Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp. Today: Defensive line
If the Falcons are set for a defensive turnaround, it must start up front along the line.
Former defensive line coach Bryant Young left the team for family reasons and was replaced by Jess Simpson, a former Georgia high school coaching legend, who was the defensive line coach at the University of Miami last season. He was with the Falcons as Young’s assistant in 2017.
When training camp starts, Simpson will be charged with getting the unit prepared to stop the run and rush the opposing passers.
Veterans are scheduled to report July 21, one day before the first practice July 22. Rookies are scheduled to report July 18.
The Falcons will have eight practices open to the public, including one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and will play the Broncos in the Hall of Fame game Aug. 1 in Canton, Ohio.
Despite the fine play of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, the defensive front was not formidable in 2018.
The Falcons finished in the bottom half of the NFL in key statistical areas. The defense gave up 4.9 yards per rush, which ranked 29th of 32 in the league. Teams rushed for 124.9 yards per game (25th) and the pass rush netted just 37 sacks (22nd).
“Front wise, the addition of (Tyeler) Davison has been good as a first- and second-down player,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The addition of (Adrian) Clayborn back into the mix. He’s got savvy, and he’s got pass-rush to him. So, we’re excited that A.C. is back.”
Davison, formerly of the Saints will help inside with Jarrett and Jack Crawford. Second-year player Deadrin Senat and Ra’Shede Hageman also are on the roster.
The Falcons are hoping that defensive ends Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley can find their inner pass-rush.
“It’s a couple of things,” Simpson said when asked what was the master plan for the pass-rush. “Improving skill-sets at every position. It’s playing together and having a coordinated rush.”
Simpson is not singling out the ends. He views the pass rush as more of a collaborative project.
“If every guy improves his game and his skill-set and understands who you are as a player and what you do best, what your counters are,” Simpson said. “All of the things that go into teaching, if everybody in the room gets better, things have to improve.”
At the NFL scouting combine, Quinn said he was eager to work with Beasley over the offseason after he received the team’s $12.3 million fifth-year option.
Beasley did not share the coach’s enthusiasm and elected to stay away from the team and work out on his own. He attended the mandatory veteran minicamp.
“I just wanted to get some experience with some other guys,” Beasley said. “Step out on my own and just go from there.”
Instead of working with Quinn, a noted defensive line coach who helped send Jason Taylor to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Beasley worked with Bud Dupree, who’s also struggling early in his career with the Steelers.
“We were just learning a little bit from each other,” Beasley said.
The former Clemson star wouldn’t say he was working on his counter moves. It was noted last season that teams were sitting on his speed rush move and that he needed a counter.
“All you’re going to see from me is me playing my heart out, giving my best effort,” Beasley said.
The Falcons want to feature Beasley in the pass rush. He’s recorded only five sacks in each of the past two seasons after recording 15.5 in the 2016 season.
Beasley, who’s in a contract year, needs a big season
“No pressure at all,” Beasley said. “I just want to ball out.”
Simpson, who compiled a 164-12 record and won seven state titles during his 12-year stint at Buford High, believes the defensive line is primed for success.
“A bunch of hungry guys that are really good learners,” Simpson said. “Guys that want to get better. Guys that have been really intentional in the meeting room. Locked in. Focused.”
Clayborn led the Falcons in sacks in 2017, but left for New England in free agency.
“AC has just been outstanding,” Simpson said. “Being around AC two years ago, he was great. I like his leadership and his willingness to talk. ... When he speaks, they listen. He has a great voice and he’s a great teacher.”
During minicamp, Simpson made a pass-rush tape for Clayborn and let him present it to the group.
“Me and DQ walked out of there and said we learned some stuff,” Simpson said. “The guy is really sharp.”
Defensive line depth chart: DE 44 Vic Beasley, 91 Chris Odom. DT 95 Jack Crawford, 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat, 50 John Cominsky, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 93 Michael Bennett. DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 92 Justin Zimmer. DE 98 Takk McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 50 John Cominsky.
Who’s returning: Beasley, McKinley, Jarrett, Crawford, Senat and Bennett. Crawford played 623 snaps last season. “He’s a real pro,” Simpson said.
The Falcons are hoping Senat, who played 371 snaps last season, can make a jump in his second season in the league.
“He’s a good ascending player,” Simpson said. “He’s been in here (over the offseason) doing extra. The guy really wants to get better. He’s really put the work in.”
Who’s gone: Defensive end Bruce Irvin, defensive end Brooks Reed, defensive tackle Terrell McClain and defensive end Derrick Shelby.
Irvin signed a one-year $4 million deal with the Panthers on March 19. He received a $1.4 million signing bonus.
After being released, Reed signed a one-year, $1.625 million deal Feb. 11. He received a $250,000 signing bonus.
Roster competitions: Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, a former second-round pick, is trying to make a comeback after being out of the league the past two seasons.
Hageman, 28, who played in 44 games and made 16 starts for the Falcons, said he’s been “humbled” after his domestic-violence case was adjudicated and he served his suspension. He started in Super Bowl LI for the Falcons.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs
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