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Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree led production spike among defensive ends and edge rushers -- Falcons Breakdown

The pair of established veterans had 13 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss and 25 QB hits between them. 

Editor's note: The Falcons editorial team of Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney, Terrin Waack and Amna Subhan will analyze each position group during the "Falcons Breakdown" series, which evaluates how every position performed in 2023 and what to look for in 2024. Up next, the defense takes center stage.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons switched up the size and stature of their defensive ends and edge rushers in 2023.

While they didn't all stand at newcomer Calais Campbell's 6-foot-8 and 282 pounds, the crew got a lot bigger. Bud Dupree signed in free agency and then weighed in at 269. The Falcons also drafted Zach Harrison, who carried a 6-foot-6, 272-pound frame.

It was a sign that, along with additions on the interior – Tori McElhaney details that position group here – the Falcons were getting bigger along new coordinator Ryan Nielsen's defensive front.

That paid dividends in run defense and especially the pass rush, but it also created some different roles for incumbent edge rushers more athletically suited to Dean Pees' defense.

That meant that 2022 Day 2 draft picks Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone moved to a strongside linebacker role primarily part of the base defense. A 2022 free-agent signing, Lorenzo Carter was an exception, retaining his place along the front.

These veterans and young players were able to get after the quarterback, with 25 sacks from this group of defensive ends/edge rushers. Compare that to 2022, when the same position group had just 9.5 sacks, albeit with far less talent overall.

Campbell and Dupree constituted significant upgrades to this crew, bringing a long track record of success and experience in big games. Those two had 13 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss and 25 quarterback hits between them in 2023.

They also provided excellent run defense, setting the edge and routinely making plays in the offensive backfield. While there were encouraging signs about the state of a position group that had provided lackluster returns in recent seasons, it enters some flux this offseason with Campbell and Dupree on expiring contracts and Nielsen – a quality DC and top-flight defensive line coach – headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Let's take a look at how these ends/edge rushers fared in 2023 and what challenges the group might be facing in 2024:


2023 production:

Calais Campbell: 17 game appearances, 17 starts | 6.5 sacks | 56 combined tackles (10 for a loss) | 17 quarterback hits | One forced fumble | One fumble recovery | One pass defensed

Bud Dupree: 16 game appearances, 16 starts | 6.5 sacks | 39 combined tackles (eight for a loss) | Eight quarterback hits | Two forced fumbles | Three passes defensed

Lorenzo Carter: 17 game appearances, one start | Three sacks | 35 combined tackles (six for a loss) | Nine quarterback hits | One forced fumble | Two fumble recoveries | One pass defensed

Zach Harrison: 16 game appearances, zero starts | Three sacks | 33 combined tackles (four for a loss) | Five quarterback hits | One pass defensed

Arnold Ebiketie: 17 game appearances, six starts | Six sacks | 25 combined tackles (three for a loss) | 12 quarterback hits | Two forced fumbles | One pass defensed

Who stays: Lorenzo Carter, Zach Harrison, Arnold Ebiketie

Who's on the bubble: Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree, Joe Gaziano and DeAngelo Malone

Biggest offseason question: Will Campbell and Dupree come back?

Campbell has played 16 excellent NFL and will likely end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. He exceeded the 100-sack milestone and has nothing left to prove. Despite all that, he left the door open for a 17th run at greatness, saying he's "leaning toward playing again."

Campbell also said the Falcons' coaching choices could impact a return to Atlanta as he determines best fits.

Dupree left open the prospect of a return engagement, though new coaches and the open market will impact all of that.

Transition is inevitable when a new coaching staff gets brought in, just as it was when the Falcons went from Pees to Nielsen. Preferred traits get changed based on scheme. Roles can, too, so it's difficult to predict what the next defensive coaches will be looking for.

One thing that's certain: The Falcons must add new, young talent to this group. They did so in 2022 with Ebiketie, who showed improvement as a pass rusher, but the Falcons need more. A first-round prospect would certainly help, but depending how things go, that might get earmarked for a quarterback. If that's the case, some serious free-agency investment might be warranted on a younger, established player who regularly hits double-digit sacks.

That shouldn't eliminate consideration for Campbell or Dupree, quality players who can mentor younger ones while still producing on the field. With some productive interior players remaining under contract and strength at inside linebacker and safety, this could be a time focus investments on the outside and bolster a talented, deep defensive unit.

Join us as we take a look back on the top 100 photos from the Atlanta Falcons' 2023 season.

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