Despite some low-level concerns over the depth at defensive tackle, the Atlanta Falcons enter training camp with fewer questions than they have at defensive end.
Tried and true, Jonathan Babineaux returns to lead the Falcons’ defensive interior for the 12th season. While the team tinkers with the roles for nearly every other player along their defensive front, Babineaux is expected to play the exact same role he’s manned for several years: penetrating backfields both as a pass-rusher and run-defender.
Babineaux was by far the team’s most effective purely interior pass-rusher , tallying 18.5 total pressures according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That production exceeded the combined totals of the team’s other defensive tackles in Ra’Shede Hagmean (seven), Paul Soliai (five) and Grady Jarrett (three).
Because of that reliable, polished pass-rush ability, Babineaux’s role will likely be once again limited to playing in the team’s nickel sub-package.
Joining him on the inside will likely be Derrick Shelby, who should also get long looks at defensive end in the team’s base package. But the Falcons are really expecting tremendous growth from second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who is replacing the departed Soliai as the team’s nose tackle in the base defense.
Jarrett has a knack for penetration just like the elder Babineaux and will try to utilize that trait to attack opposing centers in order to control gaps and free up linebackers behind him. Jarrett lacks Soliai’s mammoth size, but the team is hoping that whatever bulk is lost is made up for with quickness and added value as a pass-rusher on run downs when opposing offenses decide to switch things up and throw the ball. How quickly Jarrett takes to his new expanded role will be a critical component to watch in training camp.
Jarrett should also get a number of looks in the nickel sub-package as well, at first to give players like Babineaux and Shelby needed breathers from time to time. But it will also be worth watching this season to see how much growth Jarrett shows as a pass-rusher to the point that by year’s end he could surpass Babineaux as the team’s most prominent iinterior pass-rusher.
Tyson Jackson is also potentially joining the group of interior lineman, switching spots with Hageman. Jackson is now expected to play the “three-technique” defensive tackle spot in the team’s base defense while Hageman makes the move to his vacated end spot. Jackson is far from an adept pass-rusher or penetrator as the three-technique usually requires, but he’s a more consistent run-clogger than Hageman due to more polished technique and hand usage.
However Jackson’s status entering the season remains up in the air given his position switch and high cap hit. Jackson has spent the bulk of his career playing “five-technique” at defensive end, and his frequent opportunities at the three-technique in 2014 ended poorly.
Jackson will also count $6.35 million against the Falcons cap this season and his $4.25 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed if he is on the 53-man roster on opening day. The Falcons could free up $4.75 million against their 2016 cap by cutting Jackson prior to the start of the regular season, which will be tempting especially when considering how limited Jackson’s value will be to a defensive line that is desperately trying to get better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Not to mention the possibility that Hageman could return to his former spot on the inside, it all makes Jackson somewhat expendable. Yet Jackson will certainly do everything in his power to earn his keep this summer and prove his doubters wrong.
Helping Jackson maintain a roster spot may be the reality that the Falcons aren’t particularly deep at defensive tackle. Behind Jackson the most experienced player is second-year nose tackle Joey Mbu, who played just 55 snaps over the final month of the 2015 regular season.
Mbu should be able to make the team if he shows enough growth from last year. The Falcons chose not to carry a second nose tackle behind Soliai for most of last year until Mbu was raised off the practice squad after the former’s calf injury late in the season. Given Jarrett’s lack of ideal size, he might begin to wear down and thus having a player like Mbu on the roster ready to platoon with him could be a smart call by the Falcons coaching staff.
He’ll be pushed by a pair of undrafted rookies in Cory Johnson and Chris Mayes, both of whom offer similar size, bulk and power to impact as run-defenders. Both rookies are in the same place that Mbu found himself last year, and thus stand a fair shot of making the team. However like Mbu, it’s much likelier that a strong summer will land either on the practice squad rather than the final 53-man roster.
The depth at defensive tackle is not quite a dire situation given that Shelby, Adrian Clayborn and Malliciah Goodman are all capable of pulling double duty both as ends and tackles. But it stands to reason that this is potentially a position that the Falcons might look to add additional help at the end of camp off the waiver wire, especially if they can find a capable backup who is considerably cheaper than Jackson.
But until then, the focus of this summer will be mostly on Jarrett and Mbu’s growth and Jackson’s transition on the inside.