Hawks in the NFL: Ex-Hawks could boost Falcons

BY CHARLIE GREEN | JUNE 30, 2015 5:00 AM

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Hopes are high for a NFL defensive turnaround this season in Atlanta, and three former Hawks are slated to play big roles if the unit hopes to improve.

The Falcons have a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and the weapons offensively to sport a legitimate offense — but the defense in recent seasons has been problematic to say the least.

The woes start up front; the team has recorded a league-worst 83 sacks over the last three seasons. The Falcons hope that the addition of a former first-round draft pick adds a new dynamic to the pass rush.

The Carolina Panthers won the division last season with a 7-9 record, meaning that a more formidable defensive effort could have huge implications for Atlanta in 2015.

Adrian Clayborn

Falcons’ assistant Raheem Morris reigned as head coach of Tampa Bay at the time the Buccaneers drafted Clayborn in 2011. In his rookie season, Clayborn recorded a team-high 7.5 sacks and looked every bit the player the franchise hoped he would be.

But he’s been hampered by injuries ever since. After tearing his biceps in the first week of the 2014 season, Tampa Bay declined to pick up his option for a fifth year, making him a free agent after the season.

The Falcons jumped at the opportunity, likely in part because of his connection with Morris, and gave the former Hawkeye a one-year deal to prove he can still be an effective pass rusher.

Defensive guru Dan Quinn, one of the architects of the Seattle Seahawks’ defense, is now at the helm in Atlanta. The team also drafted athletic pass-rushing linebacker Vic Beasly of Clemson and signed defensive end O’Brien Schofield in the hopes of reshaping a lackluster defensive front.

Clayborn isn’t the only Hawkeye who will try to turn things around. One veteran has been in the league for a long time and has managed to last through numerous subpar years in Atlanta.

Jonathan Babineaux

The 6-2, 300-pound defensive tackle enters his 11th season in the NFL — all of which have been with the Falcons. He’s proved a consistent and reliable run stuffer and interior rusher in the league, and he is likely in the twilight of his career.

He’s in the second year of a three-year, $9 million deal, however, so the former Hawk is not done yet.

And that’s good news for the Falcons. The team surrendered a league-worst 398.3 yards per game to opponents in 2014.

One thing to watch for is second-year tackle Ra’Shede Hageman of Minnesota. At 6-6 and 318 pounds, Hageman has exceptional athleticism for his size.

If he outplays Babineaux in training camp, he may take the starting job. Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai are also in the mix — giving the Falcons four options for two spots. 

Even so, Babineaux’s experience ensures him his share of playing time even if it comes in rotational action. The best defensive lines have depth, and if Babineaux brings that to spell fatigued starters, then he brings value.

The 33-year-old is getting up there in age, and if Hageman makes a big leap this year, it’s not unfathomable Atlanta would release Babineaux and bank on a younger, cheaper player in Hageman for the future.

Charles Godfrey

Godfrey rounds out the former Hawks in Atlanta’s defense, and he has a great shot to earn a starting shot at free safety despite only appearing in five games last season.

The nine-year veteran spent six-plus seasons in Carolina before being released last season and picked up by the Falcons. He has 11 career interceptions but none in the past two seasons. 

But Atlanta’s pass defense ranked last in the league in yards per game last season, largely because of a lackluster secondary. If Quinn’s time in Seattle proved anything, it’s that he loves physical, hard-hitting and aggressive cover safeties (à la Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas).

Godfrey doesn’t bring that same athleticism and is not the caliber of defensive back that Quinn enjoyed with the “Legion of Boom,” but his physicality does figure to put him in contention for a starting role come training camp.

Second-year back Dezmen Southward of Wisconsin has the right body type and immense athleticism to challenge Godfrey, but it appears that Quinn is interested in working him in as a nickel corner.

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