It’s a common refrain during NFL free agency: the best signings usually don’t happen during the first week. Despite teams throwing a tremendous amount of money around in free agency, the “splash” signings rarely seem to work out as well as hoped. That’s not to say they aren’t important—certainly, some do wind up working out perfectly, like the Falcons’ signing of C Alex Mack in 2016. But the majority either fizzle out or end up as fairly bad deals for one side or the other.
In 2019, the Falcons didn’t really have a “splash” signing. You could probably consider the franchise tag of Grady Jarrett to be the closest thing to a big addition, but most fans don’t see it that way because he was already with the team. Otherwise, the signings of Gs James Carpenter and Jamon Brown might have been the only ones that even came close. While the hope is that those two will provide a meaningful upgrade over Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland, I don’t think either will make as big of an impact as Atlanta’s most recent signing.
Ever since EDGE Adrian Clayborn was cut by the Patriots, there was rampant speculation that he’d find his way back to the Falcons. It simply made too much sense: Dan Quinn clearly valued Clayborn’s skillset and knew exactly how to use it, and Clayborn was comfortable with the scheme, the team, and the city. Compensation could’ve potentially been the hangup, as it was after the 2017 season where the Falcons decided they couldn’t afford to beat New England’s offer.
But despite having extremely limited cap space, Atlanta was able to work out a deal that was amenable to both sides. Clayborn’s contract is reportedly for 1-year, and is worth “up to” $4M. The Falcons only had $4.29M in space prior to the signing, so a good portion of that figure is probably “unlikely-to-be-earned” incentives. Those incentives do not count against the cap in 2019, but would count in 2020 if they’re achieved.
Clayborn is allegedly coming off a “down year” in New England, where he had only 2.5 sacks in 2018. But looking only at the sack numbers doesn’t tell the whole story. In his homecoming to the Falcons, I expect Adrian Clayborn to be Atlanta’s best free agent signing of the 2019 offseason.
For starters, let’s take a closer look at the stats. As I mentioned above, Clayborn had 2.5 sacks in 2018, to go along with 11 total tackles and 3 TFL. In terms of snap counts, Clayborn played 318—approximately 30%. That was third-highest on the Patriots at defensive end, behind Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. For comparison, in his most productive Falcons’ season (2017), Clayborn played 554 snaps—approximately 53%. That was the highest of any EDGE on the team, but also included his snaps as an interior pass rusher.
Despite only playing 30% of the snaps for New England—almost primarily at EDGE—Clayborn continued to put up consistent pressure. He produced 13 QB hits in only 14 games played for the Patriots. In 2017 with the Falcons—his 9.5 sack season—Clayborn produced 17 QB hits on significantly more snaps and 16 games played. So any thoughts about him potentially being “washed” are greatly overblown, and aren’t taking into account the whole picture.
We also have to keep in mind that the Patriots played Clayborn almost entirely at EDGE. I’ve had a difficult time determining if he even played any snaps on the inside for New England. As we saw in his two years in Atlanta, Clayborn is a versatile player—and maximizing his production means moving him around in various situations. Clayborn is an excellent run defender on the edge, but average as a pass rusher. On the interior, Clayborn is quite dangerous as a pass rusher, but is too small to hold up against the run consistently.
Dan Quinn seemed to know exactly when to move Clayborn around, and I’d expect that inside/outside versatility to continue to be a big part of his game in 2019. But in New England, they did not appear to utilize this aspect of his game. Clayborn seems to be a more productive—at least in terms of sacks—pass rusher from the interior. Seeing as the Patriots rarely played him there, it’s no wonder his sack production fell.
Regardless of his stats, it seemed that Clayborn simply brought a strong, positive attitude to the Falcons’ defensive line from 2015-2017. It seems clear that Vic Beasley benefits from a strong veteran presence around him, so perhaps Clayborn’s return can help the first round pick get back on track this season. His physicality and ferocious motor seemed to help everyone play a little more motivated, so we shouldn’t count out the leadership aspects of his game.
In 2019, I expect Clayborn to return to his role as the third EDGE in the rotation. He’ll likely start on the outside in base packages across from Takkarist McKinley or Steven Means, and rotate on the interior in passing situations. For the Falcons, having that added depth on the defensive line is vitally important. Clayborn is a reliable presence at a variety of positions, and having him available to take on a more prominent role if injuries strike—or if Vic Beasley simply continues his trend of mediocrity—should not be discounted.
The Falcons didn’t make any huge signings in 2019 free agency, but I strongly believe that when the dust settles, we’ll look back at Clayborn as the best addition. Maybe not for his production alone, but for the benefits his attitude and veteran presence brought to a young Falcons defensive line group.
What are your thoughts on Clayborn’s return? Do you see him returning to his previous role on the defensive line? Just how big of a difference do you think Clayborn will make for the pass rush and run defense?