Looking back on 2015—Dan Quinn’s rookie season—it’s easy to forget the complete lack of talent on the defensive line. Vic Beasley was a rookie and the other starting DE was...Tyson Jackson. There were some decent contributors like Brooks Reed and O’Brien Schofield, but otherwise this was a team full of aging veterans and stopgap players. It culminated in a league low 18 sacks.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Falcons have a stable of young, talented pass rushers paired with some experienced veterans. The DT rotation is thin, but the starting talent is very good. After eight games, the Falcons already have 18 sacks. Say what you will about the outcome of this season, but Quinn has undoubtedly infused this team with talent from top to bottom in just two short years.
Let’s take a closer look at that defensive line talent and how those players have fared over the first half of the season.
Stats: 16 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Beasley has once again been the Falcons best pass rusher in 2017, and leads the team in sacks despite missing several games. Quinn appears to be using the athletic pass rusher more often at SAM, which gives Beasley a chance to use his skills on more than just passing downs. We’re still waiting to see more consistency from Beasley, but he’s a very good player and without a doubt the best pure pass rusher the Falcons have.
Stats: 10 tackles, 2.0 sacks
Clayborn has once again been a valuable contributor to the Falcons’ pass rushing rotation. His ability to kick inside on passing downs is also a plus. He’s not a dominant player, but his combination of power and violent hand usage makes him very disruptive. Clayborn has been good, but not great thus far in 2017.
Stats: 7 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass deflection
Takk has had a pretty good rookie season thus far, despite limited playing time. He’s been getting more and more involved as the season wears on, and McKinley has flashed some of the non-stop motor and burst that made him a coveted first-round pick. He’s been solid against both the run and pass, and I think Takk has a bright future ahead of him.
Stats: 22 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks
The viking warrior with glorious hair, Brooks Reed has continued to be his reliable self on both rushing and passing downs. He’s second on the team in sacks with 3, and has made a pretty substantial impact when on the field. His knowledge and comfort in the scheme are significant bonuses, and he’s been one of Atlanta’s most consistent defensive linemen in 2017.
Stats: 17 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1.0 sack
One of the true hybrid players on the defensive line, Shelby got off to a slow start this season after recovering from a season-ending injury in 2016. He’s a dependable contributor on early downs as a run-stopping EDGE, and has shown some ability to rush the passer from the inside. Overall, Shelby hasn’t made a huge impact, but he’s been serviceable at worst.
Stats: 33 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks
Jarrett has been, by far, the most disruptive player on the defensive line through eight games. His seven tackles for loss lead the team, and although he doesn’t have many sacks, he’s made an impact pressuring the QB in almost every game. Jarrett plays hard every game and is, quite simply, a monster on the interior. The switch to playing more 3T has helped his production, and he’s been downright dominant in 2017. Jarrett looks like the best defensive lineman on the roster, and perhaps even the best defensive player overall.
Stats: 16 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 0.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections
Poe hasn’t been quite the disruptive presence in the middle of the defensive line that we all hoped for, but he’s been solid at worst. He’s still a force against the run, and is athletic enough to give interior offensive linemen fits at times. Over the last few games, we’ve seen Poe start to flash a little bit more. Hopefully that continues, but as of now, Poe has been a rather disappointing addition to the defense.
Stats: 3 tackles
Rubin has only played two games with the Falcons in 2017, but he has made his presence known almost immediately. Rubin is a dominant player against the run and is incredibly difficult to move, even when double-teamed. Against the Jets, Rubin helped Atlanta to one of their most dominant defensive showings against the run in franchise history. It’s early, but Rubin looks like a great in-season pickup for a depleted DT group.
Stats: 2 tackles
Upshaw missed most of the early part of the 2017 season with injury, and has only recently started playing again. He’s been about what we expected: a serviceable rotational option. Upshaw hasn’t been blowing anyone up or making any big plays, but he’s a solid, versatile player that can help out on the edge or on the interior.
The defensive line has been a strength of this Falcons team thus far in 2017, particularly as a pass-rushing unit. As a run-stuffing group they’ve been middling, though much of that is due to injury—and with the addition of Ahtyba Rubin, that may no longer be as big of an issue. Overall, they’ve gotten a Pro Bowl-caliber season out of Grady Jarrett, a very good one out of Vic Beasley, and above average performances from Adrian Clayborn, Takkarist McKinley, and Brooks Reed.
Going forward, this unit should continue to be a strength. There are plenty of young, intriguing pieces here for future seasons, too. Takkarist McKinley is growing, and should turn into a more consistently disruptive player with experience. Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley are both foundational pieces that the team can build off of. More young talent will be needed soon at DT, however, as Poe is likely gone in 2018 and the rest of the players there are stopgap options at best.