Falcons' Grady Jarrett motivated to return, lead

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Grady Jarrett made the drive up to the Atlanta Falcons facility in Flowery Branch from his home in metro Atlanta last Oct. 30. A day earlier, the team's star defensive tackle injured his right knee early in a game against the Tennessee Titans.

Immediately after the injury, Jarrett left the game. But he was able to flex the knee and he thought it might only be a sprain. That feeling didn't change after the game. And even when he woke up the next morning, there was some stiffness, but still optimism.

But when Jarrett got out of his car after a 45-minute drive for an MRI, the knee basically locked up. He knew something wasn't right.

"So, getting serious, getting a little serious," Jarrett said recently at Falcons minicamp. "So, I got get the MRI, man, and I mean, [I was] expecting to hear some bad news."

He did. Jarrett had torn his ACL and he'd be out of the rest of the season. Without him, a key defensive cog, the Falcons went 7-10 in 2023, another losing season. Atlanta has not had a winning season since 2017.

Jarrett, 31, is one of the few Falcons remaining from their winning days. He tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

Jarrett is going into his 10th season in the NFL, though he's not healthy yet. The Atlanta native missed all OTAs and said his goal is to be ready to practice at mostly full strength when training camp begins in late July. The last eight months have been trying ones, he said. Jarrett described the surgery and rehabilitation as a "challenge and an eye-opener."

During an emotional 23-minute conversation with the media, Jarrett recalled a moment right after surgery when he sat on the edge of the table with his legs hanging, and he was not able to bend his knee to move his lower right leg upward.

"Every day has just been another force of motivation to just keep pushing and pushing," Jarrett said. "And I'm just proud of myself, because through this whole thing, I didn't allow myself to sulk on what happened to me or to fall into like a depression or whatever it may be, because I know I had work to do every day."

Jarrett said he had difficult moments throughout the process, and he's not quite out of the woods yet. But part of him is almost grateful for having such an obstacle thrown in his way.

"I feel like I might've just needed that in that moment," Jarrett said. "I mean, after playing the game for so long, you could sometimes feel like you got things figured out. And it's just a reminder that nobody is invincible. Every day that you get to step on this field is a gift. And at any moment, it can go."

A lot has changed for the Falcons since he's been out, including the hiring of head coach Raheem Morris, who had previously been with the team as assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and interim head coach. Jarrett described Morris as "a great leader of men" and someone who connects with every player on the roster and everyone in the building.

"I'm just very grateful to have him here, and I believe that he's the right guy to get us where we want to be," Jarrett said. "And we want play championship football around here, but that don't just come. That comes with putting the work in, day in and day out."

Even without being able to be out there on the field, Jarrett has taken on a role of mentor with Atlanta in the past and he will again with the team drafting three defensive linemen -- Ruke Orhorhoro, Brandon Dorlus and Zion Logue.

"I'm excited for it, to be in a position of leadership, something that I don't take lightly," Jarrett said. "... I think they've got a lot of talent, a lot of skill."

But, of course, more than anything Jarrett wants to be back in pads and healthy, something he has not been since that Titans game last October.

"I think my best leadership style is by example," Jarrett said. "So, being back on the field and spending time with them on the field is gonna probably be the best way to try to lead them in the right direction."