Generally Positive Reviews Overall
Like the feeling of the day after Christmas, the NFL Draft has once again come and gone. Perhaps because of the insane amount of buildup, the draft is always an exciting and cathartic moment for us hardcore Falcons and NFL fans. Some also feel a sense of slight depression, knowing that the true dead zone of football is on it’s way and the draft has come and gone for those that follow it so intensely for so long.
Even though it will take some time to digest the entirety of the draft, all the ramifications it may have, and what the final roster will look like going forward, it’s always fun to give a “quickfire, gut reaction” while the draft is still fresh in the mind. Most experts and sites are giving very positive grades to the Falcons, who addressed most of their needs and followed through on their promise to get bigger, stronger, and tougher along the two lines. Of course, no draft can ever be perfect and there were some certain head-scratchers, but overall this seems to be one of the better overall drafts in Dimitroff’s tenure. At least on paper.
Use any method or system to grade the Falcons draft. Give your opinions on each draft pick and overall grade.
The Cage’s Shaky Attempt
Jake Matthews – Offensive Tackle – Texas A&M
What’s there not to like about this pick? He was roundly considered the safest, and even the best, pick by many experts and draftniks. The Falcons made no secret that they valued a pass rusher in the form of Clowney or Khalil Mack, and likely made inquiries into moving up and trying to get one of them. Ultimately, they stayed the course for once, didn’t give up any draft picks, and took one of the best players in the entire draft. Greg Robinson had a higher ceiling and Taylor Lewan probably had more of a mean streak, but in terms of all-around value, versatility, production, and ready-potential, Matthews was the best of the bunch.
Something that’s likely lost on some is the fact that Matthews earned 1st Team All-American at both the right tackle position and left tackle position, all the while playing in the SEC, arguably the toughest conference in college football. He immediately gets the nod at right tackle, but is obviously the future at left tackle when they decide enough is enough with the Sam Baker Experiment at left tackle. He provides excellent pass-blocking skills and good run-blocking prowess. The Falcons now have good and legitimate backup options in case Baker goes down with an injury once again. He also pairs with new RG Falcons Jon Asamoah, turning one of their biggest weaknesses (right side of the OL) into a strength. Ultimately, the Falcons chose one of the best players in the draft at an area of critical need. Grade — A+
Ra’Shede Hageman – Defensive Tackle / End – Minnesota
The Falcons continued their promise to build up their lines with the selection of Hageman in the second round. Hageman is an athletic freak of a human being, weighing in at 6’6, 310 lbs with 34 inch arms, and over 10 inch hands. He ran the 40 yard dash in almost 5 seconds flat, had almost a 36 inch vertical leap and added in 32 reps on the bench. Hageman had good college production, especially for a defensive tackle, hauling in 24 tackles for loss and 10 total sacks. He immediately adds even more toughness, athletic ability, and strength to a defensive line sorely in need of it. At one point, many pegged him as a late 1st round pick. He is now added in to a defensive line that includes Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux, as well as Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, and even Cliff Matthews.
One of the only reasons he likely fell to the second round was his lack of consistency at his position. Some draft experts said he has a hot and cold motor and need improvement in the production department. New DL coach Bryan Cox seems like a perfect fit to help bring out the best in Hageman. He adds versatility in being able to play pretty much any position on either a 3-man or 4-man defensive front. Some wanted more of an edge pass rusher, but the Falcons instantly added to their intended desire of grit, strength, and toughness. Something that’s rarely been done before in the 6 years of this current regime. Like Matthews before him, he was the best player available at an area of critical need. Grade — A
Dezmen Southward – Safety – Wisconsin
Here’s where the belief that Dimitroff would go best player available at an area of need for an entire draft goes splat. Like many picks throughout the years, this isn’t necessarily an indictment of the player, Southward, but more of what led the Falcons to this point. The Falcons cut starting FS Thomas DeCoud early on in free agency, who started every game but 2 in his 5 years since becoming a full-time starter (78, not including playoff games). It’s fine well and good to let go of a proven starter, even if not All-Pro caliber, if you have a plan in place. The Falcons obviously didn’t. They didn’t sign one of the top free agent safeties and pinned their hopes to getting one in the draft. Essentially, they created another hole and boxed themselves in with the draft. Dwight Lowery in free agency was also-ran, veteran insurance and not much more.
When there was an unexpected run on safeties in the first round, it really took the wind out of the Falcons sails and would force them to either move up that need higher on the draft list or reach for a player necessarily before they were deemed to go. Southward is another “potential pick” that didn’t produce in college, at least consistently. He’s got great measurables (sub 4.4 forty, 42 inch vertical) to go along with his frame (6’1, 212 lbs). He’s got as much upside as any safety in the draft class. Problem is, that his production was very sub-par. He only pulled down 2 interceptions and 12 passes defensed in his 52 game career. He was pegged to go somewhere in the 4th round, so theoretically it wasn’t a “huge” reach, but he’s hardly seen as someone who can come in and immediately start. Perhaps a heated competition between Zeke Motta, Kemal Ishmael, Dwight Lowery, and now Dezmen Southward can produce a quality starter. The player seems to have promise, but the Falcons really gave themselves no other choice. Grade — C
Devonta Freeman – Running Back – Florida State
The Falcons were seemingly going to take a running back at some point with Steven Jackson well over the big 30 wall, Jason Snelling retiring, and the Falcons having one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL. The former ‘Nole was one of the more underrated backs in the draft, but represents good value and a great pick at the spot when most believed he would or should be drafted. He may not have truly elite speed (4.58), but he’s a beast in all areas as a running back. He hits the hole hard, runs with authority, can catch and block in and out of the backfield. He has a superior work ethic and brings great character to the locker room.
He is a powerful runner that will immediately vie for playing time behind a rapidly aging Steven Jackson. If given the chance, he could form a dynamic duo with either Jacquizz Rodgers or Antone Smith (even though Smith likely will never give him a legit shot). His stats are probably a little lowered due to him having to split duties while at Florida State. After deciding to pass on RB in the 3rd round and a chance at guys like Terrance West, Jerick McKinnon, and Dri Archer, Freeman was the best RB still on the board and more of a complete back then many of the other RBs. Grade — B+
4th Round – Compensatory
Prince Shembo – Outside Linebacker – Notre Dame
The Falcons simply had too many holes to fill with studs in one single draft, so at some point they would have to prioritize which positions needed the most help. Most feel they made the right choice in upgrading the lines with their first picks. But with the lines taking priority, an edge rusher wasn’t drafted. After taking care of the offensive and defensive lines, safety, and running back, the Falcons took the best available pass rushing threat left on the board. Shembo isn’t the most physically imposing player in the draft, but his stats showed he could get after the passer on a consistent basis.
Shembo ran the forty in 4.71 (same as fellow LB Kyle Van Noy) and put up some good numbers while at Notre Dame: 35 quarterback pressures, 24.5 tackles for loss, and 19.5 sacks. Coach Smith feels that Shembo can drop into coverage if needed, but he had no passes defensed and no interceptions in his career. Shembo’s size doesn’t really project to a rush-LB in a 3-4, but more of a 4-3 linebacker, but there was only one pass rushing specialist that had better numbers left at the time (Trevor Reilly, 37.5 TFL, 20.5 sacks). Grade – B
Ricardo Allen – Cornerback – Purdue
Most were surprised when seeing Allen scroll across the screen. Why would the Falcons draft another cornerback after taking two in the first two rounds last year (Trufant and Alford), already having Robert McClain on the roster, as well as adding Javier Arenas and Josh Morgan to the fold via free agency. But after researching the former Boilermaker, it makes a lot of sense. Allen is one of the tougher and more underrated cornerbacks in the draft. Maybe his smaller size (5’9, 187 lbs) led to his drop, but he’s got the production and stats to back up this pick. He ranked second among all CB’s in tackles per game, 3rd in tackles for loss (14.5), 3rd in sacks (3), and 2nd in interceptions (13), four of which he returned for a touchdown.
He was designated to go in the 4th round and the Falcons got him in the 5th. He doesn’t have the greatest of speed times (4.61) and the like. But he’s a hard-nosed football player that had great production in college all four years as a starter. Even though the Falcons have a plethora of players at the cornerback position, Arenas, Morgan, and McClain are all on one-year contracts. At a bare minimum, regardless of what happens to those 3 mentioned, the pairing of Allen to Trufant and Alford gives the Falcons a very young and athletic trio of cornerbacks going forward. Grade — A-
5th Round – Trade Up
Marquis Spruill – Inside Linebacker – Syracuse
The Falcons traded away their 6th and 7th round draft pick to move up in the 5th round to take Spruill. This one is kind of confusing on several levels and might be the biggest reach on Dimitroff’s part in this draft. Perhaps it’s hard to realistically judge this pick in a vacuum since they took another ILB Yamin Smallwood with one of their last compensatory picks. Spruill the player seems good enough with a potential move to more of a 3-4, despite what Coach Smith says. They didn’t have much depth at linebacker, particularly on the inside. For some reason, he wasn’t invited to the scouting combine. But he did put up decent numbers (243 tackles, 41 TFL, 12.5 sacks) while at Syracuse.
The problem is that there were several inside linebackers still on the board at the time and there seemed to be no reason to give up two picks to move up and get Spruill. It seemed eerily similar to the move to get Levine Toilolo last year. The player seems fine enough, but what the gave up to get him seems very much displaced. Grade — C-
7th Round – Compensatory
Yamin Smallwood – Inside Linebacker – Connecticut
With only a few picks left, Dimitroff did a good job of getting excellent value at a position of need. Smallwood had more tackles per game than any other linebacker in the entire draft (including OLB’s) – 9.2 tackles per game. Include 27 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks and he was one of the best ILB candidates in the draft. Most slotted him to go at least in the 5th or 6th round. He had a great vertical and only got a slow 40 time due to a pulled hamstring at the combine. One could argue that it should have been Smallwood the Falcons traded up for instead of Spruill. Smallwood could legitimately push to get on the field in 3-4 looks and at least backup Weatherspoon and Worrilow. Grade — A-
7th Round – Compensatory
Tyler Starr – Outside Linebacker – South Dakota
Dimitroff followed up the great value pick in Smallwood with another fantastic pick in OLB Tyler Starr. He most likely took a tumble down the charts due to him playing in FCS (old division II). He doesn’t possess elite speed (4.95), but he had one of the highest 3-cone times (6.64) of any player at the scouting combine regardless of position. At 6’4, 250 lbs, Starr also has the production to back up his selection in the 7th round: 235 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, and 7 passes defensed. Starr could well turn out to be the next Paul Worrilow, who also hailed from a small school and had a fantastic 3 cone time. He has the build, frame, and athleticism to not just make the roster, but make a push for situational pass rush opportunities. Grade — B+
Tight End — It’s understandable the Falcons wouldn’t take a tight end early on with so many needs, but there plan at tight end seems to be fairly perplexing at the moment. When Tony Gonzalez retired, he’s taking 80 receptions with him. They must have a different plan to make up for that production, because it doesn’t look like it will be at tight end. After willingly creating competition at almost every position on the team, they appear completely content to just give the starting job to Levine Toilolo after a meager 11 catches for 55 yards and 2 touchdowns. They signed Jake Pederson as an undrafted free agent and signed blocking TE Bear Pascoe, but what are the Falcons thinking here?
Wide Receiver — While this isn’t a huge need at the moment, the Falcons will have to address this sooner rather than later. This fall, Roddy White will turn 33, Devin Hester 32, and Harry Douglas 30. They have relied heavily on undrafted wide receivers lately and it has turned out OK thus far (Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, Darius Johnson). But at some point, the Falcons will have to invest at wide receiver. The Green Bay Packers just added Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis. The Falcons added not one WR.
Overall Grade — B
It obviously all depends on perspective, but almost everyone agrees that the Falcons achieved their main off-season goal of getting bigger, tougher, and stronger on both lines. There’s still some head-scratchers and some doubting that will continue until the season starts, but overall they mostly filled their needs with best players available when they picked. An added bonus saw the Falcons stay put in one of the deeper drafts in memory and let the draft come to them. Jake Matthews really set the tone for the entire draft where the Falcons took the best player available at one of the biggest areas of need, when they may have simply tried to “roll with what they have” along the offensive line and hope that new coaches could make the different. Give credit where it’s due. They didn’t let one mistake (Sam Baker’s new contract), precipitate another one (not taking an OT based on that).
Some disagree on the Hageman pick, but he was roundly considered the best player left and was slotted by most to go in the first round. It’s interesting to hear some argue that because he wasn’t an edge pass rusher, than it was a bad pick. That’s just silly because some of the best defenses are stout and tough from the inside out and Hageman is exactly the pick that fans have been clamoring the Falcons to take forever. The Southward pick seems initially to have been a reach, but he has the most upside of any safety, and that was a function of the mistake they made before the draft. Taking Freeman was a no-brainer and was one of the best running backs left on the board (in addition to being a complete back). Shembo may have been taken a smidge early, but he was one of the best pass-rushers left on the board at the time.
Some question why the Falcons took another cornerback, but Ricardo Allen may turn out to be one of the best CB’s in the draft. Especially pairing with Trufant and Alford down the road. The Spruill pick was definitely the biggest reach, particularly giving up a 6th and 7th round pick to get him. The last two picks were a great way to end the draft, pulling in one of the better ILB’s in Yamin Smallwood and one of the better OLB’s in Tyler Starr, regardless of competition. Wide receiver is probably OK for another year, but tight end has to be the biggest mystery at this point in time. All in all, the Falcons definitely improved in many areas and almost all the experts, websites, and others agree the Falcons achieved their goal of getting tougher on both lines and filled some critical needs.