FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Had the Falcons hung on to win Super Bowl LI, and had the Patriots not completed the most improbable comeback in Super Bowl history, who would have been named the game’s most valuable player?
More than likely it would have been QB Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP who posted a 144.1 passer rating in Atlanta’s loss to New England. But what about second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett? He tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks on Tom Brady, including two when the Pats were inside the red zone early in the fourth quarter, forcing a field goal.
Coming into Super Bowl LI, Jarrett had just four sacks in two seasons. The former fifth-round pick (one of the biggest steals of the 2015 draft, which we’ll revisit in a bit) never had a problem stopping the run at Clemson, but his pass-rushing skills needed work at the next level. Head coach Dan Quinn would start Jarrett but normally take him out during obvious passing downs—something which Jarrett understandably hated.
But some injuries on the interior of the Falcons’ line forced the coaches to use Jarrett on third downs more frequently. Now here he was in the biggest game of his life, tying the record jointly held by Reggie White, Darnell Dockett and Kony Ealy. That life-changing game has been a springboard for Jarrett, who started every game last season for the Falcons—he totaled a career-high four sacks and was the best in the league in getting behind the line of scrimmage.
“It sucks that we came out on the losing end of it because things could have been different. If you’re in your second year and you win Super Bowl MVP, it’s crazy,” says Jarrett during Falcons’ minicamp. “The following year I have a really good year, chosen for the Pro Bowl as an alternate and I led the league at tackles for loss [or no gain] at my position. My first three years in the league I was in position to be a Super Bowl MVP and also a Pro Bowler.
“I just want to keep coming to finally get over the hump and make things into ‘what is’ instead of ‘what ifs.’”
Jarrett’s success in the Super Bowl gave the defensive lineman the confidence he needed to know he can be a successful pass-rushing interior lineman in the league. And in 2017, he started all 16 games and stayed on the field. His 16 tackles for loss or no gain led all interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We had a sense that would happen with him because he has such quickness,” Quinn said. “Really good traits for a 300-pound guy that he can beat you to the punch. Get-off at an inside position is really one of the attributes that make him hard to block because he’s kind of coiled up, coiled up and then he’s ready to go.
“You saw those tackles for loss that he makes, which are disruptive, that’s also him being on the move. We had the sense that he had the traits to become that.”
Now that he has become what Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff thought he could be, the Falcons are faced with a decision. Because he fell to the fifth round, Jarrett signed a four-year rookie deal worth $2.527 million back in 2015, which means he’ll cost less than $2 million against the Falcons’ cap this season. Atlanta clearly wants to hold on to Jarrett, but the Falcons also have to pay left tackle Jake Matthews. The team also needs to ink safety Ricardo Allen to an extension after he just signed his second-round tender, and running back Tevin Coleman is in the last year of his rookie deal, too. On top of all those pressing needs, wide receiver Julio Jones wants a new deal that pays him like the top wideout he is.
The Falcons would love to lock up Jarrett before the start of the season. But if he plays out 2018 on his current deal—while continuing to show the same improvement he has each of his first three years—and waits to test the market, he’ll likely find that his number for 2019 and beyond is higher than what Atlanta would offer today.
“What you said is true, and that has to be taken into account as well,” Jarrett tells me when presented with that scenario, all while not giving any indication one way or the other that he’d accept an early offer to play out his deal. “But all my focus is on this field right now, because if I don’t perform on the field nothing else matters. I’m a guy who focuses on his work and I’ll let the rest take care of itself.”
He says he’s always bet on himself on the field, and off the field, here’s why you should bet on him.
During his rookie season, Jarrett knew he wanted to take up a cause away from football but hadn’t exactly identified what that’d be. He had always had a soft spot for victims of bullying, and in 2015 he noticed cyberbullying was getting more attention. He started a “Big Men Don’t Bully” campaign, and he encourages both victims of bullying and bystanders to speak up when they see something. Jarrett has even spoken to elected leaders at the Georgia state house about his anti-bullying efforts.
The Falcons have put together a “Protest to Progress” campaign within the past three months where 17 players, Quinn and owner Arthur Blank spent time with the Atlanta police, area youth and Habitat for Humanity to help the community through action. Jarrett specifically spent time with at-risk youth discussing their interactions with Atlanta police while those police officers were in the same room.
“I thought it was good for the group of people that we touched, and hopefully they take it to someone else and they take it to someone else,” Jarrett says. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight, but if you don’t take a step then there isn’t any progress ever made.”
Jarrett’s care for others is genuine—something I saw up close while talking with him. Early in our sitdown, two older gentlemen walked by Jarrett and tapped the defensive tackle on the shoulder. One of the men first asked if he was a rookie, then recognized him somewhat and called him “Garrett” before finally landing on Jarrett, the lineman from Clemson.
Jarrett learned from his mother that it doesn’t cost anything to give a stranger a piece of your time. He didn’t run these men off, didn’t give clipped answers, didn’t turn his back to them even as the more talkative man recalled his days as an official during the Danny Ford Clemson years and what exact day in July his grandson from Texas will be coming to training camp looking for autographs.
“You’ve had a great career with the Falcons,” the man told Jarrett, about two-and-a-half minutes into their chat.
“Thank you, sir,” Jarrett said. “It’s just the beginning.”