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The evolution of the Falcons DE position, 2008-2018

The Falcons are still chasing John Abraham’s ghost.

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons’ pass rush is an ongoing punchline for a reason. Whether it’s been due to unimaginative scheming, prioritizing run defense over pass rushing acumen, or just failures in drafting and player development, the Falcons have pretty consistently failed to get a great front seven going over the last decade-plus. Defensive end has been at the forefront of that problem.

It should be noted that in that span, the Falcons have invested two first round picks and tens of millions of dollars in free agent contracts to try to find their next John Abraham and effective complements to him, and they’ve pretty consistently struck out. Part of that is the difficulty of finding another John Abraham—the man is a borderline Hall of Famer—and part of it is the story of continual ineptitude for a Falcons team that has managed to land a star at virtually every other position on the roster over the past decade. The fact that they have a couple of promising players on the roster at the position right now does not exactly erase the many ways they’ve managed to disappoint us at DE over the years.

Hold your nose and let’s dive in. Please note I attempted to organize this by the numbers of snaps each defensive end received in a given year.

Falcons DEs

Year DE1 DE2 DE3 DE4 DE5 DE6
Year DE1 DE2 DE3 DE4 DE5 DE6
2008 John Abraham Jamaal Anderson Chauncey Davis Kroy Biermann Simon Fraser
2009 John Abraham Jamaal Anderson Kroy Biermann Chauncey Davis Lawrence Sidbury
2010 John Abraham Kroy Biermann Jamaal Anderson Chauncey Davis Lawrence Sidbury
2011 John Abraham Ray Edwards Kroy Biermann Lawrence Sidbury Cliff Matthews
2012 John Abraham Kroy Biermann Ray Edwards Cliff Matthews Lawrence Sidbury Jon Massaquoi
2013 Osi Umenyiora Jon Massaquoi Malliciah Goodman Cliff Matthews Stansly Maponga Kroy Biermann
2014 Kroy Biermann Malliciah Goodman Osi Umenyiora Jon Massaquoi Cliff Matthews Stansly Maponga
2015 Vic Beasley Adrian Clayborn Kroy Biermann Brooks Reed Malliciah Goodman
2016 Vic Beasley Adrian Clayborn Brooks Reed Dwight Freeney Courtney Upshaw Cliff Matthews
2017 Vic Beasley Adrian Clayborn Brooks Reed Takkarist McKinley Courtney Upshaw
2018 Vic Beasley Takkarist McKinley Steven Means Derrick Shelby

Over the last decade-plus, the Falcons have employed exactly one elite defensive end. John Abraham was a force of nature and finished his career as the team’s all-time leader in sacks, and no one the Falcons have paired with him or tried to replace him with has come remotely close to being as impactful as he was. Vic Beasley’s one season of elite production and couple seasons of solid work probably make him the second-best guy on this list—though Takk McKinley’s upside is such that he ought to take that title away as soon as this year—and the third-best is probably Mike Smith’s favorite chess piece Kroy Biermann.

Too often, the team’s play at defensive end has not been defined by its genuine successes (Abe) or even its moderate-to-promising successes (Davis, Biermann, Beasley, Takk). Instead, it has been defined by the team’s continual inability to land great players at an important position, with free agent busts (Edwards), draft busts (Anderson), and at least semi-promising young players who either don’t get a fair shake or flame out with more exposure (Massaquoi, Sidbury, Maponga, Goodman). They’ve consistently managed to land useful reserves with their late round picks and pinched pennies, but until/unless McKinley turns out to be special, they’ve consistently failed to find high-end starters.

Biermann remains one of the most interesting cases on the roster. He wound up being a key reserve, special teamer, and (all too frequently) starter for the Falcons from 2008-2015, making him one of the team’s longest-tenured defensive ends. The team has always loved to have that kind of starter-in-a-pinch versatile backup, with Chauncey Davis, Biermann, and Brooks Reed filling those roles over the span we’re talking about here. It’s not yet clear who that guy will be now that Reed’s on to Arizona, especially with Steven Means suffering his crushing Achilles injury. Biermann was pretty widely reviled by the time he left, just like Reed’s departure was not widely mourned, but Means’ injury is a reminder that useful defensive ends don’t grow on trees, especially for this Falcons team.

As this team rolls into 2019 with minty-fresh rookie defensive end/defensive tackle John Cominsky and Dan Quinn’s promises to maximize Takk and Beasley, it’s worth reflecting on their history at DE. This team can go a long way with their offense and their talented secondary, plus their gifted defenders up front like Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett, but I’m still waiting for the next great Falcons defensive end.