Jarrett, Walker and Terrell are centerpieces of Falcons’ rebuilt defense

Falcons are set to replace 9 of 11 starters

FLOWERY BRANCH — On all three levels of the Falcons’ defense – up front, the middle and the back end – key players are counted on as centerpieces of the unit.

Defensive end Grady Jarrett must help lead the line to stop the run and harass the quarterback.

Inside linebacker Mykal Walker is the unit’s new signal-caller and will wear the helmet with the communication device.

Overall, the Falcons are set to change nine of 11 starters from the 2021 opening-game defense. Only Jarrett and Terrell started last season against the Eagles.

Jarrett, Walker and Terrell will be counted on to help pull things together as the Falcons have retooled at all levels.

“It doesn’t come together in one day,” Jarrett told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s going to take us to consistently build to get where we want to be, but we’re excited about it. We’re excited about what’s ahead for our defense. We’re in a good spot.”

Jarrett will anchor the 3-4 and the 4-2-5 nickel alignments that the Falcons will feature. Anthony Rush is the nose tackle, while Ta’Quon Graham will man the other defensive-end spot.

“It’s definitely tough in the trenches,” Jarrett said. “It’s been cool playing with these guys. We love getting after the quarterbacks.”

Graham is taking over for Tyeler Davison, last season’s starter, who no longer is with the team.

“The defense is coming together,” Jarrett said. “We’ve got a good group. I’m excited for Ta’Quon Graham. Playing next to him is going to be really, really helpful to me. ‘Big Rush’ is going to do a good job for us. It’s a good group. It’s a group of young hungry guys.”

Jarrett doesn’t take his leadership role lightly.

“That’s my job to try to push the guys to bring it every day,” Jarrett said.

The Falcons are replacing all four linebackers from last season’s opener. They moved on from outside linebackers Steven Means and Dante Fowler. Inside linebacker Foye Oluokun left in free agency, and Deion Jones (offseason shoulder surgery) will start the season on injured reserve.

Walker, a third-year player, will take over the signal-calling duties. Oluokun called the signals in 2021.

“It’s something that I’ve been doing since OTAs,” Walker said. “I’ve had a lot of time to practice it. I had enough time to mess it up. Had enough time to fix it.”

Walker, who was a fourth-round pick (119th overall) out of Fresno State in 2020, is confident that he’ll get the players on the right page.

“So, I mean, just constant communication,” Walker said. “You know, I think the whole team does a good job helping me out. So, it’s not that hard for me because I have those guys to back me up.”

Walker will team with Rashaan Evans (free-agent signee) at the two inside linebacker positions. Lorenzo Carter (free-agent signee) and Ade Ogundeji (2021 draft pick) will open as the outside linebackers.

“Tackling,” Walker said was the key for the defense. “Anyone playing on defense, your No. 1 objective is tackling. I think that’s the biggest thing for us. You tackle better, you’ll have a better defense. That’s simplified.”

As the signal-caller, Walker’s play also must command the respect of the unit.

“Just doing my 1/11, just doing my job,” Walker said. “Make them believe. Those guys have faith in me that I’m going to get my job done, and I have faith in them. So, for them to let me get the calls out and stuff like that, switch calls here and there, it just shows how they respect me.”

Terrell will play opposite of free-agent signee Casey Hayward. Dee Alford (free-agent signee) is slated to open at nickel back, while Jaylinn Hawkins (2020 draft pick) and Richie Grant (2021 draft pick) will be the new starters at safety.

“Just trying to change identity, trying to bring it like I always say with some swagger,” Terrell said. “Just trying to have fun, and everybody’s been looking good. Getting to the ball and making the right calls and just playing fast.”

The Falcons started Fabian Moreau at right cornerback, Isaiah Oliver at nickel, and Erik Harris and Duron Harmon at the safety spots to open the 2021 season.

Oliver will start this season on injured reserve, while Harris is a reserve. Moreau and Harmon were not retained.

The Falcons added veterans in safety Dean Marlowe and cornerback Mike Ford as free agents.

“We are a young group,” Terrell said. “We have some vets like Casey, Erik Harris and Dean. We have a young secondary. So, then you got the older guys coming in from different teams. So, it’s definitely been great for us just getting knowledge from the older guys. Also, with us being younger guys who are eager to learn, that just helps us play faster and bond.”

Terrell has a vision for the secondary’s identity.

“Just making plays,” Terrell said. “That’s what it all comes down to. When everything comes your way, just make plays on the ball. Always be around the ball. Just lead and have the next-play mentality.”

Much was made of defensive coordinator Dean Pees wanting to change the culture of the Falcons’ defense. Walker believes it will take the players to change the culture.

“Obviously, the coaches have their own thing, but you’re only going to go as far as your players go,” Walker said. “I think Dean does a really good job of getting us ready, but I think it’s about us. That’s something that we talked about as a team as well.

“So, it’s not just Dean preaching, ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that.’ It’s players who come over here and say like, ‘We got it. Enough is enough.’ You know what I’m saying. So, it helps out that’s what Dean wants, but a lot of it is on the players.”

The Bow Tie Chronicles