During Mike Smith's tenure, there never appeared to be much competition for starting positions or different ideas to enhance a player's development. The defensive formation was fairly simplistic, until Mike Nolan was hired as defensive coordinator. Dan Quinn isn't known for creative blitzes or unique schemes to fluster quarterbacks. What he can do and often does is everything possible to get the best out of every defensive player.
Unlike Smith, Quinn has proven to take chances on several defensive players. Positional changes are becoming rather common across the entire defense. As the Falcons prepare for the most difficult schedule in the league on paper, Quinn's reputation will be challenged. He was hired for his defensive excellence and ability to develop talent. Although the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator is a players-friendly coach, results are the only thing that will ultimately decide his fate.
Making the switch with Ricardo Allen
From winning a starting role or trying to learn a new position for long-term development purposes, there are plenty of players that have or will endure a positional change. After Dwight Lowery wasn't re-signed, the free safety position was one of the bigger question marks going into training camp in 2015. Kemal Ishmael's lack of range and speed made him a poor fit. Charles Godfrey didn't exactly inspire much confidence based on his disappointing career in Carolina, where they wanted him to play cornerback at one point.
Ricardo Allen's ball hawking ability (13 career interceptions at Purdue) made him an intriguing fit. At five-foot nine, he doesn't fit Quinn's preference for big, physical cornerbacks, and the conversion to free safety was complete following impressive performances at OTA's. Allen played relatively well during the regular season under difficult circumstances, as it was essentially his first season in the NFL, while playing at a completely new position. Despite being hampered by occasional missed tackles or poor angles, Allen proved to be a capable tackler and made several big plays in coverage. The jury is still out on him being the long-term answer at free safety, but his first full season was very promising, especially from a coverage standpoint.
Shuffling the defensive line
As every coach will realize, not every personnel change is going to be successful. Some players are either too slow, undersized, or simply not good enough. Adrian Clayborn seemed to find his niche as an interior pass-rusher within their nickel package, however. His explosive first step and vicious hands proved to be a challenge for many opposing guards. With the lack of edge rushers on the roster and Clayborn being overmatched against the run, Quinn was eventually forced to move him back to his natural position at defensive end. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox admitted that they should have made that decision much earlier in the season. During Atlanta's undefeated start, Clayborn looked like a revelation on the inside. As the season went downhill, his production rapidly declined.
Both decisions were calculated risks with mixed results. Attempting to convert Dezmen Southward into becoming a cornerback never looked promising. Many considered him to be a sixth or seven round pick at best. A raw player shouldn't expect to excel at a new position in a matter of five months, even though at six-foot-two, Southward possesses the physical traits that Quinn relishes at cornerback. Southward's footwork was disastrous, along with his inability to change direction against crafty route runners. Quarterbacks consistently picked on him during preseason. By November, the coaching staff gave up on him. The former third round pick lasted only eighteen months in Atlanta.
Why making a change matters
Quinn's willingness to change defensive philosophies last season provides optimism going forward. Beliefs such as using his number one cornerback strictly on one side of the field and never blitzing were erased during the Falcons' downslide. He is prepared to address flaws and make necessary alterations within a limited roster. Quinn should have more talent at his disposal this season, but that hasn't stopped him from making more positional adjustments already.
Ra'Shede Hageman and Brooks Reed were expected to be major contributors last season. Following their underwhelming seasons, both players are facing potential "make-or-break" seasons, as they will likely be utilized as role players. Hageman's switch from defensive tackle to left defensive end surprised some fans. While his poor hand usage and inability to take double teams hindered him, he was drafted to be a long-term asset in the middle. With Paul Soliai being released, it's strange to see both starting defensive tackles moving on elsewhere. They can only hope Hageman's power translates into setting the edge and playing much better against the run.
The front office's conservative approach to free agency last year didn't pay off big. Besides Clayborn, Chris Chester, and Jacob Tamme, no free agent signing played even relatively well. That includes Reed, who rarely played during the last four games of the season. There are indications that he looked leaner and quicker in OTA's. Shifting from strong side linebacker to a rotational edge rusher role seems like a backwards move. Reed was largely ineffective as a pass rusher in Houston. Unless he gains a speed advantage over tackles or masters certain techniques, this appears to be a decision catering towards Vic Beasley's development into becoming a three-down player. Beasley is expected to play as a strong side linebacker in their base package. They needed to find a role for Reed after they signed him to a five-year deal, and so they'll continue to tinker with his role.
Tyson Jackson in the middle
With Beasley's advanced role and Tyson Jackson returning to the inside, Quinn is taking plenty of risks this season. Replacing Soliai with Jackson is arguably the biggest one of them all. The massive nose tackle played outstanding at times last season, while Jackson is a poor fit for the 4-3 scheme. He failed to make an impact as a defensive tackle during the 2014 season. Depending on a 34-year old (yet still very good) Jonathan Babineaux, second-year player in Grady Jarrett, and Jackson to play majority of snaps on the interior is a scary proposition. Derrick Shelby could play inside within their nickel package, but they should seriously consider him for the LEO role in their base package. He offers some pass-rushing upside, unlike Courtney Upshaw.
Quinn has already implemented changes for both rookie linebackers. Most analysts viewed Deion Jones as a weak-side linebacker, while De'Vondre Campbell's size made him appear as a middle linebacker. That doesn't appear the case, as Jones will be competing with incumbent starter Paul Worrilow for the starting role in the middle, and Campbell will be outside. Quinn isn't fazed by his lack of size or inability to take on blocks from his college days at LSU. Campbell is probably too raw to play significant snaps, but the competition at weak side linebacker isn't exactly daunting. Sean Weatherspoon hasn't played at a high level since 2012 and Philip Wheeler is best suited for a backup role.
The defense still has ways to go before establishing themselves as a top fifteen-caliber unit. A favorable schedule aided them to finish higher than expected in some rankings. This is still a rebuilding defense with uncertainty surrounding their entire front seven. Quinn's decisions on these players will be the one of the biggest things to watch for this season. These judgments will help determine his reputation as a worthy head coach or defensive coordinator, who benefitted from an outstanding Seattle defense. Most importantly, it will also play a critical role toward determining Quinn's longevity as a head coach.