The magic number is "18.''
While that's the legal age to smoke, vote and be tried as an adult, that number means a bit more to the Atlanta Falcons entering 2022.
Atlanta registered a league-low 18 sacks in 2021 under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees. That wasn't the only problem defensively, but it was perhaps the biggest blunder under the longtime defensive mind's first season with the organization.
Most of the players from last season's downfall are no longer on the roster. Dante Fowler Jr., the team's leader in sacks with 4.5, is now with the Dallas Cowboys. Jacob Tuioti Mariner is with the Carolina Panthers while leading tackler Foyesade Oluokun is now in Jacksonville as the Jaguars' starting middle linebacker.
With all that in mind, who will lead Atlanta in sacks come 2022? There's logically only three options entering training camp.
Lorenzo Carter will be the favorite due to his veteran status. A former third-round pick out of Georgia, Carter returned to the Peach State after a four-year stint with the New York Giants. During his time in New York, the Giants primarily ran a 3-4 defensive look where Carter would blitz from the two-point stance.
Carter is coming off a career season in which he tallied five sacks to go along with 50 tackles. The problem there is Atlanta recently parted ways with its leading sack artist who only managed to record 4.5 sacks a season ago. Those numbers are more so dedicated to a low-tier No. 2 or depth player.
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Arnold Ebiketie, the team's second-round pick, might have the most upside long-term. A two-year starter at first Temple and later Penn State, Ebiketie tallied 15.5 career sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss.
The transition from Temple to Penn State was natural for Ebiketie in terms of production. Will the same transition happen at the next level?
The dark horse should be third-rounder DeAngelo Malone. Coming from Western Kentucky, the two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year was one of the more violent Group of 5 pass-rushers in the nation.
Malone leaves the Hilltoppers as their all-time leader in sacks (32.5) and tackles for loss (59). He's a natural 3-4 blitzer who often would rely on speed and agility to bully his way into the backfield. Malone was also known for his flexibility and bend working the edge to win one-on-one matchups against offensive tackles.
Carter likely sees the most action early, giving him an advantage over the two rookies to win the title. Any regression should allow both Ebiketie and Malone to force their way into reps with the first-team. Malone likely in Year 1 is used as a situational pass-rusher, which could hurt his overall production due to the snap count.
The safest bet likely is Ebiketie, who consistently showed coaches in OTAs he's more than capable of working with the starters. This isn't to say there won't be bumps in the road, but the knowledge of rushing from a two-point stance against Big Ten tackles likely gives him the edge over Malone.
Atlanta still is ways away from being a top team in terms of pass rush, but if Carter, Ebiketie or Malone could double Fowler's production — say 7-8.5 sacks — it's a starting point.