For Falcons, investing in fan favorite Grady Jarrett an easy call: ‘We love Grady’

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Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot put his team’s rebuild into stark perspective this weekend.

“It’s one bite at a time that you eat that elephant,” Fontenot said.

That’s a reference to a quote from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the best approach to daunting tasks, which is what the Falcons face as they try to reshape the roster into a contending team. The Falcons took another bite on Monday, signing veteran defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to a contract extension.

On the heels of a draft that was generally well-reviewed, it was another step forward for an organization that doesn’t have a long track record of positive momentum.

From a public relations perspective, it was the rare easy call for the team. Falcons fans couldn’t even fully get behind now-traded quarterback Matt Ryan, who was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history and could end up in the Hall of Fame, but Jarrett seems to unite the masses.

He is an unblemished success story for the team, a Georgia native drafted in the fifth round who blossomed into a league standout. He is active in community philanthropy and hasn’t made any missteps in a seven-year professional career, which is no easy feat for anyone in the public arena.

From a financial perspective, Jarrett’s new deal provides salary-cap flexibility. Before it, he was under contract through this season and would have had a cap hit of more than $23 million. Under the new deal, he is under contract through the end of 2025 with a cap hit of $12.9 million this year, $20.6 million in 2023 and $20.4 million in 2024 and 2025, according to Over The Cap.

The salary-cap relief this season will allow the Falcons to sign their recently drafted rookie class and have around $5 million of additional space this year should they need to make another move. The increased cap hit in the following years will be mitigated by all dead money that comes off the books after the 2022 season.

The most important financial part of the deal may be this — if Jarrett is cut after the 2023 season, it will result in a dead cap hit of $8.2 million, and if he is cut following the 2024 season, it would only cost Atlanta $4.1 million in dead money space. Both of those numbers could be easily absorbed, meaning the Falcons are truly committed to Jarrett for only the next two seasons.

From a football perspective, the impact of Jarrett’s re-signing is harder to quantify. His production in the first year in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ system was statistically among the worst in his career. His pass rush pressure rate dipped to 6.5 percent, and he had only one sack (to go along with 59 tackles). It’s important to remember, though, that Pees asked Jarrett and the team’s other defensive linemen to do something different than they were asked to do in Dan Quinn’s defense. In oversimplified terms: Quinn wanted penetration from his defensive front, and Pees wants his linemen to build an unmoving wall.

Jarrett, who averaged 4.3 sacks per season in his first six years with the team, also was hamstrung by a lack of help up front.

“It’s kind of inherent to his position,” Pees said. “If you play in there and you are good, they are going to double-team you. The thing you have to be able to do is put somebody next to them that they also have to worry about.”

The Falcons didn’t draft anybody who fits that bill. In fact, they didn’t draft any down linemen on defense. That means 2021 fifth-round pick Ta’Quon Graham and 2020 second-round pick Marlon Davidson will have to take major steps forward if Jarrett is going to get help along the front.

Pees thinks the addition of outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter (free agency), Arnold Ebiketie (second-round draft pick) and DeAngelo Malone (third-round draft pick) will help.

“We need to develop pass rushers, and that’ll help Jarrett, so that all the stress isn’t put on him,” Pees said.

Jarrett’s football impact goes beyond his stat line. Pees, Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith all have heaped praise on Jarrett and the impact he has on his teammates. For a team in the midst of a rebuild — especially a team led by a general manager and head coach who use the words “ethos” and “culture” and “makeup” repeatedly — Jarrett’s professionalism takes on added importance.

“We love Grady,” Fontenot said over the weekend before Jarrett’s new deal was announced.

The Falcons love Jarrett so much that they want him to stick around for the start of their elephant-sized turnaround.

(Photo: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)