The preamble isn’t necessary here, because the average Falcons fan has thought a lot about defensive end to this point and is very well aware of the stakes here.
They’re the same as they have been these last couple of seasons, but both starters are under more pressure.
Vic Beasley is expected to be one of them. Beasley’s 2016 set expectations for a superstar trajectory he just hasn’t followed to this point, putting together a solid but unspectacular 2017 and a largely abysmal 2018 that he rescued by playing a bit by playing well down the stretch. The Falcons are banking that in the final year of his deal, with Dan Quinn running the defense, and with what we all hope is a totally healthy defense around him, Beasley will bounce back in a major way in 2019.
There are similar hopes for Takk McKinley, who enjoyed a better year than Beasley but still had long stretches of inconsistent play. Takk’s been a better player than the box score has indicated each of the last two seasons, but he has the talent necessary to become an elite defensive end and is just now entering his third year in the league. He’s a strong bet for a breakout season.
Given the problems the defense battled through last year, plus the fact that the Falcons are entering a crucial third year for Takk and Vic’s looking for a contract extension, makes the decision to not make sweeping changes at defensive end understandable. It is still a gamble, particularly with Beasley, who may be gone in 2020 whether he enjoys a good season or not.
Adrian Clayborn was the big addition of the offseason. Clay was good-to-brilliant during his time in Atlanta from 2015-2017, putting up 17 sacks over three years and playing well against the run. He’s coming off a statistically unimpressive season in New England that still saw him play quite well, and he’s a significant add for a team that was lacking a third capable defensive end with Brooks Reed leaving town and Steven Means now set to miss the year with a major injury.
The Falcons are sniffing around Allen Bailey, but barring that addition their fourth defensive end looks like it’ll be a young, largely unproven player. John Cominsky is a rookie the team seems hellbent on moving (at least part-time) to defensive tackle, but the physical specimen will probably start his career at defensive end and has a path to playing time in his rookie season. He’s the only roster lock in this group.
Chris Odom returns after he was a preseason darling back in 2017, and is joined by rookie pass rusher Durrant Miles and Austin Larkin, a player who has been called a sleeper a couple of times with other teams. Odom and Larkin have a bit more experience, but Miles was a productive college player with interesting athleticism. At least one of these guys will have a practice squad spot, but a veteran signing like Bailey may mean none of them actually make the final roster, so they’re names to file away for now.
It’s worth noting that guys like Jack Crawford can play end in a pinch, especially if Dan Quinn wants to roll out larger lines, so they’re not limited just to the small pool of players they’ll likely end up with.
Everything is so dependent on what Beasley and McKinley can do. Clayborn is a fine player and Cominsky has loads of potential, but Beasley and McKinley are the players this franchise has truly invested in, and McKinley’s effectively under contract for two more years after this, while Beasley could be the recipient of a new long-term deal. Dan Quinn has staked a lot on those two guys delivering excellent 2019 results, so if they don’t, anything else that happens at defensive end isn’t likely to matter all that much.
The team has done a nice job of setting themselves up with a veteran rotational guy, either way, and the addition of someone like Bailey to go with Clayborn and Cominsky would actually give this team intriguing depth. Defensive end just wasn’t a strength last year, and for this defense to be anywhere close to elite in 2019, it needs to be now.