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Atlanta Falcons roster review: Defensive ends

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This position will be an area of focus for the Falcons, but it was a successful group in 2016.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With free agency just days away (March 9!), we’re rolling through our roster review series and figuring out where the team’s needs are, where they succeeded in 2016, and who is primed to improve in 2017. Now we’re on to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive end was an interesting position in 2016, one that gave the Falcons the league’s leading pass rusher, some terrific performances, and injuries and ineffectiveness that wound up being damaging at the very end of the year. Overall, this is a good group with one potentially elite player that probably needs to improve a bit if the defense is going to take a major step forward.

Starters

Vic Beasley

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that while Beasley improved, his sack total soaring like it did was fueled by equal parts better play, lesser competition, and an improved supporting cast. What isn’t possible to deny, in my opinion, is that Beasley is very good and getting better.

Authoring 15.5 sacks and leading the NFL is no accident, and Beasley got it done with more impressive pass rushing moves, his incredible athleticism, The scary thing is that he’s not a finished product yet.

Dwight Freeney

The gifted veteran was still an effective player in 2016. He didn’t put up the sack totals he had in prior years, but his tutelage clearly made a difference for Vic Beasley. Freeney also put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which is pretty remarkable when you consider his age.

Adrian Clayborn

Clayborn was effectively a starter and a pretty effective one, too. He offers a decent all-around skill set and is probably the team’s third-best pass rusher (though maybe that’s Grady Jarrett, now) and his injury left the team a bit short-handed in the playoffs.

Derrick Shelby

Shelby was signed to be a starter, got off to a painfully slow start, and then started to come on...right before he got hurt and missed the rest of the season. There’s enough talent here to be optimistic for 2017, but his 2016 season was more or less a wash.

Reserves

Courtney Upshaw

He played a little end! With injuries, Upshaw came on in the second half of the season and the playoffs, and should return. He’s a valuable rotational piece who will probably see more work at defensive tackle, but his versatility makes him mighty useful.

Brooks Reed (kinda)

Reed is no lock to stay at defensive end next year, and could be moved around the formation a bit. He had another pretty quiet season punctuated by a handful of excellent plays, most notably when he went nuts in the playoffs, and returns as a top-notch run defender who can occasionally rush the passer. You’re sensing a pattern here.

Results

Overall, this was a fine group in 2016, and the Falcons should get the band back together. The problem is that besides Beasley, there isn’t a potentially great pass rusher in the bunch, so Atlanta needs to set its sights on improving in that facet. They do have run-stopping acumen and versatility in spades, though, and that is worth something. It certainly was a year ago.