We switch sides of the ball now, after taking a closer look at a quality (if not necessarily deep) Falcons offense. It's on to the defense, where most of the biggest changes the Falcons will see in 2016 have come.
Defensive end is where we'll start, and it's one of the most unsettled positions on the roster. It's very possible that before all is said and done, the Falcons will wind up playing Derrick Shelby, Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux, Ra'Shede Hageman, Courtney Upshaw, Brooks Reed, and a handful of others at end, and only a handful of those players will actually man end full-time.
For the purposes of this article, I'm only going to write about the players who are slam dunk defensive ends most of the time, which means Vic Beasley's going to be featured in outside linebackers even if I think he'll get his snaps at end.
Derrick Shelby, Starter
Shelby was a widely praised signing, a starter making under $5 million a season because he wasn't a true full-time player in Miami. His per snap production, nastiness, and skill set make him a nice fit for this Falcons defense, and I fully anticipate he'll be one of the unit's better players.
Shelby showed an ability to rush the passer in Miami, albeit on a part-time basis, and has the size and strength to be an asset against the run. He'll kick inside to defensive tackle quite a bit on nickel looks, but he should be the starter at end in the base defense, and he should be excellent.
Ra'Shede Hageman, Starter
Hageman isn't going to play a lot of end in nickel sets unless injury strikes, and he's not going to play a lot in obvious passing situations, period. For all that, I like the team's plan to move him to end and think he'll potentially be a force there on first and second down.
Hageman's best attribute is his incredible size and power, and technique has been his weakness. When he's up against tackles and coming off the edge, where he should be able to use that power a little more effectively without getting tangled up, he should fare better. If he's genuinely improved in his third year, which tends to be a critical season for defensive linemen, Hageman could finally evolve into the force we've been hoping for.
At the very least, expect him to be quality against the run this year.
Adrian Clayborn, Sort-of Starter
Ultimately Clayborn may actually out-snap Hageman, even if I expect the latter to be listed as a starter. That's because the Falcons play a lot of nickel, and Clayborn's going to be in at end (with Shelby at defensive tackle) in those situations.
A year ago, Clayborn was one of the most productive pass rushers on the team, which isn't saying much but does indicate what can happen if he's allowed to roam more at defensive end (as he will be) with an improved defensive front. The Falcons will largely ask him to pin his ears back and go after quarterbacks, and he
Courtney Upshaw, Reserve
Gonna take a leap here and say Upshaw will play closer to the line than originally anticipated. He's excellent against the run and a so-so pass rusher who weighs in a bit heavy for a linebacker, so while he'll probably get some snaps on the strong side, I've come to think his better fit is an early down defensive end. We'll see if the Falcons agree.
Malliciah Goodman, Reserve
Goodman is probably battling UDFA Ivan McLennan for a spot, and we'll talk about him more in a second. He's a solid run defender who hasn't ever shown much as a pass rusher, and unfortunately he's probably missed his chance to push for more snaps. If he lands on the squad, he'll be a deep reserve and special teamer, and maybe even a gameday inactive at times.
Ivan McLennan, Reserve
People reporting on the team and involved with the team keep telling us to keep an eye on McLennan, and so we're listening. The Falcons seem likely to deploy him at defensive end if he makes the team, and he has quality athleticism and surprisingly good instincts for a player who wasn't drafted. File the name away for now, but don't be surprised if he shoves Goodman off the roster.
This is an interesting group, at the very least, with one complete player (Shelby) and a handful of guys who perform well either against the run or as pass rushers, but not really both. We'll see if my projected roles hold up over by the time the season rolls around, but again, this is one of the toughest positions to figure out.