When things didn’t work out at weakside linebacker for the Falcons, they shuffled some of their linebacker corps.
The master plan called for Duke Riley to take over at weakside linebacker, but when that didn’t work out, DeVondre Campbell went back to weakside linebacker from the strongside spot, and the Falcons played defensive end Vic Beasley at the strongside slot for six games last season.
“Vic made a sacrifice to help us all out,” Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “He played multiple positions for us to go up.”
After leading the NFL in sacks with 15.5 in 2016, Beasley found himself dropping into coverage and playing against tight ends.
“(The media) said that we got better, but little did they talk about that he was a big part of that,” Manuel said. “The ability to do certain things that when we were playing him at linebacker that helped us out.”
Beasley, whose sack total fell to five last season, looked sleek and comfortable back at left defensive end during the team’s open OTA session Tuesday.
Beasley appeared ready to move back to the spot where he led the league in sacks and earned All-Pro status during the 2016 season.
“Man, just being a help to the team,” Beasley said about playing linebacker. “I understand that when one man goes down, I tried to step in. If it’s filling a need and helping out at that position, I’m open for it. I’m here for the best interests of the team.”
Beasley had to develop a different mentality while dropping into coverage.
“I wasn’t rushing as much as I normally would,” Beasley said of his dip in sacks. “There were less opportunities, but it was for the betterment of the team and what the team needed most at that moment. I was fine with that.”
Beasley, who was taken eighth overall in the 2015 draft, is set to enter his fourth NFL season and plans to take on more a leadership role on the defensive unit.
“For the most part, these young guys that have come in, they look up to us,” Beasley said. “That’s the main priority for me, being a great leader and setting a good example for these young guys.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he wants Beasley to develop an inside countermove to go along with his excellent outside speed rush. He believes the defense has several areas to improve.
“Get more sacks,” Beasley said. “Everybody likes getting more sacks, right? Make more plays in the backfield. Getting deflections, that’s what it boils down to, being a relentless defense and a strong front four.”
Beasley had four sacks as a rookie before leading the league in the 2016 season.
Riley is going to get another shot to prove himself.
“He’s a guy that, the honest truth, he knows this and I know this, everyone in his circle knows this, he didn’t fulfill his expectations as far as his play was concerned,” Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “We both took a very honest look at his game. Early in the offseason, very very early in the offseason. We made some goals, and he’s absolutely going for it.
“Who’s to say if he becomes a special player. That’s up to him and the opportunity that he has. I promise you this, he’s doing everything humanly possible to be better than he was last year.”
Defensive line coach Bryant Young believes Beasley will flourish while solely playing defensive end.
“It frees him up to play more first- or second-down nickel and be available in that way and be fresher during the course of the game,” Young said. “Not that he couldn’t handle it because I thought he did a good job of handling the (strongside) and playing defensive end. Just having him available to play more reps at defensive end will be good for us.”
The concern at defensive end is if Beasley can hold up against the run.
“He’s about 240 and 245,” Young said. “He plays with good strength. He plays with good power. People don’t realize how strong that Vic is. So, I think he’ll be OK holding his own.”
Manuel also believes Beasley will be fine.
“That’s one of the things we are excited about,” Manuel said. “That consistency that we can get from him.”
Beasley has started 36 games and has 94 tackles, 24.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles and one interception.
Beasley is set to make a base salary of $705,000 in 2018. The team picked up his fifth-year option in April and his base salary for next season is $12.8 million.