latter fresher. Jarrett also offers the versatility to play both one-technique as well as the three-technique, the role that Hageman and Babineaux are expected to fill. If he can showcase his trademark disruptive abilities, then he’ll become a bigger part of the rotation, which will in turn allow not only Soliai to remain fresher, but Hageman and Babineaux as well.
In the end, the Falcons are likely to heavily rotate their defensive tackles this season which was something that was common under new head coach Dan Quinn when he was the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks the past two years. No one Seahawk has truly been an every-down defensive tackle the past few years and that trend is likely to follow Quinn to Atlanta.
For the aforementioned four tackles, competition this summer won’t be about competing for jobs as all four are virtual locks to make the team. Their competition will center on jockeying for how big a role each will receive during the regular season. The better each performs, the more likely the team will be willing to lean on them to receive a bigger partition of plays this fall.
It’s also worth mentioning that several defensive ends might also get work inside at defensive tackle in certain situations during the regular season. Adrian Clayborn is expected to get snaps inside when the team employs it’s nickel sub-package. With a good summer, he could be the preferred candidate over Jarrett or Hageman to line up beside Babineaux in those passing situations. Malliciah Goodman, Cliff Matthews and Tyson Jackson also saw snaps a year ago as defensive tackles and too could get meaningful snaps this summer. For all four ends, whether or not they take to playing inside in certain sub-packages could be a significant, determining factor in which among them will stick in the competition at defensive end.
Keeping more than four defensive tackles isn’t a sure bet which means Joey Mbu, Ricky Havili-Heimuli and Warren Herring will be hoping to perform at a high enough level to catch the eye of coaches and force them to keep a fifth player.
Mbu probably stands the best chance despite being an undrafted rookie. He specialized in playing the nose tackle position at the University of Houston, offering good size and strength to hold up against the run. Given that Soliai isn’t a strong bet to return to the Falcons in 2016 and Jarrett may be more of a pass-rush specialist than a run-plugger, stashing a player like Mbu away for next year makes sense.
For that same reason, Havili-Heimuli is also hoping he can impress. Despite only starting three games in college at Oregon, Havili-Heimuli has the sort of size and girth to be a space-eater in the middle.
Warren Herring isn’t your classic space-eater, but has a good motor and will use his hands to try and get leverage at the point of attack. He’ll have to impress the new coaching staff with those skills and show that he has enough size to avoid getting pushed around against the run.
Most likely Mbu, Havili-Heimuli and Herring are competing for a chance at earning a practice-squad spot. But there’s an outside chance that with a strong summer, one of them can sneak onto the back end of the roster.
There’s probably a low probability that the Falcons will look to supplement this position at the end of camp via the waiver wire, unless there’s a major injury. The team appears confident in the top four tackles on their depth chart and will just want to see how they take to the new defensive scheme that will ask them to play “faster and more physical.”