Few teams or units in sports have underachieved as much as the Falcons defensive line has for the past fifteen years. Despite being arguably the most critical positional group in football (outside of QB), it has rarely been a priority in Atlanta during the draft or free agency. And when they do spend first-round picks on their defensive line, they often underachieve.
Last year, the Falcons finished 22nd in the league in sacks with 37, marking the 14th consecutive season they have finished outside of the top-ten in sacks. They also ranked 25th against the run, allowing 4.9 yards per attempt. Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn did not seem too worried about it in the offseason either. Instead of bolstering the pass rush, they cashed in their first three draft picks on two offensive lineman – Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary – and spent most of their free agency budget on two more offensive guards – Jamon Brown and James Carpenter.
There are not many signs towards the Falcons defensive line taking steps forwards, but there are some things that could attribute to a jump in production. The Falcons don’t need all of these to pan out, but each one will make this group marginally better than they were a year ago.
Bargain Bin Additions
As I said above, the Falcons spent most of their draft picks and money on the offensive line. It is challenging to fault Thomas Dimitroff for that after how many times Matt Ryan was hit last season. The potential for the offense is through the roof if Ryan has the proper protection, but one would think they would have put a little more emphasis on the defensive line – instead of shopping exclusively in the bargain bin.
Tyler Davison was the first addition of the offseason. He was a starter on the hated Saints for the last three seasons after being drafted by them in the fifth round. The 310-pound defensive tackle should help the Falcons run defense out exponentially next to Grady Jarrett. Keep in mind; New Orleans was second in all of football in rushing defense behind only the Chicago Bears. Pro Football Focus gave Davison a respectable 65.3 grade, and all signs out of Falcons training camp are that he has come as advertised. Expect him to start next to Grady Jarrett and plug holes in the run game.
Adding to their defensive-end group, the Falcons brought back a familiar face – Adrian Clayborn. At 31, he isn’t going to be an every-down player, but he remains a pressure specialist off the edge. Ignore the sack numbers; they do not do Clayborn justice. He only had 2.5 of them for the Patriots in a rotational role but was a constant nuisance for quarterbacks, racking up 13 hits. Over the last four seasons, Clayborn has 60 QB hits and 19.5 sacks. The Falcons, intelligently, brought him back with open arms.
John Cominsky was the Falcons fourth-round pick in the draft. He has shown out so far in training camp and the first preseason game, but don’t get too excited – it’s only preseason. Until Cominsky shows up on Sundays during the regular season, we won’t know what we have in him. However, if he can add anything in a reserve role, this will be a rather deep group.
Allen Bailey looks like a man in a man’s league, standing at 6’3″, 290 pounds of solid muscle. He came over from a 3-4 where he was a defensive end. I expect to see some 3-4 looks from the Falcons this year, and Bailey will also spend some time at defensive tackle next to Grady Jarrett. With Bailey and Davison around, Atlanta’s run defense looks much better than it did a year ago.
Breakout First-Round Picks
Falcons fans know all too well about their first-round selections underachieving. Vic Beasley Jr. gave us fool’s gold with one All-Pro season, followed by two abysmal ones. Takk McKinley has shown plenty of promise but has not yet put it all together and taken the next step. If one of these guys can provide a double-digit sack season, the Falcons will be in business. If they both do it; it will be a scary sight for opponents.
I’m not so confident in Vic. I feel like he has shown us what he is over the last four seasons – a one-trick pony with an atrocious poker face. Takk, on the other hand, has the makings of a player that could become an elite pass rusher.
McKinley had six sacks as a rookie (plus two more in the playoffs) and seven sacks last year. It wasn’t much of a jump, but he did finish second in all of football in pressure rate behind Jerry Hughes and ahead of Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Donald. I believe this is the year he figures out how to turn more of those pressures into sacks and eclipses ten for the first time in his career.
A New Defensive Scheme
Dan Quinn is taking the reigns of the defense after a substantial step back last year. We don’t know what exactly is going to be different, but I’m counting on several new looks. The Falcons brought in a ton of personnel that signals a shift to a 3-4 defense. They have also shown it several times in training camp. It will probably be a mix of both – orchestrated by one of the best defensive minds in the game. Dan Quinn made his bacon as a defensive line coach. It will be a player-friendly system that allows the big guys to make the most of their strengths.