Editor's note: This is the first of a nine-part series detailing each position group ahead of Falcons training camp.
FALCONS ROSTER PREVIEWS
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons lost a pair of key starters along the defensive line in free agency when Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signed elsewhere, but there's still plenty of reasons for optimism with the unit heading into training camp.
Here are five things to know about the Falcons' defensive line:
Clayborn and Poe may be gone but plenty of talent returns
Although Clayborn has moved on to New England and Poe will not be back after his lone season in Atlanta, the Falcons return six players along the defensive line from 2017: Vic Beasley, Jack Crawford, Grady Jarrett, Takkarist McKinley, Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby. Those six players accounted for 178 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Beasley and Jarrett have proven they can be among the best at their positions in the NFL, and McKinley was among the best rookie pass-rushers last season, earning six sacks and falling one shy of tying the Falcons' rookie record. Crawford looked to be poised for a strong season until a biceps injury against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4 sidelined him for the rest of the year. Both Reed and Shelby are experienced veterans who understand the Falcons' defense and can make a handful of impact plays over the course of a season.
"To be honest, I think we were stacked last year, I thought we had a lot of talent," Crawford said earlier this summer. "And for the most part, we retained a lot of that talent. We have the experience to be elite, it's just about bringing it together now. We have the chemistry, it's just about learning good habits and looking at where we can get better from last year."
Deadrin Senat and Terrell McClain are welcome additions
Following the departure of Poe, the Falcons were expected to address the defensive tackle spot early in the draft. Although Atlanta waited until the third round to add Deadrin Senat, the Falcons like what he brings to the defense.
"We're very excited," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after drafting Senat. "We're going to put him at nose tackle and put him right into the mix with the other guys – with Jack [Crawford] and Grady [Jarrett] and all the guys inside. Let's let him come in and compete and battle. But he's got really good quickness for a big guy, strong, square and the effort and toughness and all the things we look for at that position."
In his four seasons at the University of South Florida, Senat recorded 178 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. During minicamp and OTAs, Senat worked closely with Jarrett, following him around like a shadow.
Senat isn't the only new member of the Falcons' defensive line. Atlanta signed former Washington Redskins defensive tackle Terrell McClain to a one-year deal this offseason. In the Redskins' 3-4 defensive front McClain didn't have the level of production he did for several years in the Dallas Cowboys' 4-3 front, but Quinn believes he's a good fit in the Falcons' four-man rotation.
Players to keep an eye on at training camp
Outside of the names I've already mentioned, there are several players who are worth paying attention to at training camp. The Falcons signed defensive linemen Garrison Smith and Justin Zimmer over the offseason who each have NFL experience.
Smith appeared in 11 games for the Seahawks over the past two seasons and was a consistent player during his career at Georgia. Zimmer, who has spent time with both the Bills and Saints, has yet to play in a regular season game but he was a standout in college at Ferris State. In his four college seasons, Zimmer recorded 216 tackles, 48.5 tackles for a loss, 26 sacks, 14 pass defenses and nine forced fumbles.
A couple of other names to keep in mind are defensive end J'Terius Jones, who spent last season on the Falcons' practice squad, and rookie defensive tackle Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who recorded 7.5 sacks last season as a senior at UCLA.
Position battles to watch
The Falcons rotate heavily along the defensive line, so each player on the active roster should have a role, but there is at least one spot without a returning starter. Following Poe's departure, it remains to be seen who will start alongside Jarrett at defensive tackle. At this point, Crawford, McClain and Senat are the likely candidates.
McClain and Senat might be the better fits for the Falcons' base package, while Crawford may be used more in likely passing situations.
McKinley has big pass-rushing potential
As his rookie season unfolded, McKinley showed increasing promise. Four of his six sacks came in the second half of the season, and he carried that momentum into the postseason, recording a sack in each of the Falcons' playoff games.
Pro Football Focus' pass-rush productivity metric measures the pressure a player creates on a per-snap basis, and it highlighted just how much potential McKinley has as he receives more pass-rush opportunities.