Entering the 2016 season, if you had a desire to wager money on the next NFL sacks leader, the headliners were obvious.
There was odds-on-favorite J.J. Watt, of Houston. Next came up-and-comer Khalil Mack, of Oakland. And, of course, don’t forget about Von Miller, the star of reigning Super Bowl champion Denver.
Far down the list, at 100-to-1, was a man many critics in Atlanta were ready to deem a bust after one year — 2015 first-round selection Vic Beasley Jr.
Beasley not only put those thoughts to rest, he also put away the contenders. He became the first Falcons player to lead the NFL in sacks (15 1/2).
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And as the Falcons are set to host Seattle in the NFC divisional round Saturday, Beasley now sits atop an even shorter list as one of a handful of favorites to nab NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“A lot of people kind of slept on me,” Beasley said. “But things have come to fruition for myself.”
Even though Beasley has settled into one forceful role for the Falcons, for the longest time, it was difficult to figure out what his best position in football was.
Growing up in Adairsville, Georgia — 60 miles northeast of Atlanta — Beasley was a three-sport standout in football, track and field, and basketball.
At Adairsville High School, he was an all-state running back and linebacker. He even had three special-teams scores as a senior.
When he went off to Clemson, Beasley imagined himself more of an offensive player at wide receiver or tight end, which is where he started his career.
Eventually, Beasley settled in nicely as a defensive end for the Tigers, finishing his career with a school-record 33 sacks, and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year in 2014.
Then his dream scenario happened: A high riser on the offseason combine circuit, Beasley fell to the No. 8 pick overall. That is where the Falcons nabbed him.
“I cannot explain the feeling I got being drafted,” Beasley said. “I hoped to be an Atlanta Falcon, but I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
The Falcons saw the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Beasley as the ideal speed pass rusher off the edge. But that did not materialize at all last season, when Beasley finished with four sacks as a rookie.
Last offseason, Beasley was on the move again. Coach Dan Quinn decided to move him to strong-side linebacker, and play him in the same hybrid spot as Miller (Beasley’s idol) or Oakland’s Bruce Irvin, after whom Beasley has modeled his playing style.
“Their similarities are first-step quickness, and both Bruce and Vic have really good get-off,” said Quinn, who was Irvin’s defensive coordinator in Seattle from 2013-14. “When you can beat a guy to the punch, it allows you to have some counters to beat a guy back inside.
“Forever, I’ve felt get-off is what sets it off as a pass rusher, and (Beasley) has got it.”
It has also helped immensely that Beasley has been tutored by seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney, who is with the Falcons.
“He’s been a great help, not only to our defensive front, but the whole team from a leadership standpoint,” Beasley said. “I am just buying into the process, and trusting what the coaches present for me each and every week. It is up to me to go out and execute them.”
Beasley started this season slowly, being held without a sack in four of his first six games. One of them was Seattle’s 26-24 win Oct. 16 at CenturyLink Field.
He’s been on fire ever since, recording 11 sacks over his final 10 games. His breakthrough effort came against the Los Angeles Rams, where he had three sacks and returned a forced fumble 21 yards for his first career touchdown in a 42-14 win.
Beasley totaled six sacks in December, and was named NFL defensive MVP for that month. His six forced fumbles tied Irvin for the NFL best as well.
“He’s turned it up this year,” Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright said. “He looks really good. We have to be ready for that.”