Soon as Dan Quinn took over as head coach the Falcons began transforming their long neglected defense into a near mirror image of the one Quinn coached in Seattle. The team's first pick under Quinn in 2015 was pass rushing outside linebacker Vic Beasley. They also landed corner Jalen Collins and tackle Grady Jarrett in that draft. In year two of the Quinn regime it was safety Keanu Neal in the first round followed by middle linebacker Deion Jones and weak side backer De'Vondre Campbell. All six of these players were starters for the Falcons in 2016. This spring Atlanta added another chess piece in first round selection Takkarist McKinley at defensive end. With the exception of Jarrett who is a big body that anchors the run defense, what all these players have in common is speed, athleticism and tenacity. In three seasons the Falcons defense has gone from an underachieving patchwork of late round picks and free agent veterans, to a highly talented unit full of fast young athletes.
Grady Jarrett was the most fantasy productive of Atlanta's front four last season. His totals of 20-27-4 are not attention grabbers but they were enough to land Jarrett among the top twenty interior linemen. He is an aggressive big man with a combination of power and wiggle that give centers and guards problems. Jarrett just turned 24 in April so his best football is probably yet to come. His production could get a big boost from the presence of free agent addition Dontari Poe. Poe is a 346 pound space eater that will likely be plugged in at nose tackle, allowing Jarrett to slide into the 3-technique role, making him a solid DT2 target with a little upside in 2017.
Dontari Poe had a couple of strong fantasy seasons with the Chiefs in 2013 and 2014 but his numbers fell of sharply over the past two years. There is at least some chance he could rebound with his new team but I would not count on it. The one issue that continues to come up with defensive linemen under Quinn is a lack of opportunity. Just as when he was with the Seahawks, the Falcons shuffle a lot of players through the front four to keep everyone fresh. The approach seems to work great on the field but it does fantasy owners no favors. With an average of 39 snaps per game, Jarrett played the most of any Atlanta interior lineman in 2016 while Adrian Clayborn saw the most action among defensive ends at 45 plays per game. What we may end up seeing is a Poe and Jarrett rotation at nose tackle while Ra'Shede Hageman and Courtney Upshaw take turns as the 3-technique tackles. Regardless how they approach it, Jarrett likely remains our best/only viable fantasy option on the inside.
Takkarist McKinley is a talented pass rusher but he may not start as a rookie, indeed he may never be a three down end, but he should have a vital sub package role right from the start. He is somewhat raw in terms of technique as a pass rusher and at 250 pounds he is a little small to hold up as a point of attack or edge defender versus the run. No one questions his toughness, work ethic or effort so McKinley could eventually overcome those issues. One good sign is a highly productive senior year at UCLA which included 50 solo tackles, 10 sacks, 6 batted passes and 4 turnovers on fumbles. I have no concern with McKinley when it comes to sack potential; even as a rookie he could have good numbers in that area. The reason I am avoiding him is the probable lack of matching tackle production. Between the limitations of his current skill set and the rotation of four or five players at the position, McKinley will be hard pressed to record more than 25 tackles this year. He is a player I will continue to keep a close eye on when the preseason starts but at this point I see him as no more than a taxi squad stash for dynasty owners in 2017.
Adrian Clayborn has proven his ability to be a productive three down end. What he has not proven is an ability to stay healthy. As a rookie with Tampa Bay in 2011 he finished 27-13-7.5 with 3 forced fumbles. Clayborn's second season was washed out by injury. In 2013 he was 44-20-6 with a pair of forced fumbles for the Buccaneers. In 2015 he played one game before landing on IR. Clayborn made it through a full slate of games as part of the Falcons rotation in 2015 but he played slightly under half the defensive snaps; the result being 14 tackles and 3 sacks. Last season his workload was increased substantially and Clayborn was looking great. He was on a roll over a six game stretch starting in week four, going 15-1-4.5. In week ten Clayborn suffered a knee sprain that basically ended his regular season. He returned for the playoffs only to suffer a torn biceps in the second round. If he can manage to stay healthy and continues to play around forty five snaps a game, Clayborn could be a fantasy factor as a matchup based second starter or quality depth with upside. He will go undrafted in most leagues so we can afford to pass on draft day and pick him up if he looks good in September.
Brooks Reed, Jack Crawford and Derrick Shelby complete the rotation at end. Crawford is the best run defender of the trio and is likely to earn the starting spot opposite Clayborn. As part of the rotation in Dallas over the past two seasons Crawford recorded 27 tackles and 7 sacks on roughly one full season's worth of plays. Reed has been a big disappointment since coming over from Houston in 2015. He is penciled in as a starter entering camp but will have a tough time holding off Crawford. Shelby was a 2016 free agent addition that was injured before getting to show much. He was fairly productive as a nickel package rush specialist for the Dolphins in 2014 and 2015. Shelby has also been known to play some tackle in sub packages and could see time in that role this season. Unless the number of bodies rotating is reduced by injury, none of these guys are likely to get enough playing time to make much box score impact.
DE Adrian Clayborn - Injury risk with DL2 potential when healthy
DE Brooks Reed - No value
DE Jack Crawford - Marginal value
DE Takkarist McKinley - Dynasty target with high sack potential
DE Derrick Shelby - No value
DT Ra'Shede Hageman - Marginal value at best
DT Grady Jarrett - Potential DT2
DT Dontari Poe - Marginal value at this point
DT Courtney Upshaw - No value