If you're forecasting an improved Falcons team in 2016, some of that is inevitably coming from new additions like Derrick Shelby and Keanu Neal. The rest of it has to come from players already on the roster, and it's worth trying to suss out who might actually take a major step forward this year.
The most obvious candidate by a country mile. Beasley showed flashes of tremendous talent in 2015 despite being a rookie with a torn labrum, so given another full offseason, a return to health, and more coaching, he could be primed for a huge breakout season.
I don't anticipate we'll see double digit sacks from Beasley this year--hope I'm wrong, though!--but I think 7-9 sacks and plenty of pressure are in the offing, and that will help the entire defense tremendously.
A smaller leap for Hardy, but he caught on quickly after sitting out most of the first half of the year, and I expect continued growth and improvement from him. He may well only see 40-50 targets, but Matt Ryan showed trust in him on third downs, and I expect him to make an impact there.
I know, I know. I just wrote the other day that Allen could potentially lose his starting gig, so there's a wide range of possible outcomes here. If you believe in the talent and think he'll win the starting job, though, having Allen in his second year in Dan Quinn's scheme with Keanu Neal beside him and a better defensive front should mean genuine improvement. No one doubts his ability.
Hageman has always had the potential to do big things, but the move out to defensive end may be the catalyst for real improvement. His power off the edge could be a tremendous asset for this defense, and I fully expect him to be everything Tyson Jackson was supposed to be at end and more, as faint praise as that is.
Besides Beasley, the most obvious candidate on the list. Jarrett is stepping into the nose role vacated by Paul Soliai, who was released, and was one of the better Falcons defenders in his limited snaps a year ago. He should be a force of nature in the middle of this defense.
Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman
Both could take a major step forward, and the only reason I include both is because I'm still not sure how the touches are going to be divided. Coleman needs to work on his decision-making and ball security to improve, while Freeman simply needs better blocking (which he should get) and hit the hole perhaps just a little bit faster. This a potentially tremendous 1-2 punch, either way.
Who do you have on your shortlist of breakout candidates?