While we talk about the need for an elite defensive tackle and another top-flight pass rusher, we do need to acknowledge that the Falcons are going to get reinforcements along the defensive line before they spend an additional dime in free agency or drop a pick in the draft. That’s because both Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby should be back and healthy for the season opener.
It’s a bit tough to step back from everything that’s happened and appreciate what the Falcons just did, but it is worth noting that this team did what it did with some combination of Vic Beasley, an aging Dwight Freeney, Courtney Upshaw, and Brooks Reed playing defensive end on the majority of snaps during the playoffs. They were missing Adrian Clayborn, the team’s third-most effective pass rusher, and Derrick Shelby, who was supposed to be one of the team’s starting defensive linemen before he was lost for the season.
Fortunately for the 2017 Falcons, both of those players will return. Shelby should slot in again as a starter, unless the Falcons make a major investment, with the ability to play both defensive end and defensive tackle. Clayborn should be a key reserve with the same ability, and both players will offer physicality and at least some pass rushing ability to the line.
I don’t want to overstate how vital these two players are—the Falcons made the Super Bowl without them, especially Shelby—but both are valuable players. Shelby was coming on in a major way before he got hurt, and I’m interested to see what he’ll do with a full season to prove himself. Hopefully, this line will have additional help beyond Clayborn and Shelby, in the form of a high round draft pick or particularly gifted free agent signing. I don’t ask for much.
Yet another reason to be bullish on this team. Now we just need to see them make necessary improvements in both free agency and the draft to ensure (or at least increase the likelihood) that there’s no 2016 Carolina Panthers-style slip in the standings.