FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Vic Beasley Jr. heard rumblings in the media about how the Atlanta Falcons were close to trading him or cutting him during training camp, but because nobody in the organization said anything he ignored it.
“I just stayed positive and kept working,” the outside linebacker out of Clemson said. “I knew what I could do.”
“NFL sack leader,” Beasley said with a smile.
“If I keep working, possibly,” said Beasley, who led the NFL this season with 15.5 sacks.
Perhaps the word bust and Beasley really do belong together.
Not bust in the sense used last season, when critics said the eighth pick of the 2015 draft fell way short of expectations, something Beasley surely will be reminded about this week as he prepares for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
Instead, bust in the sense that Beasley one day could have his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with the league’s top all-time pass-rushers.
Right there beside Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Kevin Greene.
OK, so that’s fast-forwarding a bit. Smith needed 19 seasons and 279 regular-season games to reach his NFL-best 200 sacks. White needed 15 seasons and 232 games to get to 198.
Greene needed 15 seasons and 228 games to get to 160.
Beasley just finished his second season, 32 games total. His Super Bowl focus is on pressuring — and hopefully sacking — surefire future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
But consider that Smith had only two more sacks than Beasley’s 19.5 after two seasons. Beasley’s total this past season (15.5) is one-half sack more than Smith (15) had in his second season with Buffalo.
Greene had only 13.5 sacks after his first three seasons combined before going on a tear.
So Beasley can dream big.
“He has all the tools to be great,” said Atlanta teammate Dwight Freeney, 18th on the all-time sack list with 122.5.
‘Sky’s the limit’
Great wasn’t a word used about Beasley a year ago. Bust and disappointment were more common during a season in which he had only four sacks after recording a school-record 33 at Clemson.
Those words reverberated even louder when NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, the former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys who helped Dallas win two Super Bowls, reported that the Falcons were threatening to trade or release Beasley during training camp.
Now the Falcons are in the Super Bowl and Beasley is a big reason why.
“For now, the sky’s the limit for Big V,” Atlanta defensive end Tyson Jackson said.
That also wasn’t uttered a year ago. The negativity around Beasley was so commonplace that Atlanta defensive coordinator Richard Smith got tired of defending him.
“When you take a look at the first-round draft picks at that position in the National Football League, last year there was nobody that had more than four sacks,” Smith said defiantly. “I got tired of answering the questions and I think he did, too.
“I’m just happy he’s able to get some production out of it this year. He’s got the quickness, speed and length that you look for. He has created havoc.”
That was best seen in a Dec. 11 game at Los Angeles. The Rams refused to double-team Beasley and he made them pay with three sacks. He would have had four if a penalty hadn’t negated one.
Beasley had six sacks in Atlanta’s final five regular-season games, blowing past Denver’s Von Miller (13.5) for the sack title.
“The development of him from Year 1 to Year 2 was what we hoped it would be,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “He’s always had the speed to beat a guy to the punch. And now his ability to finish as a pass-rusher has been a really important part.”
‘Nothing but moves’
Freeney is known for his spin move. Miller is known for his speed rush, although he added Freeney’s spin move after working out with the future Hall of Famer in California during the offseason.
So what’s Beasley’s signature move?
“I’ve got nothing but moves,” Beasley said.
Many have been added over the past year because Beasley couldn’t get by on speed alone as he often did in college.
“I [was] shut down a couple of times,” he said.
Having a full offseason to work on moves and perfect the technique necessary to succeed in the NFL is a big reason for Beasley’s jump.
Don’t forget, he spent much of the offseason prior to his rookie year preparing for the NFL combine and individual workouts. He also was dealing with a shoulder injury that he played through as a rookie.
He didn’t have the benefit of working with teammates and coaches as he had for nine months prior to this season.
While Beasley admits he got a little frustrated with his inability to finish off sacks last season, he never got down on himself.
“Vic is even-keeled,” Jackson said. “He’ll come out every single day and work extremely hard. He didn’t give up. He continued to strive to get his game where he wanted. This season has paid dividends for him.”
Moving from end to outside linebacker also was a factor. But more than anything, Beasley is playing with more confidence and purpose — and he’s less predictable.
“I just go off the different feels the tackles give me,” Beasley said. “They study me, so I can’t keep doing the same moves. They’ll catch on sooner or later.”
Beasley doesn’t particularly like doing interviews. His answers often are short and to the point.
But his eyes lit up when asked about the opportunity to sack Brady on the NFL’s biggest stage.
“I would love that,” he said.
Sacking Brady won’t be easy. He was taken down only 15 times during the regular season, and he has been sacked four times during two playoff games.
To put that in perspective, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 37 times during the regular season.
“They just keep you off balance. They have a great screen game, running attack … just a real balanced attack. You’ve got to be disciplined. You just react to those things.”
But you can bet Brady and the Patriots will be aware of where Beasley lines up since no one else on the Atlanta defense has more than five sacks.
“I went to NC State and he went to Clemson, so I remember from college that he was a very fast and explosive pass-rusher,” Patriots rookie left guard Joe Thuney said.
Asked how that matchup went, Thuney smiled and said, “Don’t watch it.”
In other words, it didn’t go well for him.
Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon will be matched up against Beasley a lot, although the Falcons use Beasley on both sides and in the middle.
“He’s super-fast,” Cannon said. “Athletic. He’s really gifted — given trouble to a lot of tackles. … He’s real slippery with a ton of rush moves that we’ll have to deal with.”
That’s an understatement.
“When you’re talking about a guy like Vic who is extremely explosive off the football, you’ve always got to be aware of where this guy is located on the field,” Jackson said. “He can cause damage on the drop of the dime.”
Beasley didn’t hesitate when asked what his best moment has been this season.
“Here. Now. Making it to the Super Bowl,” he said.
Defense remains an issue for the Falcons. They ranked 24th in the NFL during the regular season. But where they’ve improved immensely since last season is in pressuring the quarterback.
They ranked 16th in sacks with 34, 15 more than they had last year when they were last in the league.
Beasley, with his ability to wreak havoc in crunch time, has been a major factor. He has shown with freakish ability and speed that the concerns about his size (6-foot-3, 246 pounds) when he was coming out of college were unwarranted.
Before the draft, Beasley was projected to go anywhere from the top 10 players to the bottom of the first round. Teams couldn’t decide whether he was a defensive end or outside linebacker.
New England coach Bill Belichick, who had the 32nd pick, came to Clemson’s pro day specifically to see Beasley in case he fell that far.
The Falcons started Beasley at defensive end all of last season, but Quinn moved the pass-rusher to outside linebacker to start this season. In Quinn’s first season as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, in 2013, he likewise moved Bruce Irvin to OLB (Irvin is now with the Raiders).
Beasley still plays down in nickel situations, but size is no longer a concern.
“His potential is pretty endless to me,” Atlanta linebacker Brooks Reed said.
Beasley is certainly not a bust or disappointment. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder will attest to that.
“I obviously didn’t see him at all last year, so I don’t know what the story was,” Solder said. “But I know right now he’s playing great ball and getting after a lot of guys and giving them a hard time.”