Is Atlanta’s silence a sign that they are pleased with their defense or they are cooking up something?

The Falcons are certain to get defensive starters in the draft, but they might take a splashy or quiet approach before then.

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The Atlanta Falcons signed several defenders on reserve/future contracts in early January. In the roughly two and a half months since then, the team has hired a defensive-minded head coach, an entirely new staff, and signed exactly two defenders. Nate Landman, an exclusive rights free agent, and defensive lineman Kentavius Street have both re-signed in Atlanta for 2024.

Nobody would disagree that the Falcons’ offense has improved, with Kirk Cousins replacing the erratic 2022-2023 quarterback and adding much-needed speed to the receiving corps. The components are in place for that side of the ball to take a moderate-to-dramatic step forward, which should catapult the Falcons to greater success after a failing offense doomed them for long portions in each of the previous three seasons.

But what about the defense? Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell, Jessie Bates, Kaden Elliss, and David Onyemata are the primary players on that side of the ball in 2024, but no one involved with the team or this fanbase would truly imply it is finished. There is no high-end edge rusher on the roster right now, no proven high-end complement to Bates, no proven second starter at cornerback, and insufficient proven high-quality depth anywhere but inside linebacker. There is work to be done here, which the front office and coaching staff are well aware of.

The question isn’t whether that work will be done—this is a year in which the Falcons have a must-win vibe, given their declared desire to win, Arthur Blank’s growing irritation with a losing streak, and the fanbase’s bone-deep weariness—but when and in what form. As I see it from our vantage point in late March, the Falcons have two probable paths forward.

The Falcons are weighing options

There has been much chatter about the Falcons trying to work out a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles for Haason Reddick as part of Terry’s Quest (TM) to locate a consistent high-end edge rusher like Atlanta hasn’t had since John Abraham. Reddick was traded to the Jets yesterday, so if the Falcons were interested in him, expect them to make a move soon.

That trade front work would also explain why the Falcons haven’t been aggressively freeing up salary space, as they’d prefer to know if they’d need to make changes to, say, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews’ contracts before doing so. Now that the Reddick situation is clear, the team can free up some cap space to either supplement that signing with some low-cost options on the open market or sign a couple of veteran edge rushers who can compensate for the fact that your high-profile targets are no longer available.

This would have essentially been a holding pattern, with the Falcons risking losing players they like to other teams while they wait. The somewhat slow market, along with the fact that the organization now knows what’s going on with Reddick, should leave them with plenty of options if they were negotiating.

The Falcons plan to upgrade the defense in the draft and over the summer

Or perhaps they’re simply biding their time and reserving their cap space and movements for the draft and the next summer, with the goal of assembling their missing defensive components through low-cost contracts and selections.

As time passes, I am more sure that this is the path the Falcons will go. The lack of significant transactions to free up cap space suggests that the organization is not in a hurry to capitalize on a second or third wave of March or early April signings, preferring to add players through the draft and then assess what needs remain. It helps that this draft class is loaded with some really intriguing edge rushers and corners, two of the team’s self-identified major needs, and that a flooded safety market and defensive line free agency class, both of which still have plenty of useful players, are expected to last at least until the immediate aftermath of the draft.

The Falcons can see if they can snag their dream edge rusher and young starting cornerback, let alone a useful safety, and then work out a contract restructure or two to free up the required space to shop for remaining needs.

In some ways, this would be a reversal of where the Falcons intended to be in previous years, as Fontenot has consistently stated that he prefers to have problems handled before the draft. It’s worth noting that, aside from the perennial need for an edge rusher, the Falcons have choices at every other defensive position, even if they’re not particularly proven or appealing. If this is the path they intend to take, we might see a low-level signing or two in the weeks leading up to the draft—Fontenot rarely goes weeks, let alone months—but otherwise, the team will rely on a combination of high-upside draft picks and summer signings to stock the defense.

In any scenario, the draft is a vital component of the Falcons’ defensive strategy. The team’s last three first-round picks have all been on the offensive side of the ball, and 12 of Atlanta’s 23 total draft picks have been on offense. That, combined with a massive spending spree at the start of free agency, should have eliminated all but the most minor needs on that side of the ball—a long-term developmental quarterback, perhaps, as well as a third running back, third tight end, and more interior depth—and left the Falcons in a position where any offensive additions would be nice luxuries or long-term multipliers.

On defense, however, the need for youthful talent is clear. The Falcons have aging starters on the interior of their defensive line, a shortage of experienced starters on the back end outside of standouts A.J. Terrell and Jessie Bates, and a decade-long lack of a top edge rusher. If it appears that the Falcons have been preparing to use the draft to solve some of those needs and add talent for Raheem Morris and Jimmy Lake to work with, that is because all indications point to this.

All that remains is to see whatever path the Falcons pursue until the draft and what happens next, and now that Reddick is on the move, we’ll know for certain which one they pick in the coming days. I believe Atlanta will focus on the draft first, then find cap room to make necessary defensive reinforcements. In the meanwhile, don’t expect the Falcons to make much noise, if at all.

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