Two years ago, Vic Beasley emerged as one the pre-eminent young pass rushers in the game. He led the NFL in sacks with 15.5, parading around left tackles with his elite speed.
Last season, after a position change to linebacker that dropped him into coverage more often, that shiny number fell to five.
This year, Beasley is back in his Ferrari at his lifelong position of defensive end, ready to crank the engine again and re-establish his pass-rushing dominance. The early signs from Flowery Branch are promising.
“It’s easy to lock in on one thing,” Beasley said Wednesday afternoon, when asked about the difference in the two roles. “When you’ve got multiple things, you have to focus on two different things — worry about this, worry about that. I try to cancel out worries, and just focus on what I can do and what I can do for this team.
“As a linebacker, normally you drop into coverage. You (go on) blitzes every now and then, but as a defensive end, pretty much your main asset is getting to the quarterback.”
That pursuit of the quarterback is an asset that Beasley always has possessed. At Clemson, he had three seasons with eight sacks or more. After a rookie season in which he posted a modest (but team-high) four sacks, the second-year defensive end exploded with 15.5 in his second season.
His 2017 campaign was both confounding and predictable. Out of his element — without his hand on the ground on a snap-to-snap basis — it’s no wonder his statistical production suffered.
To boot, Beasley dealt with a nagging hamstring injury in 2017 that kept him out of two games and undoubtedly hampered him in others.
So, problem solved, right? He’s regained full health. Defensive end is his wheelhouse, and he’s back there. The production will inevitably follow.
The logic isn’t that simple.
Beasley’s new position last year was a change in name more than actual role. The Falcons, like most teams, play more often in a nickel defense — one that uses five defensive backs and four down linemen — than a traditional base 4-3 or 3-4. In those situations, Beasley’s responsibility was rushing the quarterback, with little variation.
“He was always a nickel defensive end — we played almost 70 percent of our snaps in nickel,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “In the base-one, due to some injuries, that’s where we needed him (at linebacker).”
“His role was still rushing, but just in terms of his (opportunities), probably weren’t as many as he had before,” Falcons defensive line coach Bryant Young said. “We’ll see if that makes a difference there.”
While there’s a degree to which sacks are an outdated statistic in the modern era, Beasley’s season was a disappointment by just about any metric. According to Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” — a metric that attempts to holistically measure a player’s value numerically — last season was Beasley’s worst as a pro by a significant margin.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that will turn around in 2018. Those at Falcons training camp are banking on it.
While the defense is filled with as much talent as it’s had in years, Quinn and Young are still counting on Beasley to be the anchor of the front four, both in perception and production. In such a pass-heavy league, a 15-sack defensive end changes the entire complexion of a defense. Conversely, a five-sack player instills little fear.
“Having an injury and a little bit of a position change probably prohibited some of the production to have,” Quinn said. “I expect him to fully come back and really be the best version of himself, where he’s rushing as often as we can.”
But, a reporter presses, does he need to be more productive?
Quinn, sure to toe the company line, thought it over for a minute.
“From a production standpoint,” he said. “Yeah, that’s something our team relies on.”