When Dan Quinn joined the Falcons this winter, he and Atlanta's front office held a series of meetings to determine what kind of personnel they should target in free agency. During one of those discussions, Quinn presented an intriguing idea: go after defensive end Adrian Clayborn—a 2011 first-round pick who never blossomed in Tampa—and move him inside.
The former Buccaneer has the blend of size and speed needed to play tackle, Quinn asserted. The brain trust agreed. So Clayborn and Falcons brass opened up talks in March, and shortly thereafter, the two parties came to terms on a multi-year contract.
And if the first three weeks of preseason are any indication, Quinn's unorthodox proposal is going to pay major dividends.
An argument can be made that Clayborn has been Atlanta's best player so far in 2015. The numbers are certainly impressive: In three exhibition games, he's racked up two sacks, four QB hurries and one pass deflection. Moreover, his cumulative 6.6 Pro Football Focus grade is the best on Atlanta's roster.
The Falcons needed to improve their pass rush this offseason, and by adding Clayborn—a consensus All-American at the University of Iowa—they took a big step towards accomplishing that goal.
"I had a really clear vision of how we'd use Adrian," Quinn said Monday. "It was different for him, and he had to have also the faith to say, 'Okay, coach, this is a new program for me. I've always played outside at D-end.' I just saw the quickness. He's working really hard to keep developing those skills."
Clayborn's early success has noticeably helped his teammates—including O'Brien Schofield, another Quinn recruit. Those two combined to make one of the best plays on Saturday against Miami: With less than a minute left in second quarter, Schofield exploded off the snap and forced a fumble by crushing Dolphins QB Matt Moore; Clayborn then dove for the ball and recovered it at Miami's 47-yard line.
This turnover led to a Matt Bryant field goal as time expired on the opening half.
Schofield has tallied three quarterback hurries in addition to the above sack in just 46 total snaps. By doing so, he's brought the kind of reliable pressure Atlanta's D sorely missed in 2014.
"I feel like there are a lot of areas I can improve in. I'm starting to just get loose," he said. "As far as the defensive line, we're still building that chemistry. To get the amount of reps together (in the preseason)—that was a big plus for us. It gave us a chance to know what we need to work on.
"We're starting to work really well as a group. For me, it's just bringing the speed, that quickness, the agility. Same as Vic Beasley. To have us on the edge, and Babs and (Clayborn) rushing inside, it's amazing."
It's a short week for the Falcons as they prepare to face the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome. The team is working hard in Flowery Branch to get ready for the game.
Having played in Seattle for the entirety of Quinn's tenure as defensive coordinator, Schofield arrived in Atlanta with a strong understanding of the new playbook. That familiarity, coupled with a strong work ethic, has made his transition remarkably smooth.
"I think the speed and the energy that (Schofield) brings to our team—whether it's at SAM (linebacker), whether it's at nickel defensive end—it always shows up," said Quinn. "His attitude, his style, I love it."
A big reason why Schofield has been able to get into the backfield is the quantity of one-on-one matchups he's been afforded. OLBs and DEs get such opportunities when DTs are double-teamed, and Clayborn, who's recently drawn plenty of attention, has given outside rushers space to work with. The aforementioned highlight, in which Clayborn fended off a pair of blockers, is a perfect example.
"Just to see the way he's moving around, his violence, it's energy for the defense," Schofield said of Clayborn. "When you have a guy like that who can go in and get a sack and make a big play, it gets the juices going. We all have the ability to do that, but it's just exciting to see for him."