After being on the bottom of nearly every major defensive statistic, the Falcons defense was headed towards a makeover. Aging players weren't brought back (Osi Umenyiora, Josh Wilson) and overwhelmed players (Joplo Bartu, Kroy Biermann) are going to have their snaps reduced significantly. With Dan Quinn leading the new era in Atlanta, defense was going to be the focal point going into the off-season. It has also been the focal point for nearly every off-season since 2009.
We've seen the likes of Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards, and Paul Soliai labeled as the biggest acquisitions of their respective off-season from when they were signed or traded to Atlanta. Thomas Dimitroff always wanted to pursue at least one big name in free-agency. As the mixed results grew worse over-time, the front office collectively switched up their methods. A combination of mid-level starters and depth was the focus throughout free agency, while the draft would be the foundation of star talent being developed.
Time will tell if this strategy was effective or not. What can be confirmed is that Atlanta's defense looks significantly better than it did last year. The amount of depth within the front seven should make this team significantly better against the run and possibly capable of generating a consistent pass rush.
The biggest overhaul took place on the defensive line, which has been long overdue. It was partially addressed last off-season, although Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson underachieved greatly. It could have been the scheme change, where both players weren't accustomed towards playing a 4-3 scheme. In the end, they were pushed back far too often and failed to hold up at the point of attack.
What had been finally addressed was the defensive end position. After receiving absolutely no attention last off-season, they finally gave that position much-needed depth and a blue chip prospect. Vic Beasley is expected to be the savior that Atlanta’s defense has needed since John Abraham’s harsh exodus. The first-round pick has a first step quite like Abraham. If he can be more effective in utilizing power moves, his upside is endless. There aren’t many coaches that can teach pass-rushing techniques quite like Quinn.
Beasley may be a situational pass rusher through the first year, but should eventually grow more physically and develop into a three-down player in some capacity. We may see him move into the strong side linebacker position on occasion. The other major addition was Adrian Clayborn, who comes with plenty of intrigue and motivation. After being hampered by injuries in Tampa Bay, Clayborn is on a one-year prove it deal and will be given every opportunity to shine.
Chuck Smith has worked with him throughout the off-season. It’ll be interesting to see if Clayborn sheds some weight off his 280-pound frame. We rarely see a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme carry that much weight, due to the necessity of having a quick first step and overall agility. That may not apply for Clayborn, given his violent pass-rushing style. Eventually Quinn will shed some light on his development. Malliciah Goodman has been reportedly slimming down as well.
If you read my offensive comparison piece, the word depth was constantly repeated. Defensive end was in dire need of reinforcements, let alone depth. The sight of Kroy Biermann receiving 35-40 snaps wasn’t a recipe for success. A 290-pound Goodman on the edge was destined for failure. Jonathan Massaquoi was chastised for speaking his mind, which left him on the bench. The hope of seeing Osi Umenyiora turn back the clock was deteriorating with every week passing by. Stansly Maponga has failed to develop as well.
The current rotation of Beasley, Clayborn, Goodman, Biermann, and O’Brien Schofield brings optimism at minimum. Schofield will be someone to watch closely this summer. His ability as a situational pass-rusher and versatility to play on both sides could prove to be valuable. Since his snaps were limited in Seattle, it’s hard to construct a proper opinion on him. Quinn’s familiarity with him will lead to opportunities at some point. We may see him also receive playing time at the strong-side linebacker position as well.
Although defensive tackle is fairly set with Jonathan Babineaux, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Soliai, the opportunity to select Grady Jarrett was there for the taking. It’s hard to pass up on a late second-round pick (according to many analysts) in the fifth round. Jarrett’s relentless motor and ability to create penetration is somewhat reminiscent of Babineaux. While the former Clemson defensive tackle is somewhat undersized,
Jarrett is someone that can eventually be groomed into playing 25-30 snaps a game. The opportunity to learn from someone like Babineaux should help his growth tremendously. With Babineaux possibly playing his last season and Soliai already 31 years old, youth was eventually needed at this position. Jarrett brings loads of upside with his quick feet and the knack to peel off blockers.
Upgrades were bound to happen following last year’s debacle. The linebacker core of Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, and Prince Shembo couldn’t have been more underwhelming. Impact plays were rare and missed tackles were consistent from this unit. Each player showed poor reaction speed and inability to get off blocks effectively. The need for reinforcements was required.
The signings of Justin Durant and Brooks Reed were announced almost immediately after the "official opening" of free agency. Durant brings versatility through playing all three positions, although has proven to be more effective playing on the weak side. With Sean Weatherspoon’s departure, it was essential for Atlanta to add a linebacker that can play all three downs. Similar to Weatherspoon, Durant has durability concerns through playing just 16 games over the past two seasons. The coaching staff can only hope that he can stay on the field. One of the main reasons for the Dallas Cowboys 5-1 start last year was through the strong linebacker play of Durant and Rolando McClain.
It’s hard to truly rate the signing of Reed, given how Houston utilized him in their 3-4 scheme. We’ve never truly seen Reed play solely on the strong-side. Houston constantly moved him around, which Quinn may end up actually doing. What the coaching staff will recognize is that Reed can play the run well and be utilized in blitz packages. He has been largely ineffective as a pass rusher. As long as they avoid making him into an edge rusher, this should be a quality signing. Reed has good range for being bigger than the prototypical outside linebacker.
The front office prioritized on improving against the run last year. It takes more than a few defensive linemen to do that. Quality linebacker play is vital for either shedding blockers or finding openings to close down opposing running backs. Both Durant and Reed have done that effectively through the past three seasons. They should be significant upgrades this year, despite neither player being a household name. It’ll be interesting to see if Reed plays on third down. Quarterbacks consistently targeted Worrilow in coverage last year and succeeded on nearly every occasion. Unless substantial strides are made, both players may very well be three-down linebackers.
With the main focus on the front seven, the secondary was in relatively good shape. After not re-signing Dwight Lowery, free safety was going to be a priority. Quinn’s philosophy on utilizing bigger cornerbacks meant that Robert McClain and Josh Wilson weren’t going to be re-signed. Depth at cornerback wasn’t seen as a significant priority, although it was something that Quinn seemed highly invested in.
That was proven in the second round through selecting Jalen Collins. There aren’t many corners that had bigger upside than him coming out of the draft. Collins has the length and ability to play physical that passes Quinn's requirements for his cornerbacks. While his technique is a work in progress, Collins rarely gets beat deep and will give this team much-needed depth. It has been proven that you need three effective cornerbacks to have a remote chance of contending for a Super Bowl. We've seen how it has become a passing league for the most part.
A trio of Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Collins has to bring optimism to a team that has lacked quality cornerback depth for years. Hopefully they can all play together and stay healthy, unlike the last talented cornerback trio of Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel, and Dunta Robinson. The addition of Collins will also bring much-needed length against teams with tall wide receiver tandems. Tampa Bay and Carolina have both invested heavily in tall receivers.
Another possible addition to counter those respective wide receiver tandems could be Dezmen Southward. While he’ll mostly be relegated to dime packages, Southward is six-foot-one and has generated buzz in his conversion into becoming a cornerback. Cornerback is one of the most essential positions to have depth in, given how injuries have become so apparent at that position. Atlanta had capable cornerbacks on paper, but it became apparent that McClain and Wilson (to an extent) were becoming liabilities. Collins and Southward bring a new element into the group of cornerbacks.
Similar to left guard; free safety will be one of the few true training camp battles. It’s also a position that the Falcons seemed content on not addressing through the off-season. Charles Godfrey should win the job by default. He’s the only natural free safety on the roster, which is pretty alarming. Kemal Ishmael doesn’t have the capabilities to be an efficient cover safety. That became evident through Atlanta’s crushing defeats to Chicago and Detroit. Ricardo Allen has only started his conversion to free safety only a few months ago. Left guard will likely be the far more competitive battle, but Dan Quinn seems to be open-minded. A few poor games in pre-season and Godfrey could be reduced to special team duties. This is easily the biggest question mark amongst the starting lineup defensively going into 2015.