2016 Draft Needs: Falcons To Add Defensive End Early or Not at All

Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsFalcons head coach Dan Quinn (left) congratulates Adrian Clayborn

The Atlanta Falcons will be looking to enhance their pass rush by adding a defensive end in the 2016 NFL Draft, but it remains to be seen if the right player becomes available.

There’s no doubt that the Falcons could use a lot more help improving a pass rush that finished last in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2015. The Falcons should be confident that Vic Beasley will be more productive in his second NFL season than he was in his first when he collected a team-high four sacks. But any additional help shouldn’t be turned away.

Providing the bulk of the pass rush across from Beasley is expected to be veteran Adrian Clayborn, who led the team in quarterback hits last year. Clayborn was able to showcase his skills on a one-year “prove-it” deal that led to a two-year extension this offseason. Clayborn is a capable pass-rusher, although he doesn’t quite spark fear in opposing teams.

If the Falcons can add such a pass-rusher in this year’s draft, they should and will likely jump at the chance. But if such a top-level pass-rusher is available, it’ll only come in the first few rounds of the draft.

The team already did enhance their pass rush somewhat this offseason by signing free agent Derrick Shelby from the Miami Dolphins. Shelby could supplant incumbent Tyson Jackson as the team’s primary option at left defensive end in the base defense. Then Shelby is expected to kick inside to play defensive tackle in the nickel sub-package, a role that Clayborn primarily filled last season. Shelby is a capable run-defender that brings a lot more as a pass-rusher than Jackson did last year.

Helping him out will also be fellow free-agent signee Courtney Upshaw, who played outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens the past four seasons. But Upshaw’s bulk (listed at 272 pounds) makes him less than ideal athletically to play linebacker for the Falcons, and instead his run-stuffing prowess will be used on base downs at the “LEO” defensive end position. He’ll essentially be replacing Kroy Biermann, who filled that role in 2015 after the team opted to reduce Beasley’s snaps on run downs as the season progressed.

Malliciah Goodman is also in the mix for a roster spot, although he’s likely slotted behind Shelby and Jackson at the strong-side defensive end. Goodman is a high-motor rotational piece that fits a similar niche as Shelby.

If the Falcons are going to try and upgrade this unit, it’ll take an early-round selection since a later-round pick is unlikely to offer substantially more than the current crew. Ideally the Falcons can find a player that combines the ability of Upshaw as a run-defender and Clayborn as a pass-rusher, strengthening the rotation.

However the Falcons could get by with their current primary three-man rotation of Beasley, Clayborn and Shelby at defensive end and between Upshaw, Jackson and Goodman, the team certainly has enough bodies to find a fourth end that specializes in run defense.

Simply put, the Falcons don’t need a defensive end to fill out their roster but instead they want a defensive end to enhance their roster. With a limited number of picks, if the right player doesn’t come along early, then adding pass-rushers will be put on the back-burner until after the draft.

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Aaron Freeman
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