FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was prepared to trade up to get his pass rusher.
The way the first round developed, a deal wasn’t necessary. The Falcons selected Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night to address a glaring need on a struggling defense.
The selections of wide receivers Amari Cooper by the Raiders at No. 4 and Kevin White by the Bears at No. 7 helped to keep Beasley on the board. Another key was Washington selecting offensive lineman Brandon Scherff with the fifth pick.
Dimitroff and first-year coach Dan Quinn were relieved.
“In our situation there’s always a thought about moving up,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve been aggressive over the years in our approach here and Dan was in line with that thought process. If there had been a run on pass rushers it might have precipitated us moving up. We were again fortunate he was there.”
Dimitroff has made at least one trade in each of his first seven drafts in Atlanta.
Beasley was regarded as perhaps the most explosive edge rusher in the draft. Asked what he planned to bring to Atlanta’s defense, Beasley said “I’m a double-digit sack guy. I’m going to bring a great pass rush.”
Atlanta has made improving its defense an offseason priority under Quinn, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator. Quinn and Dimitroff interviewed Beasley at the NFL combine and again in a visit at Clemson.
The Falcons gave up the most total yards and passing yards in 2014. Their 22 sacks were the second-fewest in the league. Defensive end Kroy Biermann led the team with only 4 1/2 sacks.
Beasley (6-3, 235) should help improve those numbers.
He had 33 sacks in his career to set a Clemson record and was a first-team All-America selection. He had 12 sacks as a senior in 2014.
Quinn said Beasley’s strength is his “first-step quickness.”
“Usually for a rusher, when you can really get off the spot, that’s one of the things you really talk about,” Quinn said.
“Can a guy get off his spot? When we evaluated all the guys, that was the thing that really jumped out, his initial quickness. When you can beat a guy to the punch, that’s when you have your most success as a rusher and he can certainly do that.”
Beasley, from Adairsville, has said he always wanted to play for the Falcons but didn’t expect to have that opportunity.
“I thought I was going to go before the Falcons, to be honest,” Beasley said.
The pass rush was a weakness for the Falcons the last two seasons under former coach Mike Smith. The Falcons struggled to replace defensive end John Abraham, who was cut after leading the team with 10 sacks in 2012.
Atlanta has signed free-agent defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who has battled injuries in his career. Clayborn, a first-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2011, played in only one game in 2014 due to a torn biceps. He had a combined 13 sacks in 2011 and 2013, his only full seasons.
Among other offseason free-agent signees were linebackers Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and O’Brien Schofield and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki. The Falcons could look for more help at linebacker and tight end in the draft.
The Falcons passed on an opportunity to address another glaring need at running back. The team released veteran starting running back Steven Jackson and lost backup Jacquizz Rodgers, who signed with the Bears.
Local favorite Todd Gurley of Georgia, regarded as one of the top running back in the draft, was taken by the Rams two picks after the Falcons selected Beasley.
Asked if he considered taking Gurley, Dimitroff said, “Our focus was on defense.”
Atlanta has eight picks in the draft, including two in the seventh round.