by Michael Chastain – just “lil ole” me
It is that time of year again with no football on the gridiron. The initial phase of free agency has come and gone with excitement for some and disappointment for others. Most have now turned their attention to the upcoming draft. What prospects do we like? What holes need to be filled? What positions can be improved? What are our priorities going to be on Draft weekend? Can we find a late round gem like RB Terrell Davis (6th rd Broncos), WR Dwight Clark (10th rd 49ers), DL Richard Dent (8th rd Bears), and TE Shannon Sharpe (7th rd Broncos)? These are all questions the NFL front offices and coaching staffs are scurrying to find the answers to in the short time remaining before that last weekend in April. There are many of us in fandom who are doing the same thing, but we aren’t getting paid. We do it for the love of the game and the devotion to our team. With the hopes that the players we like are drafted by our team and perform beyond expectations.
There are numerous variables that come into play on draft weekend. Who was scouted? What does the video show? What needs are going to be prioritized? Who are other teams selecting? What are the options for moving up or down in the draft? The list goes on and on. Up until the 72 hours of drafting we get to have fun with all the possibilities! What will Dan Quinn and company do when the Falcons are on the clock? In guesstomating the future one should always consider the past. This will be Coach Quinn’s 3rd draft as a head coach. Let’s review the previous two.
Round | Proj. Round | xxxxxxx2015xxxxxxxx | Proj. Round | xxxxxxx2016xxxxxxx|
1xxxxxxxxxxx1xxxxxxxxDE – Vic Beasleyxxxxxxxx1–2xxxxxxxS – Kenu Neal
2xxxxxxxxxxx2xxxxxxxxCB – Jalen Collinsxxxxxxxx2xxxxxxxxLB – Deion Jones
3xxxxxxxxxxx2xxxxxxxxRB – Tevin Colemanxxxxx2-3xxxxxxxTE – Austin Hooper
4xxxxxxxxxx3-4xxxxxxxWR – Justin Hardyxxxxxxx5-6xxxxxxxLB – Devondre Campbell
5xxxxxxxxxxx2xxxxxxxxDT – Grady Jarrett
6xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxUDRFAxxxxxOG – Wes Schweitzer
7xxxxxxxxUDRFAxxxxxxT– Jake RodgersxxxxxxxUDRFAxxxxxWR – Devin Fuller
7xxxxxxxxUDRFAxxxxxxS – Akeem King
The first round selections from the past two drafts have both been defensive players that started immediately. The second round selections were also defensive players. Collins only started two games his rookie season, but played in all sixteen games. He started six of the eight games he played in this year after returning from being suspended. Jones started thirteen of the fifteen games this year and showed improvement throughout the season. The third round selections from both years were offensive players. When Dan Quinn was hired as the Head Coach he made a statement to the effect that he was going to let the Offensive Coordinator run the offense. Offensive draft selections included? Tevin Coleman was slated to be the starting running back in 2015 until he was injured and Freeman took the job with a vengeance. Hooper was slowly worked into the offense this past year and should be a solid tight end for the future. The fourth round went to the offense in 2015 and defense in 2016. Hardy is a part of the offensive game plan, but he has yet to step up to be more than a spot starter (4 starts in 25 games). Campbell stepped in on the defense and started ten of eleven games his rookie season. The only fifth round selection the past two years was Defensive Tackle Grady Jarrett. He started two of fifteen games his rookie season and fourteen of sixteen games this past season. Grady showed how disruptive he could be racking up three sacks against Tom Brady in the “Blew-it Bowl”. The only sixth round pick went to the offense in 2016 with the selection of Guard Wes Schweitzer. He did not see action in any regular or post season games. He will compete for the starting Right Guard position for the upcoming season. There have been three seventh round selections with one going to the offense each year and the second selection going to the defense in 2015. It could be argued that Devin Fuller was drafted to be the return man on kickoffs and punts, but he was placed on injured reserve early his rookie season. Offensive Tackle Jake Rodgers did not make the team in 2015 and was signed to a futures/reserves contract with Carolina in January. Akeem King was showing progress this past preseason as a defensive back before being placed on injured reserve. He played in five games his rookie season.
Here are some things that can be gleaned from all that information. The defensive draft picks have had much better production than the offensive draft picks. Even if only the third, fourth, and fifth round selections are measured against each other the production still swings heavily to the defense. If Coach Quinn has the final say on defensive draft picks does he give the final “ok” on the offensive draft picks to the offensive coordinator? The past two drafts have seen six of the eleven starting positions on defense get younger. The offensive draft picks have contributed, but have only developed into spot starters. So the team is either drafting better players on defense or doing a better job developing the defensive players drafted. Unlike previous years Coach Quinn has not doubled up on draft picks with the hope that one of them will pan out. Another positive from the past two drafts is that there is only one player out of the thirteen drafted that is no longer on the team. These are major changes from the previous coaching regime.
Refer back to the chart above. The bottom of the draft chart shows draft needs from the 2015 and 2016 drafts. These were taken from NFL.com. Notice that OL is listed as a draft need for both years, specifically interior offensive linemen. Both years the team drafted developmental linemen late on day three. Again this year interior offensive line is a need. Will it be addressed early in the draft or will the team again bring in an elder veteran to fill the gap for one more year? Also notice that where players are projected to be drafted are not always where they get drafted. Coach Quinn has shown that his is willing to make the obvious selection as well as “reach” for a player that he wants if that player will be off the board by the next time the team is on the clock. He made a great value pick with Grady Jarrett in 2015 during the fifth round when other teams did not like Jarrett’s size for the position he plays. This also shows that Quinn knows what he is looking for in a player and doesn’t care what the “talking heads” have to say. What will be interesting this year is when and who they select on the offensive side of the ball. Does Coach Sarkisian like the starters on offense or has he been politicking for improvements at various positions on his side of the ball. Maybe players that will better fit his style of play.
What will the 2017 draft bring?
Offensive Guard: Both Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff have acknowledge that the trenches need to be improved. The offensive line has been a draft need for many years. Four of the five offensive line spots are set for 2017. Right Guard is the big hole this year and Left Guard will need to be addressed in the not too distant future. Forest Lamp is the top guard but might be drafted before pick 31. After Lamp there is a step down to Dorian Johnson and Dan Feeney. Are any these worth the 31st pick or will Atlanta trade down into the second round and still select a guard with their first pick of the 2017 draft. Cam Robinson’s name has been linked to Atlanta, but many believe he can play tackle. Some other options that will need some development include Dion Dawkins, Nico Siragusa, Jordan Morgan, and Corey Levin. From the outside looking in this stands out as the greatest need on the team. Look for this position to be a first or second round selection. If so it will be the first time the Falcons have addressed the interior of the offensive line early in the draft since the selection of Peter Konz five years ago in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Defensive Tackle: There is talent throughout the draft at defensive tackle. So maybe this position will not be addressed with the first pick, the team did sign Dontari Poe. But, Coach Quinn did say he wanted to improve the trenches. Atlanta’s defense improved in 2016 to be ranked 17th in rushing yards allowed per game. That ranking can be very misleading. Opposing rushers only had 370 rushing attempts against the Falcons defense, the fifth lowest number of attempts in the league. The defense gave up an average of 4.5 yards per carry which ties them for the sixth worst behind the Browns, Colts, Bills, 49ers, and Dolphins. The killer stat is that Atlanta had the most attempted fourth down conversions (25 attempts) in the league and they allowed a 72% conversion rate good for 29th in the league. Giving up a fourth down conversion is a major morale killer! The majority of fourth down conversion attempts are short yardage situations. How does the team get out of the league basement in this category? Quality defensive tackles! Look for Malik McDowell or Caleb Brantley in the first round, Montravius Adams and Carlos Watkins in the second and third rounds, Jarron Jones and DJ Jones could be surprise gems in the fourth and fifth rounds. Coach Quinn knows best what he is looking for in a defensive lineman. Expect him to select a productive defensive tackle at some point in the draft.
Edge Rusher: Many believe that the Falcons still need a complimentary edge rusher to go with Vic Beasley. Coach Quinn and company may or may not subscribe to this line of thought. If the Falcons are considering drafting an edge rusher there is a plethora for them to choose from. TJ Watt is one of the more recent names that have been mocked to Atlanta at pick 31. What does Coach Quinn look for in an edge rusher? The same thing he looks for in the rest of the defense, speed! With edge rushers, look at the 10 yard split of their 40 time. Those are the guys who are going to explode off the line that offensive tackles have nightmares about! Takkarist McKinley could be a possibility at 31. Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis are possibilities in round 2. Trey Hendrickson posted a 1.59 10 yard split and could still be on the board in the 4th and maybe the 5th round. The bottom line is that Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn were signed to play the defensive end positions on early downs while Vic Beasley plays the Strong side linebacker, then in the nickel Beasley will slide down to one of the defensive end positions. Personnel wise this is not as strong a need as offensive guard or defensive tackle. The best possibility for this position to receive a draft pick is a developmental player in the middle to late rounds.
Safety: Strong Safety Keanu Neal was Atlanta’s first pick in 2016. With Ricardo Allen signed on for one more year; would the team use their first pick of 2017 on Keanu Neal’s counterpart? If Malik Hooker, Jabrill Peppers, or Obi Melifonwu are still on the board at pick 31 would Coach Quinn pass on them to draft a player at another position? There is a good chance that Ricardo Allen’s eventual replacement will be drafted this year. Budda Baker could be the choice in the second round. He is built like Earl Thomas and runs a sub 4.4 forty time. Neal’s former teammate at Florida, Marcus Maye, should still be on the board in the third round. Two FCS prospects that have the measurables and production at a lower level of play are David Jones and Casey DeAndrade. Most scouts consider them to be developmental players. Jones had 9 interceptions in 2015 and was projected as a second to third round selection before multiple injuries side tracked his senior year and hurt his draft stock. While safety is not an immediate need, it is an area of the defense that many believe can be upgraded. If one of the top tier prospects are still on the board when the Falcons pick at 31 then expect serious consideration. If Coach Quinn has identified his player don’t be surprised if a “reach” is made to draft that player.
Cornerback: The NFL becomes more pass heavy every year; requiring teams to field more quality corners to cover all the receivers on the field each play. 2016 saw an undrafted rookie (Brian Poole) log 9 starts in 16 games played. The mindset of most defensive coaches is that you can never have too many cornerbacks. This draft has a high number of “long” corners. Coach Quinn likes long corners with speed. Fabian Moreau’s measurables have raised his draft stock from a mid-round draft grade to a low first round grade. Atlanta has already spoken with him, but it is doubtful that they will spend their 1st round pick on him. Kevin King may be an option in the second round. Like Moreau he has been one of the draft’s quick risers. Another option in the second and maybe even the third could be King’s teammate Sidney Jones. Jones was considered one of the best corners in the draft until he tore an achilles during his pro day. His stock has fallen from a first round lock to a late second early third round selection. Ahkello Witherspoon is an option in the third round and the big bodied Brian Allen in the fourth or fifth. A seventh round flyer might be taken on Jeremy Clark. He tore his ACL early during the 2016 season, but played very well before the injury. Coach Quinn surprised everyone his first year when the Falcons selected Jalen Collins with a second round pick. There is a high probability that a cornerback will be selected at some point in the draft by the Falcons.
Outside Linebacker: At the moment this could be considered the thinnest position on the team. It depends on who is considered an outside linebacker. Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley have played outside linebacker, but they are primarily edge rushers on passing downs. Phillip Wheeler, the primary fill-in for Beasley at strong side linebacker, and Sean Wetherspoon, the primary fill in for De’Vondre Campbell at weak side linebacker, are no longer on the team. Does Coach Quinn draft an outside linebacker to split time with Beasley on early downs so that he is more rested on passing downs. Maybe even a player that can play both outside linebacker positions? Two linebackers that will be available in the second, third and maybe fourth rounds are Tyus Bowser and Alex Anzalone. Both have the skill set to cover running backs and tight ends, rush the passer, and stop the run. Bowser is a fast twitch muscle prospect and plays that way. Anzalone can play any of the three linebacker spots, but has a history of injuries. Expect this position to see a day two or day three selection.
Tight End: Currently the Falcons have six tight ends on the roster. So why would they draft another tight end? According to Dimitroff the roster does not have any holes. If the team is not filling holes they will be upgrading positions. The tight end position can use some upgrading and there just happens to be a deep tight end class this year! If OJ Howard is still on the board at 31 it would be foolish to pass on him, but Howard is so good that he will be one of the top 15 picks. After Howard there are a number of good tight ends, but most of them have glaring weaknesses. Coach Sarkisian likes to run double tight end sets. To do this he needs two tight ends that can block, but it would also be a tremendous advantage if those tight ends can catch. An added bonus would be a tight end that can line-up at the fullback position a couple times during the game. These preferences will help streamline the list of prospects receiving consideration. It is highly doubtful that Coach Quinn would use anything before a third round pick on a tight end. Michigan’s Jake Butt is a possibility in the third round, but he is coming off a season ending injury. George Kittle, whose stock has been on the rise since the combine, could be selected in the fourth round and maybe the fifth. Kittle was the third fastest tight end at the combine behind Howard and Evan Engram. Kittle was used as an inline blocker at Iowa and was even lined up in the back field on occasion. Tennessee’s Jason Croom might be worth a seventh rounder as a developmental tight end. He was converted from wide receiver his senior season, and will need to improve on his blocking skills. Croom has had some injury issues during his college career that have prevented him from putting up bigger numbers like other tight ends in this draft class. Unless Coach Sarkisian is content with the current stable of tight end, look for the team to draft some young blood as early as the third round to add to the mix.
Kick Returner: The Falcons recently signed Andre Roberts to a 1.8 million dollar contract. It is expected that he will be the return man for Atlanta during the 2017 season. If Roberts doesn’t make the team then his salary cap hit will drop to 750,000. This would save the team a little over 1 million in cap space. Devin Fuller will compete with Roberts for return duties. They are both receivers and there is probably only one roster spot between the two of them. Many teams use the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft to address Special Teams. Here are two prospects that might hear they name called in the seventh round by the Falcons. TJ Logan was second in the country in yards per kick return with a 32.9 average. Trey Edmunds has battled injuries during his career, but the big back ran a 4.47 forty at 223 lbs and showed soft hands. He can factor into short yardage plays on offense and he has the size to make an impact on special teams maybe even as a returner. One other prospect worth mentioning, but maybe not worth drafting is Speedy Noil from Texas A&M. He is a dynamic athlete, but he has a number of red flags. If Atlanta’s staff goes a different direction in the seventh round it will show the confidence they have in Andre Roberts and Devin Fuller to handle return duties for the 2017 season.
Everything, up till the cards have been turned in, is simply a combination of hopes, dreams, and best guesses. In about a month the Atlanta Falcons will be adding a number of rookies to their roster with the hope that they will all become productive players. For now those prospects are working to improve their draft stock, while the rest of the football world tries to figure out which selections will give their team the best chance to win a championship. Just as the past two drafts have provided the Falcons with an infusion of youth, look forward to more of the same in 2017!