It seems like the Falcons have needed to fix the pass rush for my entire life, but we stand here in March of 2015 with that need still glaring.
The team produced only 22 sacks and consistently anemic pressure in 2015, and the latter area is where they're most likely to improve with their new additions and a potential top draft pick. Thirteen of those 2014 sacks came from players like Kroy Biermann, Corey Peters and Osi Umenyiora, who are all gone and all seem unlikely to return.
In their places, the Falcons have the big, powerful Adrian Clayborn, a productive complementary rusher in O'Brien Schofield and Brooks Reed, who hasn't been a productive pass rusher since his rookie season. There's little question that Schofield and Clayborn will be more effective on a per-snap basis than someone like Biermann, but whether that'll be enough to give this defense more juice than last year is up for debate.
For this team to take a genuine step forward, as I've mentioned before, they'll need some of the players on the roster to step up. Malliciah Goodman is slimming down in hopes of being a somewhat productive option, and right now Prince Shembo and Stansly Maponga will be heavily involved because they're young and have glimmers of real talent, and I'm personally pretty bullish on Maponga. Jonathan Babineaux is good for real pressure, if not the sack totals I think many fans covet. There's always the possibility that Paul Worrilow can be useful, in the right situations. And so on. It really comes down to guys like Maponga and Shembo, plus the new additions that are here and are yet to come.
Right now, here's my guess at a starting front seven, and while the cupboard isn't bare, all we've got is a half a bag of flour and a small jar of thyme in there.
RDE- Stansly Maponga
DT- Jonathan Babineaux
DT- Tyson Jackson
LDE- Adrian Clayborn
WLB- Justin Durant
MLB- Paul Worrilow
SLB- Brooks Reed
Effectively scheming pressure and adding talent should be enough to make the Falcons somewhat less than one of the worst pass rushes in recent memory, but I'd temper your expectations for anything beyond that. With this group and the team's reserves, I could see closer to 28 sacks than 22. This Falcons team does not need to be rebuilt from the ground up, but the pass rush certainly does. It'll take more than just one offseason to nail this one down.
Those who say the Falcons don't have a #1 pass rusher, or even a #2, are certainly correct. What the Falcons have is a ragtag collection of young players with some promise, a couple of effective rotational pass rushers and (likely) a rookie with considerable promise. Whether that's enough to coax a halfway decent pass rush out of this team remains to be seen, but it should be more effective than it was a year ago. Progress is, of course, welcome.
How do you expect this to shake out?