The biggest question surrounding the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive ends as they enter training camp will be exactly how the team can improve the league’s worst pass rush from a year ago.
The path to answering that question will stem from the team’s ability to figure out exactly how they want to use multiple ends this upcoming season.
Although Vic Beasley is expected to get significant looks at strong-side linebacker in the team’s base defense, he will still be the team’s primary pass-rusher in their nickel sub-package. Beasley flashed potential last year but was far from consistently effective. Expectations are high that Beasley will make a leap and improve upon his team-leading four sacks in 2015. The pressure will be on as he’ll be expected to do the bulk of the heavy lifting as the Falcons look to improve up on their team total of 19 sacks last year.
Adrian Clayborn is expected to join Beasley as a pass-rush specialist in the nickel. While spending most of last season lining up inside at defensive tackle in the nickel, Clayborn will be utilized more readily as a defensive end this year. He seemed to fare better as an end towards the end of 2015 and the Falcons are hopeful he can build off that in 2016
Infiltrating Clayborn’s role on the inside will be newcomer Derrick Shelby, who is expected to carve out a nice role as a dual threat both as an inside pass-rusher and outside run-defender, similar to how Michael Bennett was utilized by the Seattle Seahawks when Falcons head coach Dan Quinn coordinated that defense in 2013.
Shelby is the team’s most prominent free-agent addition on defense and will be equally expected alongside Beasley and Clayborn to significantly lift the Falcons pass rush. Shelby was solid as an injury replacement for Cameron Wake after his season-ending injury midway through 2015, producing four sacks and 19 pressures over the final eight games according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons are hoping that with 16 games as a full-time performer, he can essentially double that sort of production.
However one of the questions surrounding Shelby is exactly what his role will be in the base defense. Shelby was at home manning left defensive end for the Dolphins over the past four years. That prompted initial expectations upon his signing that he would provide a massive upgrade from the likes of Tyson Jackson at strong-side end in the Falcons’ base defense. However with reports that the team is planning on switching third-year defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman to end spot this year, it might mean that Shelby’s role will be decidedly different.
It could mean that the team envisions him playing the weak-side end or “LEO” spot in the team’s base defense, or even perhaps having an altogether absent role in the base defense similar to how Clayborn was used a year ago. That would be a questionable decision given how much more effective Shelby could be as an edge-rusher on run downs than Hageman.
After two years of playing mostly on the inside, the Falcons are experimenting with Hageman playing on the edge this summer. Although it remains to be seen if that experiment is yet finalized. Hageman still offers the versatility to kick inside on run downs, but how he fares at end will be something to watch this summer.
Hageman is an effective run defender that showcases exceptional power on occasion as a pass-rusher. The team is hopeful that the move outside will better unlock his untapped potential in both areas since he has yet to fully live up the lofty billing of being a second-round pick two years ago.
Despite this Hageman should not be in any serious danger of losing a hold on a roster spot. Instead much of the competition for roster spots at defensive end will involve which players beyond the quartet of Beasley, Clayborn, Shelby and Hageman can earn roles.
Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw will provide two particularly interesting cases this summer. Reed was the team’s highest-paid free-agent signing a year ago and the first major offseason foray of Quinn in remaking the Falcons defense. However after an injury-plagued and underwhelming first season in Atlanta, Reed is expected to get more looks at defensive end now that Beasley is slowly making the transition to linebacker.
Reed will essentially become a situational player, but which exact situations he finds himself in on the field remain to be seen. The most likely one appears to be replacing Kroy Biermann as the team’s “LEO” in the base defense, assuming Shelby doesn’t take over that role.
He’ll face competition from Upshaw, who is also converting from outside linebacker to more of a defensive end role. Upshaw is not a particularly effective pass-rusher since his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, steadily began to lose faith in him in that arena over the past four years. But his size and power make him an effective run-defender that could be a solid contributor on run downs.
Holding back both Reed and Upshaw might be their lack of extensive special-teams ability, as the two players that they are potentially replacing in Biermann and O’Brien Schofield were regulars on that unit. For Reed in particular, it would be a fairly large fall from grace by potentially make him one of the highest-paid reserves and special teams players in the NFL with a cap hit of $3.44 million in 2016. Upshaw’s 2016 cap hit of $1.4 million is a bit more manageable.
Yet if one or both don’t quite earn special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong’s trust on that unit, they might be on less firm footing than many might expect when it comes to making the 53-man roster.
However both should still stand a better chance of sticking than Malliciah Goodman, who has far less question marks when it comes to his ability to perform on special teams. Goodman’s issues instead stem from his subpar performances on defense.
Goodman did not take particularly well to Quinn’s scheme changes and spent all but two games on the team’s inactive list last season. Goodman’s value to the team stems from his ability to play either defensive end spot as well as inside. However with too many other simply better players, that versatility is negated due to his inability to see the field. He’ll need to take a significant leap both as a run-defender and pass-rusher this summer in order to earn a spot on the roster.
Also in the mix at defensive end will be recent signee Nordly Capi and undrafted rookie Brandon Williams. Capi should benefit from playing in a similar scheme in Jacksonville last summer and has some pass-rush potential. Williams is an athletic edge-rusher that could be groomed down the road for the same role Reed and Upshaw are expected to perform this year. Both players are unlikely to find themselves earning a place on the roster, but certainly are capable of competing for and landing a spot on the practice squad.
The Falcons could also potentially mix in linebackers Tyler Starr and Ivan McLennan at defensive end, particularly in their sub-packages in the latter segments of preseason games. Both were pass-rusher specialists in college that lack the ideal size to play end in the NFL, but if they can show the ability to beat third-string offensive tackles and pressure the quarterback, it will greatly help their chances of earning a spot on the roster and/or practice squad.
Overall the Falcons have many questions to answer entering training camp at the defensive end position. Exactly how much time will Beasley get at linebacker as well as the exact roles envisioned for Shelby, Hageman, Reed and Upshaw remain unclear at this point. By the end of camp, the Falcons hopefully should have all those issues sorted out.