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Free agent edge rushers the Falcons might target in 2023

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Free agent edge rushers the Falcons might target in 2023
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Atlanta needs help, and these options could offer it.

It’s the year 2023, and contrary to the expectations of a still-not-bald Falcons writer back in 2013, a decade has gone by without the Falcons fielding an elite pass rush. Heck, over the past three seasons they haven’t even fielded one that could credibly threaten a statue.

That means the need for help is acute, urgent, and so forth. The Falcons do go into 2023 with Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone entering their second seasons, and Ebiketie has the upside to be an excellent complementary option for a top pass rusher, while Malone looks like a physical and capable piece of a rotation. Beyond that, though, the Falcons simply don’t have much to write home about under contract at outside linebacker/defensive end, depending on how their fronts align under a new defensive coordinator.

That means it’s time to throw money and draft picks at the problem, and we’ll start with free agency because it comes first. Who is out there for the Falcons to take a shot at?

Full-time starters

Samson Ebukam

Pro Football Focus named him as a defender who makes a ton of sense for Atlanta, and it’s hard to argue against it. His 43 pressures would’ve ranked second on the team to Grady Jarrett (45) in 2022, and he’s a solid defender against the run, as well. Given that he shouldn’t break the bank and would be a significant upgrade on what Atlanta has, he’d be well worth a look, especially if the team is unwilling or unable to lure a bigger name.

Marcus Davenport

Hear me out. It was easy to make fun of the Saints for trading up for Davenport, and he has never been the player they thought they were getting when they selected him in the first round. He has shown flashes of being that player, though, and how sweet would it be to see him blossom in Atlanta after he couldn’t in New Orleans?

Davenport has actually been very good when healthy, routinely clocking quality snaps against the run and getting pressure, but he has also missed at least two games in every one of his NFL seasons. Given that he’s just 26 years old and one year removed from a nine sack campaign, he’s worth a closer look for the Falcons, and the strong Saints connections in this front office suggest Davenport will be on the radar.

Melvin Ingram

Age be damned, Ingram just keeps working.

At this stage of his career, maybe he’s best as a rotational option, but he put up eight sacks and 38 pressures a year ago, which ranked 39th and 67th in the NFL. To put that in perspective, he was 109th in terms of actual pass rushing snaps, meaning he got the most out of his work. The Falcons could add him to a rotation of young, durable players and maximize his production, and I’d suggest they seriously consider doing so.

Yannick Ngakoue

It’s this simple: Two straight seasons of nine-plus sacks for two different teams. Ngakoue is a top-tier option who has flown under the radar a bit in discussions of the league’s great pass rushers, but he’ll command top dollar this offseason and would immediately lift Atlanta’s pass rush if they pony up for him.

Lorenzo Carter

What Carter brings to the table shouldn’t be undersold. He’s a durable, consistent player who had a knack for coming up with big plays for the Falcons

What he isn’t is an elite pass rusher, which means he can’t be the featured signing of the offseason for Atlanta. As a complementary piece who can soak up snaps and give you a well-rounded, consistent effort, he’s a strong fit who also managed to be an asset on special teams with very limited snaps. I have to think both sides will have interest in Carter returning, but he’d have a hard time getting as many snaps as he did in 2022 in what we hope is a more crowded and talented group.

Rotational options

Justin Houston

My personal, lonely battle continues. Houston is a player I’ve wanted in Atlanta forever, and even heading into his age 34 season, he’s an astonishingly productive player. Making just one start and appearing in 14 games for Baltimore this past season, he produced 9.5 sacks and has just one season below 8 sacks in the past six years. He played just over 40% of the defensive snaps last year and that’s about where he should sit in Atlanta, but with young talent on hand and Houston’s still-potent pass rushing ability, he’d be a great fit with the Falcons.

Brandon Graham

Another older pass rusher coming off a fantastic season, Graham racked up 10 sacks and had one of the best pressure rates in the NFL in the Eagles’ swarming defense. It might be hard to pry him away from Philadelphia, but if you could he has more than enough juice to be an effective piece of the rotation in 2023.

Charles Omenihu

Fresh off his age 25 season, Omenihu put up 4.5 sacks this past year as a rotational player. He’s bigger than a lot of guys on this list at 280, but he’s also a gifted pass rusher just finding his footing, as he’s ninth in the NFL with 29 quarterback hits and still young enough to turn intriguing production into consistent production. The 49ers have a habit of cycling through young projects, and if Omenihu becomes available, the Falcons would be wise to pounce on a defender who still has some room to grow.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

He started just under half the games in Houston this year, putting up five sacks along the way, but was a consistently effective pass rusher for a forgettable Texans team. His role grew as the season went on, putting up a quarterback hit and all five sacks in the final eight games of the season once he started pulling down over 50% of the snaps. Still reasonably young and a very capable, well-rounded player, Okoronkwo would be a welcome mid-tier addition to the group.

Morgan Fox

A very solid player with two six-plus sack seasons in the last three years, Fox is durable and can play inside and outside, depending on a coordinator’s whim and the front. That versatility could be extremely useful for this Falcons team.

Arden Key

Key has three starts and less than 40% of defensive snaps combined over his past two seasons, but he also has 11 sacks over that span. A quick, dangerous pass rusher, Key would be a strong addition as a reserve with the ability to make the most of his snaps, a mold breaker after most of Atlanta’s reserves in recent years have been more useful against the run.

  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Robert Quinn
  • Dante Fowler Jr. (I know, I know)
  • Anthony Nelson
  • Kerry Hyder
  • Kemoko Turay
  • Markus Golden

Reserves with upside

Almost everyone else on this list is a player who had a good year or two in the past, is aging past the point of being a high-end starter, or is a youngish player who hasn’t put it together yet. At the right price, one or two might be worth taking a flyer on, but with the Falcons having Ebiketie, Malone, and Ogundeji under contract, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly likely to.

  • Clelin Ferrell
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Tyquan Lewis
  • Trey Flowers

Who are you signing from this list, and/or who else do you have in mind?

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