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Injured Falcons Can Boost D-Line in 2017

Looking ahead, as key dates in the offseason approach, one area the Falcons could prioritize is D-line. General manager Thomas Dimitroff mentioned Atlanta wants to improve its pass rush, and the upcoming draft, chock full of front seven prospects, could bolster a talented, up-and-coming defense.

"Of course, we need to continue to get up and affect the passer," Dimitroff said after SBLI when asked about positions he'd want to bolster.

He added, however, that a number of current Falcons could improve that facet of the game. And there happen to be two such players under contract who, upon their returns from various injuries, can help: Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn.

Shelby, who appeared in six regular-season contests before heading to IR with a torn Achilles, joined Atlanta following an impressive campaign in Miami. After Cameron Wake tore one of his Achilles, he stepped in and logged career-highs in sacks, hits, hurries, pass breakups and stops. Shelby also returned an interception for a touchdown.

Overall, he finished with the 10th-highest Pro Football Focus grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2015, even though he started just eight games.

And while Shelby was relatively quiet during the beginning of last season, he showed signs of improvement as he adjusted to his new part with the Falcons. During his final game of the year, he tallied four pressures and a quarterback hit – doing so in just 27 reps.

Now familiar with his role in Atlanta, Shelby has a chance to make a substantial impact in 2017. If he continues to be the run-stopper he was with the Dolphins, and if his pass-rushing keeps getting better, he can change the dynamic of the Falcons' defensive front.

Clayborn is more of a known commodity. The 2011 first-round pick's 4.5 sacks ranked second on the team, behind Vic Beasley Jr., and his 11 QB hits were more than any other Falcon recorded.

He faced a lot of adversity in 2016, missing three games after knee surgery and getting knocked out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round when he tore a bicep. Still, he established himself as one of the team's best pass rushers, and as someone who can play a lot of snaps.

Together, the returns of Shelby and Clayborn can give the defense a lot of versatility – a trait head coach Dan Quinn cherishes. Both can play inside and outside; each is able to contribute on all three downs.

The two will join Beasley and Grady Jarrett, among others, and given what each of the four is capable of, the Falcons' defensive line looks to be in good shape before any outside additions are made.

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