Every rookie pass rusher who lands in Atlanta seemingly undergoes the same arc. They are hailed as a potential hero, put up a solid-but-unspectacular first season, and a significant portion of the fanbase despairs that they will never turn into anything. Too often, that despair has been warranted.
Since 2000, the Falcons have drafted exactly one pass rusher who has managed a double digit sack season, and that would be Vic Beasley and his highly productive 2016. The team has drafted well over a dozen pass rushers over that span and hasn’t gotten much more than a handful of solid seasons out of any of them, so the skepticism about this team’s ability to find the guy is warranted.
If you were to look at just his statistics, you would have thought Arnold Ebiketie was more of the same in 2022. A much-ballyhooed and well-received draft selection, Ebiketie brought talent and upside to an outside linebackers group missing both. His rookie season was highlighted by some great moments and a consistent ability to find pressure in the early going, and ended on a down note as Ebiketie’s production and snaps dwindled down the stretch.
Dig even a little bit into his season and I think you’ll find that wasn’t the case. Ebiketie’s final five games were nothing to write home about, but especially early in the year, he showed the kind of potential that suggests he’ll be a quality starter at minimum for a long while yet. No matter what you thought of his season, he’s still the most promising pass rusher the team has had in a while, and is a player the Falcons will count on to deliver pressure in 2022.
Let’s take a look back at the season that was for the doctor of pass rush.
16 games, 30 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 28 pressures, 2 pass deflections
Rookie year highlights
- Second on team for quarterback hits; third on Falcons for sacks and pressures
- Had Jimmy Garoppolo in hell
- Was a force of nature against Cleveland, tipping a Jacoby Brissett pass and hitting the quarterback three times
Ebiketie’s season is really a tale of the first 11 games versus the final five games. In that first sample, Ebiketie had some truly impressive efforts applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks, picking up 10 of his 11 quarterback hits per Pro Football Reference (Pro Football Focus has him with 9, for the record), all of his sacks, and both of his pass deflections. In the final five games—he missed one due to injury—Ebiketie never fully looked like himself, playing reduced snaps and managing just one quarterback hit, one forced fumble, and four combined tackles over that span.
In that first stretch, as I often wrote while it was happening, Ebiketie was close to sacks without getting them. That still meant an impact on the quarterback, and we saw firsthand how smart and strong the rookie could be, throwing tackles off balance with an effective plan for attacking their weaknesses or simply pushing his way through them if all else failed. His speed once he’s clear of tangling with tackles allowed him to be a disruptive force on plays like this one against Cleveland, which isn’t the almighty sack we’re always clamoring for but is a demoralizing loss of a down nonetheless.
Going beyond the work as a pass rusher, Ebiketie was just a really solid young player all the way around. He didn’t miss a tackle all year, showed up throughout the season as a force against the run, and even graded out well for his very limited work in coverage in 2022. If you’re not going to have a jaw-dropping rookie season, you might as well have a fundamentally solid one that gives you a great base to build off of, and Ebiketie certainly did just that.
The sour note here is the lack of sacks, which should come as Ebiketie refines his pass rushing skills and grows more comfortable. There’s also the lack of production over the final five games, but that seems easily explained by injury and potentially hitting the rookie wall, as the Falcons dialed his snaps down from an average of well over 30 per game in the first 11 contests to just about 20 per game in those season-ending Sundays. Obviously, Ebiketie needs to be healthy and continue to work on his craft to improve his fortunes next year, but that’s not an outlandish expectation.
I think it’s safe to take Ebiketie’s first 11 games as evidence of his potential, which is considerable, and expect that he should be able to take a step forward and deliver more sacks, more pressures, and more memorable moments in 2023. I don’t think we’ll ever talk about Ebiketie as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL—I would love for that to age poorly—but he can be a very good player for the Falcons for a long time. Atlanta just needs to ensure he unlocks that potential and give him more help to make his life easier, but I’m no less optimistic about his future than I was last April.