The Atlanta Falcons haven't exactly made improving their pass rush an offseason priority. In fact, it hasn't really been a priority since they drafted Takk McKinley during the first round in 2017.
The lack of emphasis in addressing the pass rush showed on the stat sheet during the end of the Dan Quinn era. The Falcons were ranked in the bottom three in every meaningful defensive pressure statistic in 2019, including sacks.
They improved to middle of the pack in quarterback pressures last year, but the defense still had trouble getting to the signal caller. The Falcons had 29 sacks in 2020, which was only one more than they had in 2019.
With no cap space and draft capital going elsewhere, first-year general manager Terry Fontenot signed former 2013 first-round choice Barkevious Mingo to improve the pass rush. But Mingo didn't even make it to training camp, as the Falcons released the linebacker following his arrest and charge last week for a sex crime in Texas.
The good news for the Falcons is there are still pass rushers available on the free agent market. They should be affordable too since they remain jobless in the middle of July.
But who the Falcons should target first is an easy choice -- Justin Houston.
A graduate of Statesboro High School and former Georgia Bulldogs linebacker, Houston coming home to play for the Falcons wouldn't be just a feel-good story. Houston is still very good at what he's done best throughout his career -- sack the quarterback.
With the Indianapolis Colts the last two years, he recorded 19 sacks and 30 quarterback hits. In 2020, he had 8 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 8 tackles for loss to go with 25 tackles.
Houston was an All-Pro in 2014 and made the Pro Bowl four years in a row from 2012-15 with the Kansas City Chiefs. He led the NFL with 22 sacks during his All-Pro season. With 2.5 more sacks, he'll become the 36th player in NFL history to reach 100 sacks.
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Seeing that milestone reached in the same state where he grew up would be special. But Houston also fills a need. The Falcons didn't have a single player reach 5 sacks last year. Only one Falcons player (Vic Beasley in 2019) has recorded 8 sacks in a single season over the last three years.
Houston fills a huge need for Dean Pees' defense. Even at 32, he arguably fills that need better than Mingo would have. Houston has more sacks in his last 24 games than Mingo has in his entire eight-year career.
Houston won't be an every-down linebacker. Last year, he played in just under 59% of the defensive snaps for the Colts (Mingo lined up for about 36% of Chicago's defensive snaps last year).
But that's on par with the snap counts of Falcons defensive ends Steven Means and Dante Fowler from 2020. Grady Jarrett was the only Falcons defensive lineman who played in more than 60% of the team's defensive snaps last year.
Right now, Means and Fowler figure to again see 55-60% of the Falcons' snaps in 2021. Houston could start and allow Pees to use Fowler more situationally. Or Houston could be the pass-rushing specialist and come on the field for third down more fresh than he's ever been during his career.
In whatever capacity, providing an outside pass rush is the key for whomever the Falcons choose to replace Mingo with before the season. Jarrett supplies ample pressure from the middle.
Houston on the outside as well won't fix all of the Falcons' pass rushing problems, but he will be a very good stop gap until the long-term answer comes in the draft.