INDIANAPOLIS – The Falcons freely admit they must improve their pass rush. That's no secret, considering how much they've struggled generating sacks and overall pressure on the quarterback.
It's also not something the Falcons are simply complaining about. They're actively working to improve in that area.
That was clear last year, when they took two edge rushers in the first three rounds. That was clear again last month, when longtime defensive line coach and reported pass-rush developer Ryan Nielsen was hired as Falcons defensive coordinator. It will be clear again this offseason, when the Falcons add more talent to their defensive front.
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That should come in free agency. It could also be addressed with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft. The Falcons will have some solid options in the first round and beyond in what analysts consider a deep class of pass rushers.
The Falcons have met with several of them here at the NFL Scouting Combine as they consider their options at No. 8 and beyond, working hard to bolster their pass rush.
While general manager Terry Fontenot was right to say in his Tuesday press conference that the pass rush only improves when the entire defense improves – you can't get to the quarterback if you can't cover – there's little argument the Falcon need more pressure players up front.
Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson, Clemson's Myles Murphy and Iowa's Lukas Van Ness are all options analysts have attached to the Falcons in mock drafts. All three are versatile players who have the size to work outside and inside, to create trouble from wherever they line up.
That aforementioned trio is pretty big across the board, seemingly fitting the size required to play end for Nielsen. That's an assumption made based off personnel employed by a Saints defense Nielsen helped run, but Fontenot cautioned against the thinking the Falcons will mimic every last detail of what their DC did before.
"We always talk about wanting to be multiple," Fontenot said on Tuesday in a meeting with local reporters. "We're never going to be stuck in one specific scheme. We're not trying to do things that were done in New Orleans with Ryan. We want to bring in good football players. We always want bigger, faster, stronger players. Ryan likes big guys. We like big guys, too. We're not changing to fit a specific scheme. We're going to be multiple."
There was word that kept coming up in press conferences with top edge rushers that the Falcons will like: versatility.
These top guys have size, speed, agility and an ability to move all over the place. If you're going to be multiple, you need guys who can thrive in several different techniques.
Van Ness certainly falls within that category. The Iowa product played defensive tackle in 2021 and defensive end in 2022 but was used in many ways by the Hawkeyes. That was a challenge Van Ness welcomed.
"I believe I bring everything in terms to the table in terms of in terms of playing the run and playing the pass," he said. "And I I'll play wherever a coach needs me to play."
He got a chance to meet with Nielsen and the Falcons brass Tuesday at the combine and came away with a positive experience.
"They have a great coaching staff," Van Ness said. "We had a really good interview; I enjoyed every moment of it. And they have a super interesting defense, I think it'd be a really fun scheme to play in. And obviously if I get the opportunity to play in that franchise, I'd really be looking forward to it."
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah is high on Van Ness and has mocked him to the Falcons twice already in this pre-draft process.
"I think they've been searching for edge rush forever," Jeremiah said in a conference call on Feb. 24. "When you stack it up on the board where it is, I think he offers them the upside there. He has some real power, he has some real twitch, and he is just figuring out what he is doing. I think you can -- you have a good player right now, and you can chase some of the upside with him as well."
Murphy might be associated with the Falcons at No. 8 overall more than any other player. He has all the skills you're looking for in a young edge rusher with plenty of room to grow. He also said he'd be thrilled to become a Falcon. That's especially true because he'd be playing for his hometown club.
"I've seen some mock drafts; some family members, cousins, have shown me it," the Powder Springs, Ga., native said. "It's an exciting journey honestly. We grew up watching the Falcons. My parents have been season-ticket holders for them. It's always a good feeling to have that formal interview with them, sit down with the GM, head coach, it was a good conversation."
The Falcons need an impact player up front, someone who can bring the heat (and a significant sack total) total off the edge. Wilson is regularly the highest-rated pass rusher the Falcons might be able to get without a trade up. It's nearly impossible to imagine Alabama's Will Anderson falling to No. 8, but landing Wilson would be a great get.
He came ready with a message to tell defense-hungry teams about what they'll get from him.
"I'm a great worker and I'm passionate about football and that I'll take the organization to another level," Wilson said. "... at the end of the day the eye in the sky don't lie. They can turn on the tape and tell I'm passionate about football. Get the ball carrier down even when it's not my play and they can tell in my tone that I'm passionate about this game."
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, during the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.