Dan Quinn's arrival was always going to translate into drastic changes from Mike Smith's defensive scheme. One of the more interesting transitions came from Quinn's commitment to rotating defensive linemen and utilizing personnel to the fullest extent, at least compared to under Smith. Besides John Abraham, Smith rarely made changes to the defensive line. That correlated into players such as Jonathan Babineaux playing far too many snaps.
Despite lacking capable edge rushers, Quinn managed to improvise with limited talent. His system helped veterans such as Babineaux and Paul Soliai play much better following a disappointing 2014 season. Although the pass rush didn't improve, Quinn never stopped attempting different ideas. He tried O'Brien Schofield, Brooks Reed, and Adrian Clayborn opposite Vic Beasley on the edge last season. Beasley was moved to the left side, as they wanted to exploit easier matchups.
After witnessing one full season under the new coaching staff, predictions can be made about the alignment for the base and nickel defense. Quinn proved last season that surprises are bound to occur. Not many people expected Clayborn to line up as a defensive tackle going into the season. Kroy Biermann playing a major role in the base defense was also unexpected. Here is how the base and nickel defense could line up going into opening day against Tampa Bay.
LEO. Derrick Shelby: With Vic Beasley transitioning into a new role, this leaves the coaching staff in a predicament. They need to have one pass-rushing threat within their base defense. The combination of Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson on the edge proved to be disastrous last season. Shelby replaced Cameron Wake in Miami and showed some ability as a pass rusher. He isn't an ideal fit, but offers more than other possible candidates such as Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw. Adrian Clayborn could be a possible alternative, as the coaching staff is committed to playing him on the edge. It appears that they prefer using him in their nickel package, due to being mediocre against the run.
RDT. Tyson Jackson: This is a very risky decision, as Jackson played this position in 2014. The run defense was largely underwhelming during that forgettable season. By slimming down and playing in the three-technique defensive tackle spot, this could be a positive shift. There is more confidence in this coaching staff and personnel compared to the debacle from two years ago, when the Falcons had the worst defense in the league. Jackson can clog running lanes and maintain gap discipline. Although Soliai is a better overall player, the former first round pick could blend well with Grady Jarrett's one-gap penetrating style.
NT. Grady Jarrett: After spelling Ra'Shede Hageman last year, Jarrett will be playing a more substantial role. He showed flashes last year as a run defender by creating penetration and using his speed advantage to give opposing offensive linemen fits. Jarrett doesn't possess Soliai's enormous build, which is a slight concern for a nose tackle. With improved linebacker play and Jarrett's upside, they are confident about giving him major responsibilities.
LDE. Ra'Shede Hageman: It was reported in May that Hageman would be attempting to play defensive end. After suffering from growing pains in the three-technique defensive tackle spot, the coaching staff wants to utilize Hageman's raw power elsewhere. There were flashes of greatness last season, especially during Atlanta's upset win over Carolina. They are trying to find the right fit, while refining his technique, which plagued him at times last season. Courtney Upshaw is a possible alternative based on his size and experience. In the end, Hageman's potential can't be ignored. Bryan Cox remains committed towards developing him into a more consistent player.
WLB. Philip Wheeler: Despite DeVondre Campbell making positive impressions, his lack of experience and instincts will likely prevent him from earning the starting job. Wheeler did take reps at the strong side position during OTA's. That may change, as Beasley will be groomed into that role. Wheeler played well against the run, along with excelling under blitz designs. Despite his shortcomings in coverage, the coaching staff started to play him more last season. Due to Sean Weatherspoon's durability issues and Campbell still adapting as a linebacker, Wheeler will be pressed into a starting role.
MLB. Deion Jones: This could be viewed as a bold prediction. An undersized linebacker, who only started one full season at LSU, shouldn't necessarily start immediately at the professional level. Due to Paul Worrilow's lack of range and inability to shed blocks, the coaching staff will move on from him as a starter. They drafted Jones to compete for a starting job. Worrilow doesn't have any upside as a starter. Instead of waiting for the future, Quinn will insert Jones as an immediate three-down linebacker.
SLB. Vic Beasley: The coaching staff needed to figure out a way to use their potential special player on a full-time basis. After being overwhelmed as a defensive end in their base package during the early stages of the regular season, Beasley will play as a strong side linebacker to become a three-down player. They need to utilize his speed and athleticism from multiple aspects. Beasley showed that he could handle some coverage responsibilities last year. Although he shouldn't be covering tight ends twenty yards downfield, the former first round pick shouldn't be hopeless like Kroy Biermann or Brooks Reed was last season.
RDE. Adrian Clayborn: There are still concerns about Clayborn's ability as a defensive end. He doesn't have the same explosiveness on the outside compared to inside. It would be wise for Clayborn to shed some weight and play at 265-270 pounds. That should allow him to play faster and not rely on power rushes against opposing left tackles.
RDT. Derrick Shelby: When the front office signed Shelby, they highlighted versatility as one of the biggest reasons behind signing him. Quinn will look to utilize Shelby as an interior rusher. He found some success at Miami alongside Ndamukong Suh. Although Quinn didn't use any defensive lineman for both defenses, he should make an exception for Shelby. Jarrett took some snaps away from Clayborn last season. He could be viewed as a possible alternative, but the coaching staff will likely bring him along slowly instead of forcing him to play 700-800 snaps in his second season. They signed Shelby to a four year-$18 million dollar contract. The Falcons should look to utilize him as much as possible.
LDT. Jonathan Babineaux: The longest-tenured Falcon is still one of their most productive players. After being moved back to his preferred position on the inside, Babineaux looked rejuvenated at 34 years old. Quinn did an excellent job of limiting his snaps and properly utilizing his attributes. The coaching staff knows what they're getting with Babineaux at this stage of his career. This could be his last season as a player, let alone as a Falcon.
LDE. Vic Beasley: To give him favorable matchups, they will likely keep Beasley on the left side. After suffering from a mid-season slump, Quinn decided to move Beasley and match him against right tackles. That sparked a late-season resurgence, which included an outstanding game against the Panthers. It was reported that he played with a torn labrum last season. Following a full recovery and adding muscle during the off-season, his sack total should increase in 2016.
LB. Sean Weatherspoon: As long as the fan favorite remains healthy, he should play within their nickel defense. Weatherspoon's range and instincts makes him a valuable player on passing downs. Since the coaching staff will be cautious based on his extensive injury history, Weatherspoon should only play 35-40 snaps a game. One of the biggest reasons behind Wheeler's exodus from Miami came from opposing quarterbacks repeatedly targeting him. By playing Wheeler on (mostly) running downs, that will help cater to both linebackers' strengths. Weatherspoon is Atlanta's best linebacker from a coverage standpoint. This should be a no-brainer decision, if he manages to stay on the field.
LB. Deion Jones: It would be shocking to see Jones not included in their nickel package. Worrilow's lack of range and missed open-field tackles (eighteen in the past two seasons) allowed running backs such as Lance Dunbar and Shane Vereen to have their way against Atlanta. No team allowed more catches and yards to running backs last season than the Falcons. Inserting Jones should help prevent running backs from repeatedly running free in the open field. The same theory can apply to covering tight ends, which has been a reoccurring issue over the past several years. Expectations need to be managed with Jones, but he will play a significant part behind Quinn's defensive reconstruction.
There are other rotational players that will receive some playing time. Brooks Reed will likely feature as an edge rusher in their nickel package, while Upshaw could play in their base defense. Neither player is good enough as a pass rusher or run stopper to merit a starting role. They could earn 10-12 snaps a game. At some point during the season, Campbell will receive increased opportunities, especially given Weatherspoon's inability to stay healthy. Quinn has some pieces to work with, especially if he decides to sign Dwight Freeney or O'Brien Schofield.