FLOWERY BRANCH — If the Falcons are going to move out of the NFC South basement and return to respectability in the NFL, some of the younger players on defense will need to play at high level in 2023.
The Falcons spent heavily in free agency to add veterans, but their success as a unit could turn on the play of key younger players. Safety Richie Grant, linebacker Troy Andersen and outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie are the clear candidates, as all were selected in the second round of the NFL draft. There are other candidates, too.
Grant, who was taken 40th overall in the 2021 draft, played on special teams as a rookie and started all 17 games last season.
Andersen was taken 48th overall in 2022. He played in all 17 games and made five starts last season as a rookie.
Ebiketie was selected 38th overall in 2021. He played in 16 games and made one start.
Grant, 25, played 275 defensive snaps (25%) as a rookie and then 1,117 (100%) last season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 122 and had two interceptions (tied for first), a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
His fourth-quarter interception sealed the 27-23 win over Seattle in Week 3 at Lumen Field last season.
Grant said everything is on the table as far as his growth.
“I feel like everything, and that’s not even a (expletive) answer,” Grant told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I just feel like you can always just improve. Every single day you need to find something to improve on.”
Grant played at Central Florida and had to find his way through former defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ defense. Former safety Duron Harmon would stay after practice to help Grant in his rookie season.
Grant plans to tackle the new multi-faceted scheme that’s being installed by new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen with the same vigor.
“Once your mindset changes from that, that’s when you’ll be on your way out of the league,” Grant said about continuing to work. “You’ve got to keep working on everything that you can.”
The Falcons signed safety Jessie Bates in free agency. Last season, Grant played next to Jaylinn Hawkins, who split time late in the season with Isaiah Oliver. Hawkins remains, but Oliver signed with the 49ers in free agency.
The Falcons drafted former Alabama safety DeMarcco Hellams in the seventh round this year. The also have Micah Abernathy, Lukas Denis, Jamal Peters and Clifford Chattman on the depth chart at safety.
Bates signed a four-year, $64 million deal with the Falcons. He was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2020. Grant is working well with Bates in the offseason.
“He came in and fit right in with us,” Grant said. “He didn’t have (any) choice. I was going to make sure of that. He came in, and we are all working together. We are grinding out here in this heat.”
Putting in the work in the offseason is part of the team-building and bonding experience.
“Get time to just kick it at the house with each other,” Grant said. “Learn each other. Really just trying to grow and build that bound as quickly as possible, but in a genuine way. I think we have been doing that.”
With all of the new additions – coaches and players – in the secondary, the vibe is said to be great.
“Just a bunch of competitive guys with no egos,” Grant said. “The egos will come once the lineup is set, but right now it’s about competing and growing. I think everybody has just got the same mindset.”
If they can make it work now in a less-stressful environment, then they may stick together when they face some adversity on the field in the regular season.
“Each day we are bonding together,” Grant said. “Chemistry is what matters. We are going to go out there and run the game plan that you want each week, but chemistry is what brings the energy, and that is what is going to fuel the whole team.”
Andersen, who’s 6-foot-4 and 239 pounds, showed his athletic ability last season. Rashaan Evans, the Falcons’ leading tackler last season, was not re-signed in free agency.
Andersen, who played at Montana State, has been soaking up the new system.
“It’s been great, obviously learning a new scheme,” Andersen said. “Everybody is in full learning mode. We get out here and implement some defense and get back to some real-ish football.”
Nielsen, who came from the Saints, is a first-time coordinator in the NFL.
“A great football mind,” Andersen said. “Trying to pick up and learn from him as much as we can. Great details, and he’s dialed in on what he’s asking us to do. He has answers to the questions that we ask of him.”
Andersen, who played multiple positions in college on defense and offense, had 62 tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble last season. He played 481 defensive snaps (43%) last season.
The Falcons signed linebackers Kaden Elliss and Tae Davis in free agency. They also have Mykal Walker, who started 12 games and played in 16 last season.
Dorian Etheridge, Andre Smith Jr., Nate Landman and Mike Jones Jr. also are on the 90-man roster.
“You know the people, you know the place a little bit more,” Andersen said. “Now, it’s real football. It’s been good so far, and it’s been fun to get on the field.”
Andersen took several lessons away from his rookie season.
“It’s the National Football League, and everybody is so talented,” Andersen said. “You’re not going to win every play. You have to understand that you’re not going to be perfect. It’s about trying to win as many as you can and continue to learn.”
Andersen senses that the changes on defenses will work.
“It’s been great so far,” Anderson said. “We’ve brought in some really good talent that we’re excited to have on our side of the ball. The offense side as well. The whole team is gelling really well, trying to get it going.”
Ebiketie flashed his pass-rushing ability before he was slowed by a forearm injury. He had 30 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. He also forced two fumbles.
It’s simple for Ebiketie: Turn some of those 11 hits into sacks.
“Definitely, I lost a lot of money on the field last year,” Ebiketie said of his 11 quarterback hits when he spoke after practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday. “Going back to watching last year’s film and seeing some of things I did well and some of the things I can improve on. My goal for Year 2 is to combine everything.”
Ebiketie has been working to add some weight over the offseason.
“It’s also a long season, making sure that I’m in top-tier shape so that I can last 17 games, the whole season,” he said. “The goal is to go all the way. That’s something I’m working on this season.”
If Grant, Andersen and Ebiketie can make major strides, the Falcons’ defense will be vastly improved in 2023.