The Atlanta Falcons’ pass rush has been one of the more reliably inept aspects of their team for several years, but the hope is that things will start to turn around for the better this summer with several of the additions the team made this offseason at defensive end.
Chief among those additions is top 2015 draft selection Vic Beasley. He joins the Falcons with high expectations, as he will bear the brunt of carrying a pass rush that hasn’t finished ranked above 28th league-wide in sacks for three consecutive years.
While not a finished product as a pass-rusher, the Falcons are optimistic that Beasley will add much-needed speed and explosiveness off the edge this season. The Falcons will certainly find ways to work him into the rotation during the regular season, but how much will be determined by his performances this summer.
Based off the relative strength of his preseason play will determine if Beasley is used as an every-down player or just a situational guy. It’s very likely that the Falcons will feature Beasley heavily in their sub-packages as a defensive end in passing situations regardless of how his summer goes. In fact, most of the scrutiny may not center on his abilities as a pass-rusher but rather how he holds up against the run.
Despite expectations that Beasley will play the “LEO” defensive end spot in Dan Quinn’s new defensive scheme, the team has him listed as an outside linebacker on their official site. That suggests that the Falcons might not be firmly committed to where Beasley’s long-term future lies, whether that means playing with his hand in the dirt at defensive end or standing up at linebacker. What may wind up being the key determining factor to making that decision is how Beasley handles the run. If he gets pushed around as a defensive end, then he’ll likely wind up eventually at outside linebacker. If he manages to hold up at end despite a 246-pound frame, then the Falcons will have less reservations about deploying him along the defensive line.
The Falcons may not be prepared to make such a permanent decision based off this summer’s work alone, but it will still be a factor whenever they do decide about Beasley’s true position. While Beasley ultimately will earn his paycheck putting heat on opposing quarterbacks, how he performs against the run could have a bigger impact on how the first few months (possibly years) of his career go.
If Beasley winds up being limited to being a situational pass-rusher, then the Falcons will be looking for someone else to step up as the starter at the LEO spot to handle run downs. The most likely candidates are Kroy Biermann and Adrian Clayborn, who the team signed this offseason as a free agent. Biermann is probably the more natural fit among the two and historically has been the superior run-defender. Biermann struggled early throughout the 2014 season after missing most of the previous year with a torn Achilles tendon but his play improved in the second half of the season. Prior to his injury, he was one of the team’s more reliable run-defenders and would be a natural fit working in the Falcons’ base package before giving way to Beasley on passing downs.
Clayborn might also be in the mix at the LEO spot, but more than likely will see plenty of reps at the opposite end spot on the strong side. Clayborn has struggled with injuries in past years, having injured his right arm in the season-opener a year ago. He’s out to prove that he’s recovered from that injury and capable of enhancing the Falcons’ lackluster pass rush. Clayborn could be relegated to a rotational role given the fact that he’s never been a reliable run-defender. As noted before he’s also likely to receives reps in certain sub-packages as a defensive tackle, playing a similar role as to Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett as a versatile “inside-outside” player.
After Beasley, Biermann and Clayborn are the two likeliest candidates to stick on the roster. The rest of the group will be competing for jobs.
Tyson Jackson expects to rank next on the hierarchy of ends with the most secure positions, although he is anything but a lock to stick. Jackson was signed to a lucrative contract a year ago that included a clause guaranteeing two-thirds of his $2.25 million base salary in 2015. Because this clause was already executed in March, it’s unlikely the Falcons will dump Jackson this summer. But even still, Jackson will have to prove this summer that he is worth the payment.
The new coaching staff under Quinn likely won’t rely on Jackson as much as the previous one did, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t find a role for him. Jackson was asked to slim down this offseason, a task he hadn’t completed as of June, but he’s at least made an effort. Jackson can still give the team value as a run-defender in their base packages while manning the strong-side defensive end spot. There, the Falcons will hope he can give them some of what Red Bryant gave the Seahawks under Quinn as a player that can set the edge and free up linebackers to make stops.
Potentially pushing him for that role however could be Malliciah Goodman and/or Cliff Matthews. In both cases, neither player is on par with Jackson in terms of strength and power, but could potentially do a competent job as strong-side ends for a much cheaper price.
Unlike Jackson, Goodman has had a little more success slimming down this offseason with expectations that it will help him as an edge-rusher. Goodman has consistently displayed good strength and length in the past, but his awareness as a run-defender has been lacking at times. Matthews has normally made the most of his limited opportunities the past few years, and due to his high motor is capable of setting the edge in the run game.
The Falcons could opt to keep only one of them since both fill similar niches on the roster as both were regularly featured on special teams last season. Both will work to distinguish himself from the other in their bid to make the roster.
Another important battle in camp will be for the player that is most likely to line up opposite Beasley in sub-packages. By default the Falcons will likely employ either Biermann or Clayborn in that role on many downs. However, either Stansly Maponga and O’Brien Schofield could fight their way into that role with a good enough camp.
Maponga might be the odd man out, despite flashing ability in the second half of 2014 with limited opportunities. Schofield is expected to get work as a reserve outside linebacker, but is well-versed in Quinn’s scheme from their shared days in Seattle and is capable of playing the LEO spot in a pinch. Schofield’s versatility and ability to contribute on special teams should make him relatively safe when cuts occur.
Neither are candidates to become potential starters with players like Biermann, Beasley and Clayborn ahead of them on the depth chart. But if both can showcase their pass-rushing prowess to a high enough degree this summer, then the Falcons could look to find ways to get them on the field. That may come in the form of playing opposite Beasley on passing downs especially in those instances where Clayborn kicks inside to defensive tackle.
The last player in the mix at this position is undrafted rookie Sam Meredith. Meredith will play behind Matthews to try and stick as a strong-side defensive end. He’s a roster long shot, but if the coaches like his effort and he shows an ability to perform on special teams like Matthews and Goodman, then he could land on the practice squad.
The Falcons could wind up keeping as few as five of the aforementioned defensive ends on the roster, which will likely make the competition behind Beasley and Clayborn fairly intense this summer. That also means that there’s a chance that there could be a surprise cut or two at the end of camp with players like Biermann and Jackson peeking over their shoulder if other players among the rest of the competition play well. The team could wind up keeping six or more of ends, just because the level of competition breeds a multitude of strong performances this summer.
That certainly would be a problem that the Falcons would welcome given the dearth of quality pass-rushers they’ve fielded in recent seasons. The level of competition at defensive end this summer should certainly allow their pass rush to rise up.