While the Falcons' offense remains a force to be reckoned with, none of us are quite sure what to make of the defense. New head coach Dan Quinn has promised a simpler, more aggressive scheme that will play to player strengths, and there's little question the Falcons stocked the linebacking corps and front four with useful additions this spring and summer. Whether that translates into the kind of drastically improved defense that can lead this team to new heights is up for debate.
Let's review the potential starters and reserves, take stock of the defense as a whole, and daydream about the games ahead of us.
DE Adrian Clayborn, NT Paul Soliai, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, LEO Vic Beasley
This is a wild stab at a line that's going to feature a ton of rotations, so it's a losing battle for me to predict. But predict I will.
This line offers a quality run-stopping end with pass rushing chops in Clayborn, a space-clogging monster at nose tackle in Soliai, the fearsome Hageman next to him ready to wreak havoc, and Beasley kicked out wide to rush the passer. The run-stopping prowess here helps make up for Beasley's weakness there, and while there's not a ton of pass rushing ability coming from one side of the line, but if Clayborn's healthy, he should help.
The only real truism here is that you should expect the faces along the line to change often.
DE Kroy Biermann, DE Malliciah Goodman, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Grady Jarrett, DT/DE Tyson Jackson
This is a strong bench group. Biermann is a useful player in a part-time role as an occasional pass rusher and solid run stopper, Goodman still has untapped upside and is at least useful against the run, Babineaux can still get after the quarterback and Jarrett has intriguing upside. Goodman will need to put it together a bit for the bench to be incredibly valuable, but you'll see some linebackers rotate in here to give the unit even more depth.
Anytime you're taking two players who were full-time starters a year ago and moving them to part-time roles, you're likely strengthening the defense, even if Babs and Biermann aren't exactly elite players at this point in their respective careers.
OLB Brooks Reed, MLB Paul Worrilow, OLB Justin Durant
A year ago, the Falcons' starting linebackers were Worrilow and random 45-year-old men plucked from their beds in the dead of the night to serve as outside linebackers. This is a big step up.
Reed isn't much of a pass rusher, even if the coaching staff wants him to be, but he's solid against the run, pretty durable and doesn't embarrass himself when he's thrown into coverage. A healthy Durant is a superb athlete who can, like Reed, help out against the run and in coverage. Their presence and a potentially strengthened front four should help out Worrilow, a high-motor leader with the ability to rush the passer and make stops over the middle, but a guy who has struggled mightily as a full-time player on a bad defense the last two years.
If Worrilow makes strides this year, this has the chance to be a very solid corps.
LB, Allen Bradford, OLB O'Brien Schofield, MLB Marquis Spruill, MLB Nate Stupar
Given that Beasley and Biermann can move freely in and out at linebacker and defensive end, I don't expect the team to prioritize their backup linebackers. Schofield is a situational pass rusher with the speed to track running backs out of the backfield, while Spruill came out of college with the speed, physicality and special teams chops to be an asset for this team. I still believe in him, even though he's not necessarily going to be on the field on the first day of training camp.
Bradford is maybe the most intriguing guy here, a still young career reserve and special teamer who has been earning some first team reps over the last week and has a connection with Dan Quinn. He could fight his way into a larger role than any of us have anticipated.
Stupar is a core special teamer who shouldn't get much time at linebacker. Save for a signing, the team will be a little shallow here, so expect them to look hard at a signing if injuries nick the starters.
CB Desmond Trufant, CB Jalen Collins, CB Robert Alford
Trufant is one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL today, and if he's able to start pulling down a few interceptions, he'll be recognized as such. Collins has the length, physicality and press coverage familiarity Dan Quinn is looking for in his secondary, meaning that if he's healthy and shows well in camp, he'll be out there opposite Trufant.
Alford can and will kick outside, but is likely to see plenty of time as the team's nickel cornerback. He's a gambler who has battled penalty issues in the past, but his ability to pick passes, his unreal athleticism and his (hopeful) growth over the last three seasons should make him a lock for this role. This top three boasts a ton of ability and real speed, and if Collins and Alford are up to speed, it could be one of the better units in football.
CB Phillip Adams, CB Dezmen Southward
The team hasn't seen a lot to love from Southward, who has been hurt and scuffling a little bit making the transition back to cornerback, so they're likely to stash him as the fifth guy and a project for 2015. He'll get some snaps, but his primary role will be special teams.
Adams, on the other hand, figures to get plenty of chances in dime packages and in relief of the starters. He lacks ideal size for this scheme, but he's been competent in his previous stints and gives a very young cornerback corps some veteran leadership, for whatever that's worth.
FS Ricardo Allen, SS William Moore
I'm gambling on Allen turning his strong minicamp showing into a starting gig, because the upside with his conversion to safety is real. He's a willing tackler, earned a reputation as an aggressive cover athlete at Purdue and is young enough to become a fixture in this secondary. There will be hiccups if he gets a starting job, of course, but the rest of the secondary can help cover for most early struggles.
Moore is one of the most physical safeties in the league and an excellent all-around player, so as long as he's healthy, he's a tremendous asset for Quinn, who values those qualities after having the stellar Kam Chancellor in Seattle. Health is really his only question mark, and thankfully he seems on track to start Week 1.
S Charles Godfrey, S Kemal Ishmael
Godfrey will be fighting for a starting role, and while he barely got on the field for the Falcons a year ago, he has a track record as a reliable safety with decent coverage skills. He's a nice insurance policy for Allen, if nothing else.
Ishmael should be the third safety most of the time, as well as one of Keith Armstrong's core special teamers (more on that in the next installment). He showcased a talent for picking passes a year ago and is one of the biggest hitters on the team, so as long as Quinn uses him judiciously and doesn't expose him in deep man coverage situations all that often, Ishmael should thrive.
The Bottom Line
On paper, this is a better defense than the Falcons have had since 2012, at least. There are real questions about the depth at linebacker, the free safety starter, and some of the players up front who are either young or have lengthy injury histories, but there's the potential for genuine competence here. After the trials we've seen the last two seasons, competence seems downright sexy.
What are your expectations for the 2015 Falcons defense?