The Falcons' defense has been a perennial trouble spot, so you could be forgiven for rubbing your eyes in disbelief when you look over the defensive depth. For the first time since at least 2012, this defenses is on the rise,
Realistically, that's not going to translate into a great unit for 2015, but it should translate into a more competent, watchable football team, and perhaps one that wins a few more games. Give us a foundation this year and we should be happy.
We saw the full depth chart yesterday, so consider this my best stab at how the snaps counts will work out over the course of the season.
Starter: Vic Beasley
Starter: Tyson Jackson
Stansly Maponga (PS)
Given the number of rotations we're likely to see, expect everyone from Jonathan Babineaux to O'Brien Schofield to line up at defensive end at times. We're going to focus on the core guys, here.
Beasley has all the explosiveness and finesse you look for in a pass rusher, he's looked remarkably solid against the run thus far, and he's a rookie. He has the chance to be a truly special player. Jackson is the obvious choice on the first two downs as a solid run-stopping end who has slimmed down enough to make him a (limited) factor as a pass rusher.
Expect to see a ton of Clayborn, who looks healthy and aggressive, and who will likely line up opposite Beasley on most every third down in 2015. I won't rule out Clayborn getting more snaps than Jackson, but I do think Jackson is the de facto starter. Goodman remains an intriguing player with strength, run-stopping acumen and upside as a pass rusher, and he should get some reps as well. Look for Kroy Biermann to factor in at defensive end more once Brooks Reed returns, as well.
Maponga showed promise as a pass rusher for the second straight preseason, and given a little bit more time to adjust to Quinn's defense, he could be a useful player sooner rather than later.
Starter: Paul Soliai
Starter: Ra'Shede Hageman
Joey Mbu (PS)
Soliai is the two-down run plugger, a big guy the Falcons will use chiefly to occupy blockers while speedier players attempt to ruin somebody's day in the backfield. Hageman is entering his second season with the Falcons and looks lighter, faster, and meaner than he did a year ago. He remains one of the biggest breakout candidates on the team, and the dude most likely to casually reach up and spike a football back into a quarterback's face this season.
Babineaux is aging but underrated, and the obvious choice to take over for Soliai on third downs, when the Falcons can and will bring a ton of pass rushing heat with their front four. Jarrett came on strong at the end of preseason and figures to factor into the rotation as a versatile sub, even if he may not be ready for a starting role just yet.
Mbu could be the long-term replacement for Soliai if he develops well, as a hulking nose tackle with surprisingly quick feet. Watch him.
Starter: Brooks Reed
Starter: Justin Durant
Derek Akunne (PS)
Tyler Starr (PS)
Reed is hurt and could miss six-plus weeks, so he'll be a non-factor until then. Once healthy, he projects as a run-stopping presence outside who may be a useful pass rusher every few weeks, and should be solid enough. Durant is an athletic, aggressive linebacker who has battled injuries in recent years. If he's healthy, he's probably the team's best linebacker, and certainly its most effective coverage option.
Biermann seems like the most obvious candidate to start in Reed's spot, and the deeply polarizing player has always been solid enough against the run and a situationally useful pass rusher. He'll function as a poor man's Brooks Reed, in other words. Schofield is a fast, pass rushing linebacker who will bounce back and forth between end and linebacker and should be a terrific third down option for the defense. Bartu can occasionally author a big play and has a decent all-around game, but figures to primarily play special teams once Reed returns.
Akunne showed well this preseason but couldn't beat out Bartu. He'll develop on the practice squad and take another crack in 2016. Starr, meanwhile, took a bit step forward from his redshirt 2014 and should get every chance to crack the roster next year, when Schofield and Bartu's contracts are up.
Starter: Paul Worrilow
Worrilow really does look dramatically improved with a better defense around him, lending credence to the idea that his weaknesses were magnified in Mike Nolan's units. He'll never be a true coverage asset, but he's a sneakily potent pass rusher and has always had the nose for the football and tackling ability coaches love over the middle.
Stupar is a special teams ace who is decent against the run when he's given the chance to play, which shouldn't be often behind a durable Worrilow. Bradford is also an ace special teamer and plus athlete, and if he's active, he'll compete with Stupar for the team lead in special teams tackles.
Starter: Desmond Trufant
Starter: Robert Alford
Akeem King (CB)
Oddly enough, this is where I have more concern than I did a couple of months ago. Trufant is one of the game's premier young cornerbacks and should put together another dominant year in 2015, but literally everyone else comes with question marks attached.
Alford has the physical tools to excel and has flashed ballhawking skills, but he can get turned around in coverage and has been prone to penalties. If he can fix those issues, he'll be a tremendous asset for the Falcons secondary, but we have to see him actually do so. Adams is a solid enough veteran who figures to swap outside and into the nickel as needed, providing a competent veteran bridge for Southward and Collins.
Collins has the length, athleticism, and aggressiveness Quinn and his staff look for in a cornerback, but he looked lost in coverage throughout the preseason and needs time to catch up. Southward is a special teams asset undergoing the conversion from safety to cornerback, and he needs time and tinkering to become a useful piece, if he ever does.
Finally, you have rookie Akeem King, who acquitted himself well in limited opportunities this summer. He can play safety or cornerback and has the size and physicality to become something interesting, but like Southward, he'll need development time.
The bottom line is that the position looks fine for the top three, but if injuries or ineffectiveness bite Trufant, Alford, or Adams, the Falcons are going to need to hope Collins or Southward comes on in a hurry.
Starter: Ricardo Allen
Starter: William Moore
If Southward has struggled with his transition, Allen has taken well to his. The unquestioned starter since minicamp in June, Allen will have his issues in coverage but has shown fire and real ability at free safety. Moore is one of the better strong safeties in the NFL when he's healthy.
The depth here isn't terrible, either. Godfrey has a history as a steady veteran who holds his own in coverage, Ishmael is a big hitter and playmaker best suited to an in the box role for this defense, and Therezie looked good in preseason and comes to the NFL having played a hybrid safety/linebacker role at Auburn, even if he's likely to be inactive much of the year.
Thoughts on this depth chart?