Falcons in a rush to improve up front

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
7:52
PM ET
MOBILE, Ala. -- Although the Atlanta Falcons staff got a close view of the Senior Bowl prospects it coached during the first day of practices Monday, it was too early to say which players made the biggest impression.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan couldn't pinpoint one player when discussing the group of pass-rushers he watched. Nolan, however, did give an overall assessment of what he's looking for in a pass-rusher as the Falcons try to improve an area of dire need.

"You have to have ability, of course, first," Nolan said. "To me, I like to see guys that if something doesn't work, they come back and try something new. They don't keep banging their head against the wall.

"Some guys are just naturally gifted and have a natural feel all the time. Like a running back finding the hole, some guys just have a natural feel and find the hole. And that's the same thing with good pass-rushers. Some of them just naturally have a way to feel the soft spot. Other guys are just so gifted that they just run around guys."

A handful of defensive linemen, on the North team showed a quick first step from the edge and the interior. Both Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle made plays in the backfield. Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy stuffed out a reverse. Pittsburgh Aaron Donald showed his explosiveness in drills and drew praise from new Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

Missouri's Michael Sam, a college defensive end playing with the linebackers at the Senior Bowl, made an impression, too. He even knocked Nolan over during a drill.

"I saw several guys, but it's always that way early," Nolan said. "I would have to name 15 guys. That's why I don't go there. But as the week goes along, some guys kind of elevate and some guys kind of go down. But all these guys will be on an NFL team next year, in some capacity."

Head coach Mike Smith discussed what he looks for in a pass-rusher.

"We want to look at guys who have the ability to run the edge in their pass rush, so I think athleticism is very important in rushing the passer," Smith said. "So we're going to be looking for guys that can create a mismatch on the offensive line with their athleticism."

It's fair to wonder if the Falcons will address their need for a pass-rusher with the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could be gone by then and the next best pass-rushers after Clowney are UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

The Falcons finished tied for second-to-last in the league with 32 sacks.

Vaughn McClure

ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter

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