The Atlanta Falcons have wrapped up their offseason minicamp and now we’re playing the waiting game until training camp kicks off on July 27.
It’s also a good time to reflect on the decisions and moves the Falcons have made this offseason, particularly when looking at the defensive side of the ball.
The Falcons have undergone a lot of changes in the middle of that unit, with the possibility of major turnover as the 2016 season kicks off.
Notably during minicamp the Falcons featured a lot of first-team reps for rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively.
It’s clear that the Falcons are looking to upgrade a linebacker corps that was among the league’s weakest a year ago with the rookies looking to replace Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant, respectively.
The Falcons already got rid of Durant at the outset of the offseason and signed veteran Sean Weatherspoon to potentially replace him. But Campbell has been getting enough first-team reps that it’s quite possible he could unseat the veteran as the starter on the weak side.
Questions Abound if Jones’ Tackling is Better Than Worrilow’s
On the other hand, Jones will be forced to go head-to-head with Worrilow during this summer. Worrilow was the team’s defensive captain each of the past two seasons and based off that fact alone, it would be a coup if Jones was able to unseat him to start the season.
While one cannot put everything in team captaincy, it is still meaningful. Captains are voted to their positions by their teammates and thus Worrilow was deemed by a majority of Falcons as the defensive leader heading into last season.
Yet now the Falcons coaches might be intervening and benching him for a rookie. But it makes sense given the struggles that Worrilow has had over the past few seasons despite whatever gritty, leadership qualities he may possess.
Missed tackles have been a major issue for Worrilow with premium site Pro Football Focus indicating that he’s missed 51 over the course of the past three seasons. So much of Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme relies on having a middle linebacker that can act as a fulcrum for the defense.
Given how much zone Quinn employs, it’s important that the linebackers especially are capable of making plays in the open field. That has clearly been problematic for the Falcons fourth-year middle linebacker since Worrilow’s arrival in Atlanta and the team is apparently hopeful that Jones will improve upon that.
Unfortunately, Jones is also not known for his tackling prowess. According to PFF, Jones had the fourth-worst tackling efficiency among the linebackers they graded last year throughout college football. My own breakdown of Jones considered tackling to be the biggest weakness of his game.
Jones definitely offers a significant upgrade in speed and range at the middle linebacker, but the ability to get to a spot quickly is negated if he cannot reliably make the play once he arrives.
It raises questions about how much of an upgrade (if any) Jones will be should he manage to win the starting middle linebacker job outright this summer.
It also raises questions over who will take on Worrilow’s leadership mantle if he finds himself on the bench at the outset of the season.
Falcons 2016 Defense Will Be Young Down the Middle
It all points to lingering questions about the Falcons defense, focusing on those positions that will line up in the middle of their defense. It’s possible that the Falcons will be extremely young at those spots.
While the outside players at defensive end and cornerback are known for making the majority of the flashy plays on defense with sacks and interceptions, it is the middle of a defense that forms its foundation.
The middle of a defense constitutes of the defensive tackles, linebackers and safeties. In the Falcons’ case at linebacker, we’re looking primarily at the middle and weak-side linebackers since the strong-side linebacker is often lined up on the outside and can function a lot more like a defensive end within Quinn’s scheme.
That represents six positions that form the backbone of the Falcons defense and five of those spots could potentially be filled with first or second-year players.
Grady Jarrett is expected to handle the nose tackle duties, taking over for veteran Paul Soliai there.
As mentioned earlier, there is the potential that the Falcons start both Jones and Campbell at linebacker.
There is far more certainty with who will start at safety, with Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal very likely to open the season as starters. Neal of course was the team’s top draft pick in the 2016 draft.
Allen is technically entering his third year in the league, but he spent almost the entirety of his 2014 rookie season on the Falcons’ practice squad, making last year essentially his rookie season.
Quinn indicated earlier this offseason that Allen will have to compete for his starting spot at free safety with Robenson Therezie, who is entering his second NFL season. Even if Therezie manages to unseat Allen (which is unlikely if you ask me), he too is young.
Jones and Neal will be 21 years old when the Falcons kick off the 2016 regular season on September 11. Jarrett and Campbell will be 23, while Allen will be 24.
Also we cannot forget second-year nose tackle Joey Mbu, who is also 23 and likely will spell Jarrett as a reserve at nose tackle.
That Falcons are putting a lot on the plate of inexperienced players heading into this upcoming season and it remains to be seen if it works out in their favor.
Can Falcons Defense Continue to Show Growth Despite Youth?
The team made significant gains last year on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s possible that with so much youth, they might take a step back.
The Falcons improved in nearly all defensive categories from 2014 to 2015, as the team had one of the league’s worst defenses in the former year. The following table shows some of the differences in some key defensive categories:
Falcons Defensive Rankings 2014-15
|Yards Per Play||32||25|
|Passing Yards Allowed||32||18|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||21||14|
|Defensive Passer Rating||15||12|
|Pct. Of Drives Ending in Score||30||16|
|Red Zone Conversion Pct.||21||26|
|Third Down Conversion Pct.||32||26|
Now there are still key areas where the Falcons need to continue to improve, such as pressuring opposing quarterbacks, getting off the field on third downs and creating stops in the red zone. But the team was for the most part an average and competent defense based off several metrics last season.
Obviously such improvements can be attributed to the additions made to the team a year ago as well as the transition to Quinn’s less-complicated scheme in comparison to that of former Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
But if the Falcons are going to be so reliant on youth in 2016, does that increase the possibility that they continue to show growth?
After all, it’s not just the middle of the defense that will feature a bevy of young players, but also on the outside where defensive end Vic Beasley as well as cornerbacks Akeem King and Jalen Collins are also all entering their second NFL seasons. All three are expected to make significant contribution and will be 24 years old or younger when the 2016 season starts.
Beasley will be receiving reps at both defensive end and strong-side linebacker after a rookie season in which he collected a team-leading four sacks mostly at end. Expectations are that Beasley will make due on the goal he set last year to break double digits in sacks.
King and Collins are right now the team’s top two candidates to handle nickel cornerback duties in 2016. Collins is facing a four-game suspension to start the year, but the team has been giving King a ton of reps in his stead thus far this offseason to try and get him ready to hold the fort until Collins returns.
Of course the team isn’t without veterans at several spots throughout the defense. The aforementioned Worrilow and Weatherspoon provide experience at linebacker along with Philip Wheeler, who has been receiving the bulk of the starting reps at strong-side linebacker through the offseason.
Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw could join Beasley as hybrid linebacker-ends this season. Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux and Derrick Shelby are all prime candidates poised to bracket Beasley as part of the team’s pass-rushing front in the nickel sub-package.
Tyson Jackson is making the move to defensive tackle from defensive end, swapping spots with 25-year old Ra’Shede Hageman. Perhaps one of the reasons for the mysterious decision to retain Jackson on the roster was the hope that he and Babineaux’s veteran presences could help aid the likes of Jarrett and Mbu in the middle of the defensive line.
Starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will be 26 and 27 when the season begins, marking them “old men” relative to others on the defense despite only having three years of NFL experience.
But it does seem like the team is expecting several of those veterans to take a back seat to many of the younger players this year.
Falcons’ Defensive Youth Movement Due to Rebuilding Process
Of course the decision to go younger makes more sense when considering that the Falcons are rebuilding their defense from the ground up. Since his arrival Quinn has re-invested in the defense, which the team did little of in the four years prior.
From 2011 through 2014, five of the team’s nine draft picks (55 percent) in the first three rounds were used on defensive players.
From 2008 through 2010, eight of their 11 draft picks (72 percent) were defensive players. Since Quinn took over a year ago, the Falcons have used four of six picks (67 percent) on that same side of the ball.
One cannot overlook the fact that the Falcons also traded a bunch of early-round picks during that middle period which included first (2012), second (2011) and third-rounders (2013) as part of trade-ups to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones and Trufant.
That means the Falcons could have potentially had a dozen picks over that four-year span beginning in 2011 without those trades. Had they used at least two-thirds of them on defensive players as they did the past two years, that would equal a total of eight players. Thus the team could have potentially added three more defensive starters during that span.
Which of course brings me to the next point about how unsuccessful the team was in picking players from 2011 to 2014.
Beginning in 2008, during the first three years under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons were able to use early-round picks on starting linebackers Curtis Lofton and Weatherspoon, safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore as well as defensive tackle Corey Peters. All except Lofton were starters and key contributors on their 2012 NFC Championship team.
But starting in 2011, the Falcons weren’t able to capitalize quite as much on adding defensive contributors. While both Trufant and Alford were drafted during that four-year span, their success is counterbalanced by the futility of linebacker Akeem Dent and safety Dezmen Southward, two players that were ostensibly drafted to replace Lofton and DeCoud. Both players are currently reserves on other NFL teams.
Hageman is still contributing to the Falcons defense today, albeit as a role player. That is not quite the return on investment one seeks in a second-round pick.
Now the hope is that the investments the Falcons have made over the past two years in the early rounds of the draft will pay off in the future and help rebuild a unit that has mired near the bottom of the league in recent history.
In fact Quinn’s resurgence in 2015 is essentially restoring the Falcons defense to levels that were last seen back in 2010 and 2011, evidenced in the following table:
Falcons Defensive Rankings 2008-15
|Yards Per Play||24||25||27||18||29||29||32||25|
|Passing Yards Allowed||21||28||22||20||23||21||32||18|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||25||10||10||6||21||31||21||14|
|Defensive Passer Rating||18||22||14||14||5||31||15||12|
|Pct. Of Drives Ending in Score||13||17||5||14||13||32||30||16|
|Red Zone Conversion Pct.||15||15||21||8||7||21||21||26|
|Third Down Conversion Pct.||14||32||24||30||26||32||32||26|
Few would have described those previous years’ defenses to be stalwart or among the best in the league, but they certainly were good enough to compete with and help supplement what were some of the better offenses in the league during those years.
One cannot disregard the clear correlation where the Falcons were able to quickly build up a competent defense thanks in large part due to draft successes with adding young talent. That is juxtaposed with the decline the team began to show especially by the time 2013 hit thanks to the lessening returns on defensive players added in those years.
It’s true that Smith and Dimitroff inherited players like Babineaux, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and Stephen Nicholas from previous regimes, but they were able to build on top of that in subsequent years.
Several of the starters that the team had in 2008 were quickly replaced including linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerbacks Chris Houston and Domonique Foxworth and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman. Younger players added via the draft over the ensuing years built up those 2010-12 defensive units that helped propel the Falcons to win 75 percent of their games over that three-year span, tied for the league’s second-highest winning percentage.
Quinn hopes to do the same by replacing holdovers like Soliai, Worrilow and Moore already with Jarrett, Jones and Neal, respectively. As I’ve written before, Alford is hitting free agency next year and unlikely to be retained, freeing up an opportunity for Collins to replace him as well.
Whether Quinn proves successful rebuilding the Falcons defense will depend heavily on whether or not several of these young players prove to be as effective in the starting lineup as the predecessors like Lofton, DeCoud, Peters, etc. were before.
That 2010 Falcons defense also featured a number of young players in the middle of their defense with Lofton, Peters, DeCoud and Moore all being starters with less than three years of experience entering that season. It’s likely that had he remained healthy, a rookie Weatherspoon would have unseated Mike Peterson as the starting weak-side linebacker by year’s end.
That 2010 unit finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed, points allowed, takeaways, rushing yards allowed and defensive passer rating. All five areas showed improvement from the previous years’ rankings in those same categories. So it’s not without precedent that a relatively youthful Falcons defense can continue to show progress.
Quinn and his coaching staff hope that the latest infusion of youth will also serve as the foundation for a defense that can potentially climb higher in future years than those that preceded it.