Mock draft season is in full swing. Veteran fans will know that these things tend to be cyclical, with several "players of the week" making rounds through NFL analysts' predictions as their names start popping up in reports or private workouts.
As far as the Falcons are concerned, the man garnering most attention in the post-combine lull is Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley. In addition to admitting he grew up a Falcons fan, the 6-foot-3 senior turned a lot of heads in Indianapolis this week after running 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, performing 35 bench reps, running a 6.91 3-cone and weighing in at 246 pounds -- 10 pounds heavier than what he was listed at in college.
That last number is important, as the biggest knocks on Beasley heading into the offseason were his lean build and his tendency to rely on speed over power as a pass rusher. In the relative vacuum that is the NFL Combine, he managed to allay some of those concerns. Add this to his sterling production as a college player -- 33.0 sacks, 52.5 TFLs and 13 QB hurries in three seasons -- and you have what's looking like a sure-fire top-15 pick in the draft.
In fact, NFL.com compares Beasley to outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, whom the Seahawks selected at No. 15 overall in 2012 (to much criticism from some "experts," it should be added). Though he certainly did fine as a rookie, when he recorded 8.0 sacks as a nickel package pass rusher, Irvin went on to thrive in his two years under Dan Quinn after he was moved to strongside outside linebacker (SAM).
Make me a SAMwich
Last season, Irvin played a bit of SAM and defensive end. But the key was that, in contrast to his rookie season, he was asked to do more in Quinn's defense, including dropping into coverage, blitzing as a stand up rusher and spying the quarterback. His speed in space made that possible. However, he still acted primarily as a pass rusher, doing so on 42 percent of his snaps last year while only sitting in coverage about 18 percent of the time.
The results were pretty good: Irvin recorded 6.5 sacks and earned a +7.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Back to Beasley, who like Irvin has been criticized for his size and ability to set the edge against the run. However, his pass rushing technique and quickness off the line of scrimmage are almost unparalleled as far as this draft class is concerned, which is why he'll go in the first round.
There's a lot to like about Beasley on film. He can rush standing up or in a 3-point. He's good at getting his hands up to attempt deflecting the pass. And he exhibits that "bend" coming around the edge you'll often hear scouts talk about. He's a little one-dimensional as far as technique goes, but he's far from alone in that category
What really intrigues me is when Clemson used Beasley in coverage. Even times when he was sent after the quarterback, he would have the awareness to look for a leaking running back or a crossing tight end if the pass rush wasn't initially successful. You can just tell the guy moves well in the open field, as he does at the 1:00 mark here:
He also exhibits this during Clemson's opener against Georgia. At the 6:23 mark, with Clemson in the nickel on third down, Beasley lines up as the SAM and does a fine job of covering the tight end.
Give the man his space
Now where things get a little more interesting is this tidbit included in Beasley's NFL.com scouting report:
"I know everyone will have him pegged as a 3-4 edge guy, but I think 4-3 defenses would be crazy not to consider him as a WILL or SAM who can bump down as an edge rusher in third downs. Denver does it with Von Miller, so why not consider it?" -- NFC East scout
Beasley's skill set has drawn comparisons to the Broncos' Miller, who as stated above functions much like a hybrid edge rusher who plays from a 3-point in sub packages despite lining up as a 4-3 SAM linebacker on early downs. This allows the Broncos to harness Miller's talent in space and avoid forcing him to set the edge as a down lineman in running situations. It's quite similar to Irvin's role.
New Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith, it should be noted, likely had some amount of input on this while serving as Denver's linebackers coach.
There's also the case for putting Beasley at WILL linebacker, which in Quinn's defense (see K.J. Wright in Seattle) is a quicker defender who can attack the A-gap and cover tight ends. There'd be nothing keeping the Falcons from possibly playing Beasley at the WILL on early downs and then blitzing him or moving him to defensive end in obvious passing situations.
Regardless, I believe the important thing with Beasley is the flexibility he can afford a coaching staff. You always want to have options.
Although teams need depth in the secondary now that "nickel is the new base" defense for many teams, having a three-down linebacker is arguably just as important, and it's why the value of two-down players like Curtis Lofton or Akeem Dent is steadily decreasing. Smith and John Fox clearly recognized that in Denver, as they were able to develop and employ some incredibly versatile, "new age" linebacking talents in Wesley Woodyard (undrafted), Danny Trevathan (6th-round pick) and Brandon Marshall (5th-round pick).
There's one caveat to this idea. If the Falcons fail to acquire any of the "second-tier" pass rushers they are reportedly set to pursue in free agency, then Beasley could be slated for the designated pass rusher role (LEO) in Quinn's defense almost out of necessity. However, that would still be a fine use of Beasley's talents since pass rushing is his primary strength, and this team desperately needs someone who can produce pressure.
Then there are my concerns about Beasley himself. He'll need to grow as a pass rusher, because right now he seems to over-rely on his quickness. He needs to get better at shedding blockers. And often times, he was targeted in the run game by teams that recognized he doesn't like opponents running directly at him (much like Jarvis Jones).
So if Quinn wants to maximize Beasley's athleticism and help mask some of his weaknesses as he did with Irvin in Seattle -- remember, stopping the run first was a vital part of Seattle's defensive success -- I agree with others that using Beasley as a SAM or WILL linebacker would allow him to fill a special role for this new coaching staff.
Like Irvin, he would be seen as something of a high-risk pick. But there's so much reward if he pans out, and it's been since the days of John Abraham that the Falcons have had a legitimate pass rusher like Beasley.