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Ranking the Falcons' 2017 opponents defensive lines: Panthers, Seahawks top list

*Editor's note: This is the first installment in a six-part series ranking the different position groups of the Falcons' 2017 opponents. The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on represent those of the individual authors. Unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the Atlanta Falcons' organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. *

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Since Dan Quinn's arrival in Atlanta, he's had his eye on the improving the Falcons' defensive line. A defensive line coach at heart, Quinn has a proven knack for getting the most out of his talent up front. He showed that in Seattle, and he's on his way to doing just that in Atlanta. The Falcons' sack total jumped from 19 in 2015 to 34 in 2016.

People outside of Flowery Branch are starting to take note of this, too.


USA Today's Nate Davis ranked all 32 NFL team’s defensive lines heading into the 2017 season and the Falcons cracked the top 15, coming in at No. 13. The Falcons earned high praise for their offseason acquisition of Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe.

Atlanta also added defensive end Jack Crawford this offseason and don't forget about the return of defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn -- two players who missed significant time for the Falcons in 2016 with season-ending injuries.

It doesn't stop there, though.

The Falcons own the NFL's 2016 sack leader in Vic Beasley, who will be heading into his third season.

In need of someone to rush opposite of Beasley, the Falcons attacked the draft with that in mind by trading up for UCLA pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley.

Needless to say, the Falcons have revamped their defensive line, and the unit finally has all the makings to be one of the league's best in 2017.

Staying in the spirit of analyzing defensive lines and it being the offseason – the time for lists on lists, I give my assessment of the top five defensive lines the Falcons will face this season.

1. Carolina Panthers

• When they play in 2017: Nov. 5 at Bank of America Stadium, Dec. 31 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

• Summary: Over the past two seasons, the Panthers have built one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the league. Carolina relies heavily on the play of their defensive line, and it's easy to see why. The Panthers' defense ranked No. 6 against the run, giving up an average of 91.6 yards on the ground per game. The unit also ranked No. 2 in the NFL with 47 sacks on the year. Defensive end Mario Addison led the Panthers with 9.5 sacks on the year, with defensive tackle Kawann Short adding six sacks, giving him 17 sacks over the past two seasons.

• Outlook: The Panthers signed Short to a five-year worth a reported $80 million contract this offseason and have a solid trio of defensive ends in place in Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson and Addison for the upcoming season.

2. Seattle Seahawks

• When they play in 2017: Nov. 20 at CenturyLink Field

• Summary: One of the main components of Seattle's Super Bowl winning season in 2013 was the play of their defensive line. And since then, Seattle hasn't stopped being dominant in this area of their game. In 2016, Seattle ranked No. 7 against the run giving up 92.9 yards per game. Of the Seahawks' 42 sacks, 26.5 came from defensive ends Cliff Avril (11.5), Frank Clark (10) and Michael Bennett (5).

• Outlook: The Seahawks' defensive front returns all four of its starters in DT Jarran Reed, DT Ahytba Rubin, Bennett and Avril and also added defensive tackle Malik McDowell through this year's draft. McDowell was one of the top-graded nose tackles in the 2017 draft class – he's also able to slide outside and play some end as well. In 36 games at Michigan State, McDowell recorded 90 tackles, including 24.5 for a loss and notched 7.5 sacks.

3. Minnesota Vikings

• When they play in 2017: Dec. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

• Summary: Since Mike Zimmer's arrival in Minnesota, the Vikings have had one of the league's top defenses, starting with the play of their defensive line. Minnesota's defense – starring defensive end Everson Griffen – tallied 41 sacks on the year, with second-year defensive Danielle Hunter leading the way collecting 12.5 of those. Griffen finished the season with eight sacks. The Vikings ranked No. 20 against the run, giving up 106.9 yards.

• Outlook: Outside of the production Minnesota saw from Griffen and Hunter in 2016, the unit possesses a lot of depth – a big reason to why they've been so successful for several years. Nose tackle Linval Joseph returns as well as veteran defensive end Brian Robinson who notched 7.5 sacks last season.

4. New England Patriots

When they play in 2017: Oct. 22 at Gillette Stadium

• Summary: The last team the Falcons faced in the 2016 season, the New England Patriots, showed what their defensive line was capable of late in the game. Defensive end Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan 2.5 times during the heart-breaking loss, after a regular season in which he recorded seven sacks. New England was stellar against the run, giving up 88.6 yards per game – good for No. 3 in the league. They were middle of the pack in terms of sack total, finishing with 34 on the year. Perhaps one of the reasons why the team added pass-rusher Kony Ealy in free agency this spring. Ealy has recorded 14 sacks in his three seasons in the NFL.

• Outlook: With the pass-rushers New England has in tow in Ealy and Flowers combined with the depth the Patriots have on their interior with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy, the unit could be primed for another big year.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

• When they play in 2017: Nov. 26 at Raymond James Stadium, Dec. 18 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

• Summary: Nineteen of Tampa's 38 sacks in 2016 came from three of its top defensive linemen: Gerald McCoy (7), Robert Ayers (6.5) and Noah Spence (5.5). All three of whom return for the upcoming season, and the unit added defensive end Chris Baker this offseason who recorded 11. 5 sacks during his six-year career with the Washington Redskins. The Buccaneers finished as the No. 22 ranked team against the run in 2016, giving up 117.2 yards a game.

• Outlook: With this season being defensive coordinator Mike Smith's second year in Tampa, the unit has heightened expectations. With all three of their top pass-rushers returning, the Buccaneers' defensive line has the makings to be one of the league's best in 2017.

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