Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett says he’s more motivated after signing his new four-year, $57 million deal. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Once a humble fifth-rounder, look at Falcons’ Jarrett now

But, really, Jarrett is living and working in a whole different neighborhood now. For he has moved on up to the gated community of defensive linemen, home to the swells, the elite, the gold-plated pass-rushers and run-stuffers. 

Only two other NFL interior linemen will earn more than Jarrett this season, after the Falcons signed him three weeks ago to a deal that averages $17 million per year — more than $42 million of it guaranteed. But neither of those other two began so modestly nor came so far as Jarrett. Not even close.

» Grady Jarrett: From ash to hellfire

The L.A. Rams’ Aaron Donald and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox were first-round draft choices, hand-picked for success. Jarrett was plucked four rounds later, 137th overall in 2015, down there close to penny stock territory.

A fifth-round guy strikes it rich, and he surely must bring to the signing a special satisfaction at having so massively outperformed expectation. Maybe throw a little amazement into the mix, too.

“It would be easy to be like that, but I always had an expectation of myself,” Jarrett said last week, having had a little time to digest his new place in the linemen’s food chain. He chooses to meet the moment in a far more low-key manner.

There was no big party after the signing. His mother, Elisha Jarrett, an optimistic sort, suggests that won’t happen until after the Super Bowl, when there will be plenty more to celebrate. What does she know that the rest of us don’t?

Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) applies a little token heat to quarterback Matt Ryan in preseason camp.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Nor has Jarrett gone on a spree of buying Faberge eggs by the dozen or Jaguars in bulk. “I had to talk him into getting himself a gift,” his mother said (one that’s currently under wraps). “There’s not a whole lot he desires.”

“Whether I was a first-round pick or an undrafted free agent, I’d be standing before you today,” Jarrett said. “It’s satisfying and gratifying, but I feel there’s so much more out there for me. This is just more fuel to the fire.”

So, what else is mom going to tell you about the effects of this windfall on her boy than this: “He’s very laid-back, calm. I don’t see money changing him. I’m there to help that process. He understands how important it is to build on your foundation and move forward.”

There are some big and emerging personalities on the Falcons’ defense (insert safety Ricardo Allen) and some big talents that belie physical size (see linebacker Deion Jones). But even from his beginnings, there was something about Jarrett that lent him an air of authority, more than you’d expect from a fifth-round guy just trying to make the team.

There was a sturdiness there. As he puts it, “When it gets hard, I want them to know they can always count on me. I always want to be that one they look to when there is some chaos going on, just stand steadfast and keep grinding.”

He thrust himself upon the community, becoming a star on that front even before establishing himself on the field. You got to know him for his spots for Grady Hospital (but for the record, Grady is not a Grady baby, he was born at Northside Hospital). As a rookie, he started an anti-bullying campaign – “He’s never been bullied, but he understands the effects of it,” says his mother. Last season, Jarrett was the Falcons’ nominee for NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given for community service.

“It’s something that’s near and dear to me, being a guy from Atlanta and blessed to play with the Falcons. I wanted to be able to serve in the community. That resonated with me,” Jarrett said.

Then, put Tom Brady on his back three times in a Super Bowl — twice in a 47-second span in the fourth quarter – and suddenly the on-field presence gains a whole lot more weight.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) in Super Bowl LI Feb. 5, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

Jarrett is not as numerically blessed as a Donald or a Cox. His 13 sacks the past three seasons, per Pro Football Reference, pale next to Donald’s 39.5 and Cox’s 22.5 over the same period. Donald’s knack for mayhem – 11 forced fumbles, 57 tackles for a loss, 99 quarterback hits the past three years – are unreachable by anyone, Jarrett included (three forced fumbles, 27 tackles for a loss, 38 quarterback hits).

But Jarrett, at his position, is called upon to do a lot of the less glamorous work, not involving the humbling of quarterbacks - his tackle total surpasses Donald’s and Cox’s. The Falcons lineman made his mark with his relentless chase of the football and his effectiveness on every down.   

The new contract gives a certain street cred to Jarrett. It places him in a different tax bracket of stardom in this league. It comes with an equal amount of increased expectation. And it certainly establishes him as the face of a defensive line that needs to assert itself more than the past two seasons.

Not that Jarrett bases anything on the bottom line of his game-week check.

“I feel the best is ahead for me, whether this contract got done here or not,” he said.

“Knowing myself that I am one of the best in the game is the most important thing to me. The last couple years that I’ve put in, I feel I’ve been at the top. I want to continue to do that. Now that I got paid for it, that doesn’t change my mindset to be the best for myself. I’m not here to prove anything to anybody. 

“Seeing through the smoke and mirrors is easy for me. I don’t get distracted from putting my best foot forward every day.”

Where does Jarrett go from here?

He has an even sturdier platform from which to do his work in the community. The message that he delivers to a young audience is as spelled out by his mother: “Believe in yourself. He has a saying. He doesn’t do what he does to prove people wrong. He does what he does to prove the people who believed in him right.” He has many million ways now to back up that view. 

Short-term, he’s got to help get this defensive front in shape. “We’ve got to improve, there’s no secret about it. I feel like we’ve got the guys and the pieces to do what we need to do,” Jarrett said.

Long-term, might there be a day, he’s asked, that he joins his biological father, linebacker Jessie Tuggle, in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor?

Of course, he said, “At the end of the day I do want to be one of the best to play this position, and in God’s time, we’ll see what happens.”

But there are far more immediate concerns. This is August. His contract is settled. There is only one imperative that matters now, as Jarrett sees it: 

“Stack up these days in training camp and when the season comes — dominate.”

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