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Veteran leadership, willingness to learn, part of why Calais Campbell thinks 'this D-line could be scary' 

Campbell, Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata lead the formidable defensive front

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga — David Onyemata doesn't know the Falcons starting defensive line collective years experience in the league off the top of his head, but he knows it's significant.

It's 30 combined seasons.

The standout defensive end with the most of all is Calais Campbell, and not just because he stands above the rest at 6-foot-8. It's because of his experience entering his 16th NFL season.

"Just his presence out there, it just commands leadership," said senior defensive assistant Dave Huxtable, who works with the defensive line. "He's such a friendly guy; he's a friendly giant."

Falcons linebackers coach Frank Bush said it's not only what Campbell has done in the past, but what he continues to do.

"When he stepped on the field he wasn't (acting like he was better) than everybody per se, he was able to just do the grunt work like everybody else," Bush said. "Once he started working, guys really kinda fell in love."

Bush said the team loves Campbell's work ethic, his insights and willingness to help others.

The Falcons added Onyemata and Campbell to work alongside Grady Jarrett, who has been a stalwart lineman for the past eight seasons. It will take time to jell together and become a cohesive unit, but they have experience on their side.

Jarrett was a reason for Campbell to join the team. The All-Pro raved about Jarrett's abilities and intelligence from a defensive lineman's perspective.

Honestly, though, the Falcons weren't even on Campbell's radar at the start of free agency. Atlanta's commitment to deepening the defense with signing Onyemata, Kaden Elliss, and later Bud Dupree also helped tip the scales.

"They're really building something," Campbell said. "You see it all kind of lining up, and then you're like 'Wow, this D-line could be scary.'"

Behind the starters are several young guys including rookies Zach Harrison and Timmy Horne.

Coach Arthur Smith praised the guidance that Jarrett and Campbell can provide. Smith has urged younger players to pick the brains of their veterans about their routines and habits.

Campbell has especially been a strong mentor for fellow defensive end Zach Harrison, even though the rookie makes jokes about Campbell like, "he's old bro."

Harrison said that he continually pokes fun at Campbell, but the six-time Pro Bowler simply ignores the cracks at his age.

When Campbell was drafted to the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, Harrison was six years old. Now, since the Falcons picked Harrison in the third round, Campbell has imparted wisdom to the rookie.

"There's always hard work, the secret's always been working (for him)," Harrison said encapsulating Campbell's advice. "Seeing how he plays out there, this is Year 45 for him, and just knowing that there's some truth to what he says."

(If you didn't catch it, that was another joke at the end.)

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch during the 2023 AT&T Training Camp.

Jarrett appreciates the competition of the younger defensive lineman. He describes it as a mutual situation where the starters push the reserves, and the younger players also raise the level of competition for the vets if they start to settle.

"We all learn from each other," Jarrett said. "It's all hands on deck, and that makes everybody just want to go harder for each other."

Campbell said he expects an almost hockey-like rotation, where one group will grind for several minutes and another line will replace them keeping those veterans fresh.

Onyemata said that leadership is most prevalent so far in meeting rooms. When watching tape together, if someone is having a hard time figuring out what the right play looks like, there's more than enough experience in the room to correct the mistake while making it easy to understand.

Friday's preseason game versus the Cincinnati Bengals gives a chance to see it translate onto the field. Starters will play in a limited capacity, and while it's always important to stress that it's just preseason, the Bengals are a top-10 favorite to win it all with an explosive offense.

"We have a lot to prove, but you see the potential," Campbell said. "Just building our rapport, building our hunger and trying to create our identity."

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