When Adrian Clayborn was signed to a one-year deal, there was growing optimism about the former first round pick revitalizing his career. Serious knee and bicep injuries derailed his four-year stint in Tampa Bay. That didn't stop him from making memorable impressions such as abusing Sam Baker and leveling Matt Ryan. Explosive plays like that made multiple teams interested. Atlanta managed to sign him immediately from the first visit. Clayborn was expected to give Atlanta much-needed support as an edge rusher.
That didn't transpire, as Dan Quinn and Bryan Cox decided to utilize him on the inside. Listed at 280 pounds, Clayborn was big enough to match up against guards on passing downs and be fairly effective. The coaching staff eventually moved him to the outside following minimal production from O'Brien Schofield and Brooks Reed there, however. Clayborn wasn't consistent, but he was easily one of their better defensive players. His play stood out from a mostly disappointing free agency class. Did he prove enough to be offered another contract?
Reasons to re-sign him
Besides Jonathan Babineaux in this prime, the Falcons have lacked an explosive interior lineman since Rod Coleman. They have mostly used nose tackles such as Paul Soliai and Grady Jackson, or linemen that provided virtually nothing, a la Trey Lewis and Peria Jerry. Clayborn was signed to help boost a non-existent pass rush. While the pass rush somehow went down from a categorical standpoint, Clayborn was an asset, albeit an inconsistent one.
With a team-leading three sacks and 15 hits, the former Hawkeye made his presence felt. His explosive first step left guards overwhelmed on several occasions. Senio Kelemete didn't have a chance of stopping him, as Clayborn abused him with vicious technique and excellent speed. His speed also opened up opportunities to execute stunts. Unfortunately with Vic Beasley being moved to the left side at mid-season, they didn't utilize that pairing enough. From John Abraham carrying them on a weekly basis to enduring the sluggish pass rush from 2013-2014, the Falcons had a unique pass rushing combination with them possessing actual speed and power. If Clayborn is re-signed, they should look to put him alongside Beasley more often.
His explosiveness was beneficial from a pass-rushing standpoint. Despite being undersized as a defensive tackle, he produced some promising moments against the run. Many fans remember his thunderous third-and-one stop by walloping Doug Martin. When guards tried to pull, Clayborn's penetration occasionally left offensive tackles in the dust. That violent style can also draw flags, as Allen Barbre couldn't gain any leverage and was forced into blatantly holding him. His upside as a pass rusher is far too valuable to leave him sidelined or wasted on the edge within the Falcons' nickel packages.
Reasons to let him go
Whenever any player signs a one-year "prove it" deal and manages to be productive, they are bound to command a bigger contract. Clayborn certainly deserves a two-year deal. Should that include being paid four or five million a year? Not for a role player that wasn't consistent enough on a weekly basis. When Atlanta suffered from a six game losing streak, he was anonymous for a defensive line that desperately needed him.
Although Clayborn can play multiple positions, he was only truly effective as an interior pass rusher. When teams decided to run on Atlanta's nickel defense, double teams would overwhelm the undersized tackle. Clayborn's ultra explosive style didn't help him against the run either. It's difficult to teach a converted defensive tackle to maintain gap discipline. They are too small to take on double teams effectively. With Babineaux being so effective at penetrating and blowing up plays in the backfield, it leaves Clayborn against double teams or possibly opening up a massive hole from trying to get past the opposing lineman. Linebackers such as Paul Worrilow were forced to chase down running backs from difficult angles.
The coaching staff decided to make a late-season change against Jacksonville. Schofield and Reed proved to be ineffective as pass rushers within their nickel packages. On a limited roster, Clayborn was their last option to use on the edge. He failed to make much of a positive impression. As mentioned above, the former Buccaneer is 280 pounds and never possessed the proper speed to beat tackles off the edge. If he couldn't use his hands effectively, left tackles not named Luke Joeckel would handle him. Michael Oher recognized his lack of speed and didn't have any problems blocking him inside. When Clayborn tried to go outside, he was simply too slow to catch Cam Newton.
Bryan Cox took blame for putting Clayborn on the inside. After looking at the current roster, you can understand why Cox made that statement. Reed was never an efficient pass rusher in Houston, while Schofield is best suited for 15-20 snaps a game. With (hopefully) better edge rushers acquired or drafted, the coaching staff will recognize that Clayborn needs to be used primarily as an interior pass rusher. He should only play on the edge if the future strong-side end within their base defense is injured. Opposing tackles with a strong punch and good footwork will keep him from generating any substantial pressure.
Clayborn's status will mostly depend on price tag. While Quinn has mentioned that he wants to retain him, nobody wants to overpay a rotational player. They already committed that mistake by signing players such as Reed and Tyson Jackson. With his previous season-ending injuries, the front office will need to be wary of signing him to a long-term deal. A two year, six million dollar deal or three year, nine million dollar deal would be ideal. It wouldn't be logical to give him a bigger deal than what Babineaux received in 2014. There is a substantial age difference between both players, but does Clayborn possess any major upside that we haven't seen?
His play suggested nothing more than being a rotational player that should be used on the inside in their nickel packages, or as an injury fill-in within their base defense. If they can agree to a reasonable deal, then Clayborn should absolutely be re-signed. He is the only upcoming free agent that will attract immediate interest from other teams, and with Quinn's endorsement, the versatile lineman will be retained. Babineaux possibly retiring in 2017 boosts his chances as well.