EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - Vic Beasley Jr. is a cornerstone of the Atlanta Falcons' refurbished defense, the new lion in a zoo-like, breakneck scheme to rush quarterbacks violently and crush them. This is what new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn brings from the Seattle Seahawks, where he fashioned just that type of assault as their defensive coordinator. Quinn refers to the defensive end/linebacker who does most of the quarterback hunting as the "Leo."
Beasley, the rookie from Clemson, is the Falcons' new Leo.
Last Friday night at the Falcons-Jets preseason game at MetLife Stadium, Beasley lined up left. He lined up right. He tipped a pass and he routinely maneuvered his way into the Jets' backfield. He created rushing lanes for others. He played very fast.
Afterward, he was among the last players to leave the Falcons' locker room. He walked slowly and talked softly. Everything about him was slow motion.
How can a young player so big (listed at 6'3, 246 pounds, but he says he weighs 240 now) be so fast and yet so slow? How can Vic Beasley Jr., be in such a rush but not in a hurry?
Since he began playing piano at age 16 at the Bethlehem Judah House of God in his hometown of Adairsville, Ga., he learned a level of patience and serenity, he said. His mother, Teresa, taught him honesty. His father, Vic Beasley Sr., taught him respect.
Beasley is a yes-sir, no-sir kind of guy who went to Clemson and exhibited patience. He agreed to be redshirted his first year. He stayed all four years afterward. He became an All-American player in his final two seasons and Clemson's all-time sacks leader.
At the NFL Combine last February, he flaunted his combination of quickness and agility along with his blazing first step and closing speed. He thought he might be drafted higher than at No. 8.
"My hometown is about 40 miles north of Atlanta and I grew up a Falcons fan," Beasley said. "And the only way I was going to get to play for them was to fall a little bit in the first round. So, it worked out just the way it was supposed to. I'm happy to be here. I bring to the table someone you can depend on. I bring depth to the end position here. I'm a great pass rusher. I get after it."
Some scouts were concerned about his power, how he would hold up in run defense and whether he could cover in the passing game. But most concluded, as an AFC scout told me on Friday night: "Vic Beasley can play in any defense, any scheme for any team anytime and anywhere."
The Falcons were sold.
Atlanta has not employed a dominant pass rusher since linebacker John Abraham left after the 2012 season. For six years, Abraham averaged nearly 11 sacks per season with the Falcons. But last year Atlanta fell to 22 total sacks, tied with Oakland for 30th in the league and a stunning 32 sacks fewer than Buffalo's league-leading 54. It was a factor in Atlanta's 6-10 season.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank then decided to shake things up.
Coach Mike Smith was fired. General manager Thomas Dimitroff was retained but challenged to fix the mess. Quinn was hired to ignite this team, to make this defense matter again.
As Dimitroff and Quinn and the rest of the Falcons leaders surveyed the draft and searched for the way to start, they pondered this:
Whomever we select with this first pick, especially at No. 8, has to be part of this fresh start, this reset. It has to represent Quinn especially. We have to understand that whomever we select and put in that locker room is a message to all of our current players that this is who we are, this is who we believe in, this is what we want and this is how we will build it moving forward. It is a critical message. It cannot be a mistake.
"That is exactly right," Dimitroff said. "All of that was a key factor for us in that selection. We saw that Vic had the kind of speed that pays for itself on defense."
Dimitroff snapped his fingers.
"He gets to the quarterback like that," Dimitroff said. "We haven't had a pass rusher like that since Abraham left and the need was glaring. Dan is really good about developing his players. It was all of that, but we drafted the person, too. A very mature, quality young man."
Recent NFL history is littered with examples of first-year leaders whose first draft pick led to the foundation for eventual Super Bowl victory. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome did it 1996 with his first pick at No. 4, tackle Jonathan Ogden, who played 12 seasons and was a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee. Coach Tony Dungy did it in Indianapolis in 2002 with his first pick at No. 11, defensive end Dwight Freeney. Coach Sean Payton did it in New Orleans in 2006 with running back Reggie Bush at No. 2. Coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh saw his first draft pick, linebacker Lawrence Timmons at No. 15 in 2007, help lead to a Steelers championship. And most recently, coach Pete Carroll in Seattle in 2010 selected the ultimate warrior, safety Earl Thomas at No. 13, a savvy pick that has led to a unique bond between them, two Super Bowl appearances and a championship.
Quinn gets it.
"He and I connect," Quinn said of Beasley. "You build that relationship. It helps how you improve. It gives us both a better understanding of how to get to the top. If you know his family, you know how special it is to be with him. He was productive in college. He can beat you to the punch; his first-step quickness is amazing. He practices hard. I want to get after the quarterback. He can do it."
Beasley knows it will take time to learn the nuances of Quinn's defense, to add bite to the Leo position. He is seeking to become more forceful with his hands in his attack, to use them as prominently as his speed against blockers.
"If I just concentrate and put God first and work hard and work for my teammates, it will be good," Beasley said. "Coach Quinn has a great scheme, a great plan and he can help me get to the next level. I think it is going to fall into place. I'm the right guy and a fan of my head coach. I know I'm his first pick, his first chance. I understand that. We'll have a chance to be as good as we want to be."
He already helps to make the Falcons defense look younger, quicker, faster ... bolder.
Quinn and Beasley walked through the door together.
In a rush.
Stalking opposing quarterbacks.
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