With the NFL draft and free agency looming, the Falcons roster is going to look completely different in 2021 than it did last year due to the league’s loss of revenue and Terry Fontenot’s first offseason as the team’s general manager. The most obvious positions Atlanta must address are safety, edge, and running back. Fontenot recently released veteran Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee are set to become free agents, leaving Jaylinn Hawkins as the only player at the position under contract. With Todd Gurley and Brian Hill also hitting free agency, Ito Smith and Quadree Ollison are the only rostered running backs. However, no position group is more bare for the Falcons than edge. Dante Fowler is currently playing on an overpaid contract. He’s the only starting caliber pass rusher rostered, and he could find himself traded or released this offseason.
In this series, we will address how Fontenot can overhaul each of these position groups, beginning with the edge.
Bowser and Okwara won’t headline any top ten free agent lists but could provide exceptional value for Terry Fontenot. Bowser offers a particular set of skills that is perfect for Dean Pees’ positionless defense. In his first two years with the Ravens, he played only 320 snaps, but according to PFF, he posted grades of 70.8 in 2019 and 68.3 in 2020. Each season, Bowser has played a little more and improved. His hybrid ability — rushing the passer 689 times and dropping into coverage 301 times in his career — is clearly something Pees values.
Okwara struggled through his first four years then took the league by storm this past season — to be exact, the last half of this past season. He could very well have figured something out; sometimes NFL players flip that switch and ascend rapidly. Okwara notched 61 total pressures at 25 years old, exactly the kind of player who could have his best football in front of him. And he may not necessarily be as high on the shortlist of some teams as other higher-profile edge rushers. Bowser and Okwara are both #2 pass rushers, but given the current financial situation, that could be what serves the Falcons the most value. Additionally, if both continue to ascend, these could be bargain deals.
Paye and Ojulari would have the opportunity to come in and compete with Bowser and Okwara for starting jobs without the added pressure of expectations to start. This scenario would likely entail Terry Fontenot trading down from the fourth overall pick and selecting Paye, then trading back into the end of the first round — if he doesn’t fall to the 36th pick — to grab Ojulari.
At 6’4″, 270 pounds, Paye has the highest ceiling of any defender in this class because of his athleticism. I like Paye in a 3-4, playing the 5-technique. This is similar to how the Packers use Rashan Gary. Though, they move him all along the line of scrimmage. In a traditional 3-4, Paye could play outside linebacker and thrive setting the edge against tight ends and fullbacks, but then Pees can kick him inside to rush the passer with Grady Jarrett in nickel and dime sub-packages. Pees would love to have someone like Paye who he could move from a 6-technique to a 5-technique, all the way to a 0-technique if needed, which he did as a Wolverine.
Ojulari is a perfect 3-4 outside linebacker. Any defense with hybrid even/odd front principles will have no problem using him as a valuable chess piece — a zone blitz-heavy outside linebacker. Physically, Ojulari would be a good fit with Atlanta in Dean Pees’ defense. He’s a versatile prospect that can rush outside the tight end, tackle, or guard in a three or two-point stance, but he also possesses the athleticism to periodically drop into coverage.
Without Dante Fowler, the Falcons EDGE depth chart 1-4 could be any combination of Kwity Paye, Azeez Ojulari, Tyus Bowser, and Romeo Okwara. That would completely overhaul the position, getting younger and cheaper, as the two free-agent signings will likely equal Fowler’s 2021 cap hit. Four less expensive versatile edge defenders, all with massive upside, could be the foundation for Terry Fentenot’s first offseason as Falcons general manager.