Draft behind, Falcons still need to fix broken pass rush

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Two linebackers. A strong safety. A tight end. An offensive guard. A wide receiver.

The Atlanta Falcons most definitely addressed some need areas with their six-man draft class. But what about adding a pass-rusher to a team that had a league-low 19 sacks last season?

Falcons coach Dan Quinn spoke about the group of draftable pass-rushers, as a whole.

"I thought this year's class featured some really good inside guys," Quinn said. "And I think that showed all the way through the draft, where last year maybe there were some guys early on that had some big pass-rush background to them. I think each year, there are ebbs and flows in terms of stacked at this position but not as much at this one.

"Certainly at linebacker, felt like the inside guys, especially all the way from Myles (Jack) and Jaylon (Smith) and all the way down at inside linebacker (this year) where maybe the pass rush, although there was some good guys, maybe not as many as another year."

Some figured that maybe in the first round the Falcons would have targeted Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson to bolster the pass rush. The Falcons instead went with strong safety Keanu Neal at No. 17 as Lawson went No. 19 to Buffalo. Quinn's explanation was that Neal's physical presence and coverage ability on third down would help the pass rush.

When the Falcons initially held the 50th overall pick in the second round, pass-rushers Emmanuel Ogbah (No. 32 to Browns), Kevin Dodd (No. 33 to Titans) and Noah Spence (No. 39 to Buccaneers) were off the board. (The Falcons eventually traded down to No. 52 and selected speedy inside linebacker Deion Jones.) They probably wouldn't have taken a chance on the troubled Spence anyway.

Whatever the case, the Falcons still have to proceed with the mindset of fixing a broken pass rush. They'll, of course, rely heavily on second-year player Vic Beasley, who is transitioning to Sam linebacker but expected to be the primary pass-rusher, as long as he perfects his counter moves. The most likely pass-rush foursome as of today would be Beasley and Adrian Clayborn off the edges with newcomer Derrick Shelby and Grady Jarrett on the interior. The Falcons hope to get something out of last year's most costly free-agent acquisition, Brooks Reed, too.

"We added Shelby, we're moving Clayborn out to D-end, we're hoping Reed comes alive," Quinn said. "(Reed) was big-time injured last year (groin surgery). We know he's got pass rush to him. And we'll develop some of the guys to come through.

"It's not just go out (and get a rusher). There's also the guys that are here in the building. We'll get them better, too. You can count on that."

Of course, the Falcons want as much pressure from the front four as possible. Blitzing is an option as well, and the Falcons now have more speed at linebacker to blitz more effectively.

Fourth-round pick De'Vondre Campbell (6-foot-4, 232 pounds) from Minnesota might be a key element in the pass-rush equation. He's been working on his pass-rush skills with former Falcon and pass-rush guru Chuck Smith.

"We saw him a good blitzer," Quinn said of Campbell, who had a team-high four sacks for the Gophers last season. "I know they didn't use him as a down rusher at Minnesota, but we did see the blitz part of it both as an outside guy and an inside guy. And there is a knack to that. Oftentimes, for the rushers, it's the length. I can use my long arms to get past the guy and the ability to close. So that part, I think, is in his game."

So will the Falcons try to make Campbell a down rusher?

"Yeah, I'll probably," Quinn said with laugh. "Knowing me, I'll try for a day and, `OK, go back to linebacker.' But this is the time we try to find out as much as we can about a guy because if you have more unique traits, then we can try and feature them. But I totally see him as an inside 'backer first -- but the inside 'backer that has good pass-rush blitzing ability, and that's a unique guy."