The Atlanta Falcons had just 18 sacks a season ago, which not only put them last in the NFL but was 11 shy of the next-lowest team.
As a result, the Falcons went to work in the offseason, signing veteran outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter before expending two top-100 draft picks on the position, taking Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie No. 38 overall and Western Kentucky's DeAngelo Malone at No. 82.
While Carter's had a solid year in his return to the state where he starred collegiately, the Falcons' future on the edge lays with Ebiketie and Malone. Through 11 games, the former has been given a bigger opportunity - and he's run with it.
Ebiketie, 23, has played at least 50 percent of Atlanta's defensive snaps in all but two games, starting once. He ranks third on the team in sacks (2.5) and second in quarterback hits (10) while adding three tackles for loss and deflecting a pair of passes.
Perhaps most important is that Ebiketie has played his best ball over the last two weeks. In his first primetime game - Atlanta's 22-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers - he had half a sack and a quarterback hit and cleared those numbers easily in Sunday's 27-24 victory over the Chicago Bears, turning in his most productive outing to date.
In the win, Ebiketie had a season-high six tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and a quarterback hit. Best of all, the Cameroon native nicknamed "AK" earned high marks from the Falcons coaching staff.
"AK, we had him as our player of the game," Falcons coach Arthur Smith. "He's gotten better, got a sack - should've had another. But he's playing really well, some of the subtle stuff he's doing when you coordinate certain games that he's doing that I appreciate about him."
The "games" Smith is referencing are the stunts that Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees implements in his blitz packages. Ebiketie's intelligence and lateral quickness makes him particularly valuable in those instances where the defensive front creates confusion for offensive lines.
Standing 6-3, 256 pounds, Ebiketie is quickly growing into a balanced contributor against both the run and pass while developing a particular niche. Better yet, he's not alone in the growth department.
While Malone has twice been a healthy scratch and is yet to play even 30 percent of the defensive snaps in a single game, he's impressed the staff on special teams and continues to put together flash plays.
On the season, the former Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year has three tackles for loss, one sack and a quarterback hit while showing the ability to move in reverse and play in space.
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Neither Ebiketie nor Malone have put up absurd numbers, but the lines of scrimmage are notoriously difficult to adjust to for first-year players, and Smith feels like both are playing "well" - and improving at a linear rate.
"Those guys are getting better every week," Smith declared. "(Arnold) and DeAngelo, they're fun to work with."
The Falcons invested the capital that they did for a reason: they believed Ebiketie and Malone could provide the juice needed to solve the team's long-running pass rush issues. And while the numbers don't necessarily pop between the two and the Falcons rank just No. 30 league-wide in sacks per game at 1.5, the progress is evident.
In the current day and age of the NFL, many want immediate satisfaction, but it's just not realistic, especially in the trenches. The true value is found in game-to-game development, and between Ebiketie's defensive player of the game honor and Malone seeing his biggest snap share thus far, it's clear the Falcons are pleased with the growth both have made.
Talent is a requisite for the NFL, but work ethic and character often prove to be the distinguishing factor between those who stick on rosters and those who don't ... and Ebiketie and Malone seem to check those boxes with flying colors.
Patience is a virtue, and all the two rookies need is a little bit of time - with the end reward being opposing quarterbacks having none of it.
You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft
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