Other than Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, there weren’t any guarantees that any other defensive end would return from last year’s roster. Adrian Clayborn and Courtney Upshaw were free agents. Despite showing major improvement over the last two seasons, Brooks Reed’s contract was looking pricey for a role player. The same applied to Derrick Shelby as well. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see all four players move on elsewhere.
The front office managed to retain Reed and Shelby in different creative ways. That put less pressure on them, as the time it took to complete Matt Ryan’s new deal limited their off-season plans. To have two solid veterans in Reed and Shelby meant their base defense remained mostly intact. Even though Clayborn will be missed, it creates more opportunities for McKinley. His development is crucial, along with Beasley’s return as a full-time edge rusher.
The 2016 sack king faces a pivotal upcoming season. It can be argued that no other player on the roster is under more pressure than Beasley. An unimpressive rookie season was quickly eclipsed by a record-breaking second year. For all his impressive achievements, he wasn’t consistently playing at a high level. Those flashes of dominance didn’t translate into sustained success. That was evident last season, where there were long stretches of Beasley not impacting games. A serious hamstring injury and playing strong side linebacker for seven weeks may have plagued him. It was still troubling to see him not generate much pressure when Dan Quinn reinserted him back into a full-time pass-rushing role during the last few weeks of the season.
The jury is still out on Beasley. Will he evolve from being a speed rusher that wins off sheer explosiveness? Not spending time learning about positioning and dropping into coverage as a linebacker can only benefit him. The coaching staff will solely focus on improving his pass-rushing repertoire. Beasley hasn’t been able to consistently convert speed-to-power over the course of his career.
Although he may not possess the strength to overpower opposing tackles, there is no reason why he can’t outmaneuver them with better technique. Expanding his pass rushing arsenal and continuing to use his hands more effectively will be crucial for Beasley’s development into becoming a legitimate game-wrecker.
As Beasley looks to silence critics, McKinley is on the path of erasing any doubt about the Falcons trading up for him. The charismatic edge rusher was terrific in a limited role last season, though it was difficult for Quinn to give him extended snaps within the rotation. With Beasley and Clayborn as the primary edge rushers, McKinley averaged 20 to 30 snaps per game. That didn’t prevent him from leaving his mark on several games. McKinley produced a sack in six out of the last nine games, which included impressive third-down sacks against Minnesota and Los Angeles.
How the former first round pick utilizes his physical attributes makes him so intriguing. Despite being relatively raw as a player, McKinley managed to generate steady pressure. His long arms, ferocious power, and endless motor gave opposing tackles fits. There were even instances of McKinley showing impressive bend when rushing off the edge. Many scouting reports knocked his lack of bend coming out of UCLA, but now the possibilities seem endless with him.
Similar to Beasley, he can only benefit from a full off-season without any health issues or positional changes. The Falcons have a special talent on their hands. Not many edge rushers have a get-off quite like McKinley. Mastering a few moves could quickly elevate him into the double-digit sack club.
Quinn deserves credit for the development of several young players. It also can’t be ignored how much he is getting out of certain veterans. Look no further than Reed’s resurgence over the past two seasons. After struggling to find a role for him in 2015, Quinn decided to use him as an edge defender in base. Inserting him into the LEO role proved to be an ideal fit. Reed has always been capable of setting the edge. To primarily utilize him as a run defender, while giving him pass-rushing opportunities helped revitalize a slowly forgotten figure in Atlanta.
Reed is expected to retain his role. After being a potential cap causality, Reed took a pay cut to keep his place within Quinn’s rotation. It was important for him to stay following the departures of Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe. The Falcons have one of the youngest defensive lines in the league. To have a veteran presence is always valuable, especially when the player is known for his work ethic and willingness to refine his craft. Taking the time to work with Dwight Freeney and learn how to properly use a spin move has worked wonders for him. There aren’t many unsung heroes in a defense filled with young playmakers. Reed can stake his claim as one of the few.
When it comes to setting the edge, there is nobody on the roster better than Shelby. The versatile defensive lineman rebounded nicely after a difficult first season. Before tearing his Achilles, Quinn decided to use him on the inside. It was one of Quinn’s few personnel miscues. Instead of trying to use him as an undersized interior pass rusher; he realized Shelby is better suited off the edge within the base defense. That is how he found success in Miami. Allowing him to square up tackles and overpower tight ends on outside runs is where Shelby shines the most.
His presence was crucial in improving a porous run defense. For all his success, it wasn’t surprising to see him become an initial cap casualty. Shelby offers little to nothing as a pass rusher. If he can’t win with power, there isn’t much else he brings to the table. The front office opted to bring him back on a new deal. Whether it was because they didn’t land Michael Bennett or re-sign Clayborn, we’ll never know the actual reasoning behind his return. It’s still an important signing based on his experience and value to Quinn’s rotation. Shelby will reclaim his place on the right side of the base front, where he’ll play an integral role in stopping the run.
Whoever emerges from this group will likely earn a place on the practice squad. J’Terius Jones, Mackendy Cheridor, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner are the likeliest candidates. All three players will get plenty of reps this summer. Cheridor is the most intriguing name based on his measurables and local ties to Georgia. With Quinn’s willingness to dedicate more time into the defensive line than any other position, these prospects will get more coaching and guidance than they could ever ask for.