Let's get this out of the way up front: There isn't a truly impactful pass rushing threat on the roster right now. If everything breaks right, Ra'Shede Hageman could be a monster, but he's not ideally suited for that role. Everyone else up front is, according to everything we've seen up to this point, a complementary guy.
To actually put a competent defense on the field in 2015, the Falcons are going to need those complementary players to step up, even if they manage to land multiple options through free agency and the draft. Even when John Abraham was on the field in the Georgia Dome and wreaking havoc, the Falcons were hard-pressed to put a truly good pass rush on the field, and it was because their complementary pieces so frequently fell short.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at some of the team's options for 2015 and how likely they are to be impactful. Do not expect me to give you great news.
Prince Shembo: The team has hinted that they plan to try Shembo out as their Leo, a stand-up pass rusher who typically lines up wide and has a pretty clear path off the edge to the quarterback. His sack totals and impact as a pass rusher likely depends on whether he can win that gig, so I'm placing him on top of the list only because he'll belong there as the Leo.
If Shembo does seize that role, it's not unreasonable to expect him to put up 4-plus sacks, and if he's got more natural talent than his 2014 season indicates, he could exceed that handily. I'm not sold on Shembo seizing a starting job in this defense, though, so let's assume he's a part-time player and manages 2-3 sacks in revolving roles.
Stansly Maponga: In some ways, the best bet on the roster. Maponga was a useful pass rusher at TCU, he's still just 24 years old and he's shown pretty well in his extremely limited snaps up to this point. Maponga has never had ideal size or speed, but he's savvy and has a good first step, meaning he can give slower linemen fits if he's able to fight his way around them.
I don't think expecting Maponga to put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 sacks with more playing time is unreasonable, and I think it's entirely possible he slots in as the team's fourth end, giving him an opportunity to make a mark. He'll need to prove he can stop the run to earn real playing time, but as a situational guy he'll have his uses.
Ra'Shede Hageman: This may surprise you, but I love Ra'Shede Hageman's potential. I feel he could legitimately be that 6-8 sack player on the interior, a disruptive force whose size and strength makes him about as appealing an opponent as a freshly castrated grizzly bear.
For all that, I don't think his breakout year comes in 2015. He should continue to be a legitimately useful run stopper and he'll be able to slice his way into the backfield via strength alone, but he may need another year to develop his pass rushing toolkit further. You can't keep a guy with this much talent on the bench, however, and Hageman should play enough snaps to get in the neighborhood of 2-4 sacks. If everything clicks he could do much more, but let's be conservative with this projection.
Malliciah Goodman: This is a player with ideal length, strength and plenty of power. He lacks ideal explosion when the ball is snapped, certainly, and he's shown himself to be more capable against the run in his short career. For all that, I still believe Goodman can be an asset when the Falcons are trying to utterly annihilate the quarterback, and thus far it just hasn't materialized.
I'm going to hope there will be more opportunities and further growth for Goodman under Quinn, but for now, pencil him in for 1-2 sacks in 2015. Those would be the first ones of his career thus far, and Goodman will likely head into the year under real pressure to produce.
Jonathan Babineaux: The stalwart defensive tackle is now the team's longest-tenured player, and every year he still brings it. Babs is traditionally one of the team's most effective pass rushers on a per snap basis, and you can count on him for a couple of sacks and a lot of pressure again in 2015.
Babs has never had the sack totals, but he makes life easier for everyone else around him and is a legitimately disruptive force when he's healthy and allowed to go at the middle of the other team's line. If the Falcons are going to have success off the edge this year, having Babineaux wreaking his particular blend of havoc will be key.
Tyson Jackson: Jackson has to survive cuts first, but he may fare better in Quinn's scheme. Even so, his career up to this point suggests he's a good-to-great run stopping defensive tackle who is at best occasionally useful as a pass rusher. He'll likely top out at a couple of sacks and a couple more pressures.
Paul Soliai: He might get one along the way, but Soliai was born to clog the middle on the first two downs. He should be a more effective run stopper for Quinn and Richard Smith's defense, but I'm not counting on him to contribute to the pass rush in any way.
Paul Worrilow: There's little question that Paul Worrilow is headed for a reduced role. He played nearly all of the defensive snaps last year, showing up as a quality player against the run, a decent enough pass rusher and an active liability in coverage. Dan Quinn is going to look to get him off the field on third downs, for the most part, and take away those coverage responsibilities.
Worrilow can be an asset as a pass rusher. He doesn't fight through trash particularly well at the line, but he's fast and strong and has a nose for the quarterback that shows up especially well when blockers are otherwise occupied up front. Getting him involved more this year as a pure pass rusher could lead to 3-4 sacks, but he'll likely stumble across a couple no matter what his role is.
Marquis Spruill/Joplo Bartu: I'm not sure both of these guys make the final roster, and they're more likely to be special teamers than major defensive contributors. Whoever winds up sticking should be good for a single sack along the way.
Tyler Starr: Starr was more heralded and hyped than his draft status or college tape warranted, but I do still like him. If he survives cuts this year, look for him to spend another year developing on the practice squad or as the last guy off the bench in the linebacking corps. We'll hope for an impact in 2016, but unless he's made up a lot of ground in a single year, I can't see him being a contributor this season.
Ultimately, we're looking at players who I feel can provide somewhere between 12-20 sacks if Dan Quinn's scheme is as aggressive and simple as he promises it will be, and if that scheme lets players do a little more on the pass rushing end than they were able to do with Mike Smith and Mike Nolan. With a couple of smart signings and draft picks to fill in the rest, those contributions could lead to the Falcons having a slightly below average-to-average pass rush, and as I've said for years now, that's all the Falcons need to once more be a team nobody's all that keen to play. Let's hope I'm not wildly optimistic, here.