FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich snickered at the notion that Vic Beasley Jr. would be deprived of his pass-rushing specialty while making the transition from rush end to strongside linebacker.
"The emphasis with Vic will still be pass rush," Ulbrich said. "The emphasis will still be his nickel end stuff, will still be playing Sam as a blitzer. The majority of his meeting time will be devoted to that. The majority of his individual work pre-practice will be devoted to that. The majority of his practice reps will be devoted to that. And on Sundays, the majority of his reps will be devoted to that.
"The Sam stuff, it's just another way to get one of our best athletes on the grass. It's not going to be anything that's going to take away from anything. And the beauty of it is, he's going to have a guy like Philip Wheeler or Tyler Starr or Ivan [McLennan] or others guys who are playing that Sam position that will be working with him. So, 'Vic, you're tired? OK, get your break here.' But on third down, that sucker's going to be on the grass."
Beasley's role entering the 2016 season has been one of the primary topics of discussion this offseason. True, the Falcons do ask their strongside linebacker to drop into coverage in certain situations. However, the coaches insist their primary focus with Beasley is making sure he gets after the passer. That's why they drafted him eighth overall a year ago.
"Any time we pressured with base last season, we always brought the Sam," said Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith. "So, that's part of the package. We can run from an over front and bring him off the open-side edge. We can get in an under front and bring him off the tight end side.
"Really, it's the same situation that we did with Von Miller when we were [in Denver]. Beasley is probably better going forward than he is going backward. But also what it does, when you're in the under front, they might turn the protection, then he comes on a blitz and he's caught one on one against a back. We like that matchup.''
Smith was far from displeased with Beasley's rookie year showing. Beasley, who admitted playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, finished the season with a pedestrian four sacks after announcing a post-draft goal of double digits. He had five quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and one interception.
"First of all, he was a rookie, and everyone was expecting him to have a million [sacks]," Smith said. "If you go back and really look at the rest of those top first-round draft picks, I think he had as much [production] as any of them. I'm talking about [Shane] Ray from the Broncos. You're talking about the kid [Bud Dupree] who went to Pittsburgh. I could be wrong, but I think I'm right.
"Now what happen was, Vic played half of the downs for us. Imagine if he plays every down for us but also being smart enough that he has enough rest for third down. That's where Wheeler comes. ... But I like the versatility that playing Sam does for Vic. Also I like that it gets him on the field more. It makes him have to focus and learn a different position instead of saying, 'OK, I got it. I learned that a year ago.' I like the situation for him."
During individual drills in practice, Beasley and the strongside linebackers are working with Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox.
"It's all pass-rush technique, so we devote probably 80 percent of our individual drills to rushing the passer," Smith said. "Then the other 20 percent is how to handle the run and how to set the vertical edge. Where Vic gets his Sam work is after practice."
One of the aspects emphasized in those individual drills is improving Beasley's countermoves. Beasley himself said he's watched film of the Broncos' Miller to refine his technique.
"We're working on his rush moves in terms of really getting better with the use of his hands," Smith said. "This year, we've been working hard with it in critiquing every day in the meetings every one of his reps, making sure he sees it the same way we see it. And I think it's going to be helpful. I really do. I'm really excited about it.''