The Falcons were projected to compete for the Super Bowl LIII title in the 2018 season, but injuries robbed the team of key players on defense.
The unit failed to meet expectations, in part, because of injuries to strong safety Keanu Neal (missed 15 games), linebacker Deion Jones (10 games), free safety Ricardo Allen (13 games), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (two games) and defensive end Takkarist McKinley (one game).
The reserves were not as talented, and the remaining starters did not step forward to pick up the slack.
The purge has started, as the Falcons moved on from starting right cornerback Robert Alford, nickel back Brian Poole and defensive end Brooks Reed. The team reportedly wants Poole back at a lower price, but he’ll likely get a substantially better offer on the open market.
Also, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was terminated at the end of the season.
Here's the sixth installment of our unit-by-unit review of the 2018 team. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the linebackers. Today, the defensive line.
Who: Ends – Vic Beasley, McKinley, Brooks Reed (released), Steven Means, Bruce Irvin and Derrick Shelby. Tackles – Grady Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat.
Contract/free agent situation: The team is working on a long-term deal for Jarrett, which projects to be worth between $76 million to $83 million over five years. Beasley is set to receive a $12.8 million fifth-year option or a re-worked extension. Irvin took less money to come home to play for the Falcons last season. Shelby and McClain are set to become free agents.
What they did in season: Beasley and McKinley played hard and tough football, but their production was not very high. Beasley finished with five sacks and McKinley led the team with seven.
At the NFL trade deadline in October, multiple teams called the Falcons looking to see if the franchise, which had agreed to Beasley’s fifth-year $12.8 million option, were interested in trading the former All-Pro defensive end.
The Falcons held on to Beasley, but want to see more of the big-play ability he flashed against the Ravens. After Jarrett forced a fumble, Beasley scooped up the ball, made a move to get around Ravens running back Kenny Dixon and stuck his hand out before going to the ground. He gathered his balance and went on to score from 74 yards out.
McKinley had 5.5 sacks through six games. After a seven-game drought, he recorded only 1.5 sacks over the final two games.
Jarrett played well, as he finished with six sacks and received a 91 grade from analytics site Pro Football Focus. He was the highest graded Falcons defensive player.
Also, Jarrett was ranked fourth in pass-rush win percentage (16.6) and sixth in pressure percentage (12.3) by PFF. He had 71 pass-rush wins and 53 total pressures.
Means made the most of his opportunity last season and was re-signed by the club.
Irvin added 3.5 sacks and played some linebacker.
The Falcons gave up 124.9 rushing yards per game, which ranked 25th of 32 in the NFL. They also gave up 23.2 first downs per game, which ranked 30th in the league.
Shelby battled through a groin injury for most of the season, before going on injured reserve. He played in seven games and made three starts. He had 10 tackles.
Snap counts: Jarrett (710 defensive snaps), Beasley (700), Crawford (623), McKinley (617), Reed (458), Senat (371), Irvin (220), Means (162), Shelby (135), Michael Bennett (39) and Justin Zimmer (nine).
Monday: Defensive line
Friday: Special teams
Tuesday: Running backs
Wednesday: Offensive line
Thursday: Wide receivers
Friday: Tight ends
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