FLOWERY BRANCH - The Falcons’ defense was gutted down the middle with injuries to defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (ankle, two games), middle linebacker Deion Jones (broken foot, 10 games), safety Keanu Neal (knee, 15 games) and free safety Ricardo Allen (Achilles, 13 games).
Also, reserve defensive end/tackle Derrick Shelby (groin, 11 games) ended up on injured reserve.
Heading into the regular season finale, the unit is ranked in the bottom-half of the league in every key category: Points allowed per game (26.1 points, tied 25), total yards (381. 3, 26th), rushing yards (127.1, 27th) and passing yards (254.1, 24th).
With a rash of late-season turnovers, the Falcons are a plus-one in turnover-differential, which is tied for 14th in the league and is in the top half of the league.
Despite the porous numbers, the unit has improved over the course of the season and should be just fine next season if all of the injured players return to good health.
Here’s a look at every player on the Falcons’ defensive roster, with beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter’s opinion on whether the player should stay or go. (Then scroll to bottom to cast your votes):
Vic Beasley: Stay
The Falcons announced in February that they were picking up Beasley’s fifth-year option. Team may want to work on a long-term deal to get his number salary cap number lower.
Bruce Irvin: Stay
Find some money to keep him.
Steven Means: Stay
He essentially can take over Shelby’s role in the defensive line rotation.
Derrick Shelby: Go
He hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Wonderful and awesome guy.
Terrell McClain: Go
Was a place-holder this season.
Deadrin Senat: Stay
Rookie showed some promise in the trenches.
Grady Jarrett: Stay
The team stated that he was a priority after the round of contract extensions were handed out last season. He’s had another fine season. His market value is $15.3 million per year, according to spotrac.com. “I’m going to let the business side take care of itself,” Jarrett said on Wednesday.
Jack Crawford: Stay
He came up with an interception and was solid against the run and rushing the passer.
Justin Zimmer: Go
He will be replaced by a draft pick or an undrafted player.
Takk McKinley: Stay
He got off to a fast start in the sack department then tapered off. He played with a lot of hustle and energy.
Brooks Reed: Go
Doesn’t get pushed around in the run game. Set the edge well against outside runs.
Foyesade Oluokun: Stay
The sixth-round pick from Yale had a successful rookie season. He played well at weakside linebacker and did a credible job with Deion Jones out for 10 games. Going into the final game, he’s second on the team with 82 tackles.
Duke Riley: Go
Lacked instincts and missed too many tackles.
Kemal Ishmael, linebacker. Go.
Improve the depth at the position.
Deion Jones: Stay
Came back from a broken foot and helped to solidify the unit. Sparked the win against Arizona with a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Bruce Carter: Go
Provided quality veteran depth in a tough season. Can play the run.
De’Vondre Campbell: Stay
With Deion Jones out, he was asked to do more. He tried to lead the unit through the dark times. He leads the team with 85 tackles heading into the regular season finale.
Ricardo Allen: Stay
Suffered a torn Achilles in the third game of the season. Team missed his communication skills.
Robert Alford: Go
The current regime has been trying to replace him since they arrived and drafted Jalen Collins in the second round. They want a bigger corner, who doesn’t commit as many penalties. Oliver appears to be heir apparent at right cornerback. Alford leads the team with 12 penalties.
Isaiah Oliver: Stay
The rookie cornerback showed that he has ball skills despite getting beat by Cincinnati’s A.J. Green for a win and by Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown for a rally-starting touchdown. He came back and played well. “It's not always the easiest position to play when you're playing corner and you're responsible for the deep third,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We challenge guys: Okay, you're responsible for the deep third and we want you to do it from the line of scrimmage. So for him to have the confidence to stay down there… we're encouraged about where he's heading.”
Blidi Wreh-Wilson: Go
He’s been a good veteran to keep around for insurance.
Desmond Trufant: Stay
He played well down the stretch after a bumpy patch, especially in the Cleveland game.
Brian Poole: Stay
He’s a tough football player. He’s a restricted free agent. Let him compete for his job against Damontae Kazee.
Justin Bethel: Stay
Special-teams mavens are hard to find.
Damontae Kazee: Stay
He has done a good job filling it at free safety for Allen, but his future is at covering slot receivers from the nickel position.
Ryan Neal: Go
The safety position will be crowded with the return of Neal and Allen.
Jordan Richards: Stay
After a bumpy start, he was a serviceable backup.
Sharrod Neasman: Stay
A solid special teamer with speed. Has done a respectable job in coverage this season.
Matt Bryant: Go
It’s time to get cheaper at the position.
Giorgio Tavecchio: Stay
He would be a cheaper option and showed his range when he made a 56-yard field goal against the Giants.
Matt Bosher: Stay
Has been steady on his kickoffs and punts. Also, will hit in coverage.
Josh Harris: Stay
Finished the season on injured reserve with a groin injury. Pinpoint snapper should return to good health.
Jon Condo, long snapper. Go
Josh Harris should return from injured reserve and was signed to a contract extension.
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