Eleven Men to Stop Them All!
After a disappointing end to the 2017 season where the defense played better, but the offense took a major step back, we are looking at a team that may lose a number of key players prior to the 2019 season from both sides of the ball. The defense has some holes to fill and a future to prepare for. With the exception of the Defensive Tackle position the defense is still mostly the same as what the team started in 2017.
Starters: Grady Jarrett – Jarrett is the heart of the Defensive Line. He brings it game in and game out. Not too shabby for a fifth round pick that other teams thought was too small to succeed at the NFL level. Sadly with the team’s current salary cap situation, it is possible that this could be Jarrett’s last season as a Falcon.
Backups: Garrison Smith, Joey Ivie IV, Justin Zimmer – Smith is the only backup Defensive Tackle currently on the team with any NFL game experience. He played in eleven games over the past two seasons in Seattle. Ivie was a seventh round draft choice by Dallas in 2017. He was waived after the preseason. He signed onto Atlanta’s practice squad in October where he spent the rest of the season. Zimmer was signed by Buffalo as an undrafted rookie out of FCS Ferris State. He broke numerous school records while playing there. At his Pro Day he put up spectacular numbers running a 4.91 40 yard dash with a 1.69 10 yard split and wowed the audience with 44 reps on the bench press. His transition to the NFL has not gone as smoothly. He was cut by the Bills after training camp and spent the later part of the season on the Saints practice squad. The Saints cut him after the 2017 training camp. He ended up playing football in the CFL last season. He has the physical tools to be an NFL player. Will this be the season that he makes the leap?
Expectations: Defensive Tackle is a rotational position for Atlanta. The team really needs a minimum of four quality players to rotate during the game. With only one known commodity in the Defensive Tackle rotation the door is open for players to step up. The talking heads all consider this position to be Atlanta’s greatest need. More Defensive Tackles have been mocked to the Falcons this spring than any other position. There are a few quality veterans still out on the free agent market, but the team’s lack of salary cap space will prevent them from signing anyone looking for more than the veteran minimum. Look for the team to bring in a number of new players through the draft and after to compete for these roster spots.
Draft Options: Coach Quinn has said that he feels like this year’s Defensive Tackle class is deep. Is that his way of saying that the team will not select a Defensive Tackle in the first round, or is it a hint that they may draft multiple Defensive Tackles, or was he just trying to reassure the fan base that the holes at Defensive Tackle should not be a worry? Even if the team does not draft a Defensive Tackle in the first round, it is a lock that they will draft at least one by the end of day two. If two are selected, then look for the second to be a day three pick. Here are some of the options: Maurice Hurst, Taven Bryan, Harrison Phillips, Nathan Shepherd, Tim Settle, PJ Hall, and John Atkins. Note: I did not include Vita Vea because I believe he will come off the board long before Atlanta picks in the first round.
Maurice Hurst has the most versatile pass rushing tool box of any Defensive Tackle in the draft. He is explosive off the line. He has very good career production including a couple of blocked kicks to his name. He has NFL bloodlines as his father played Cornerback for the Patriots. He was flagged at the combine with a heart issue. If he clears the medical he will be selected in the first round.
Taven Bryan is an athletic freak at the Defensive Tackle position. He grew up in Wyoming, the son of a Navy Seal. He has the ideal work ethic and has improved every year during his college career. Bryan is still considered to be raw but has a very high ceiling. He could be selected before Atlanta picks at 26, but his is one of the most common names mocked to the Falcons this preseason.
Harrison Phillips was the most productive Defensive Tackle in all of college football in 2017. This Nebraska farm boy had over 100 total tackles. He led the Stanford defense in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. Phillips is a three time High School State Wrestling Champion. Not the most athletic player, but a grinder who can push the pocket and stop the run. He has a nonstop motor and knows how to deal with double teams. This NFL ready prospect could be selected late on day one, but he will most likely come off the board sometime on day two.
Nathan Shepherd has a rare blend of strength and athleticism. Many of the talking heads believe that he will need a year of seasoning after playing at Fort Hayes State, but he performed very well at the Senior Bowl against other top prospects in this year’s draft. He is a mature player with a team first mentality. He will be a 25 year old rookie this season. Shepherd is projected to be a day two selection. It is doubtful that he will still be on the board when the Falcons pick at 90.
Tim Settle is an out of control wrecking ball. He moves very well for his size. Settle is an early draft entrant as a redshirt sophomore. He is green but gifted. He has an angry bull rush and a developed swim move. He has shown that he can play off blocks as well as collapse the pocket. He will need to keep his weight under control to stay on the field and be productive. He is considered to be a third round pick that could slip to the early fourth round.
PJ Hall played his college career at FCS Sam Houston State, but he is athletically gifted. On his Pro Day he ran a 4.76 40 yard dash with a 1.70 10 yard split, put up 36 bench reps, and jumped over 38” at 308 pounds. Over his college career he had 284 tackles, 86.5 tackles for loss, 42 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, and 14 blocked kicks! Can his FCS success translate to the NFL level? How long will he need to adjust to the NFL game? These are some questions that scouting communities around the league have to ask themselves when considering drafting Hall. Prior to his Pro Day Hall was considered to be a late third day pick. Some now have him projected as high as a late day two pick. Realistic expectations have him coming off the board in round four or five.
John Atkins was a space eater at UGA when he was on the field. He played primarily on rushing downs. He did an excellent job of keeping the Georgia Linebackers clean. Atkins is a blue collar worker who plays through the whistle and purses the ball to the end of the play. He is an anchor with good hands, who is quick off the snap. He was also used as a Fullback in short yardage situations. He is projected to be drafted in the seventh round if at all.
Starters: Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby – Reed was brought in at a hefty price three years ago. After an injury riddle 2015 he was able to play 15 games with 7 starts in 2016. He was finally healthy for the 2017 season and show that he could still be the player he was when in Houston. Shelby was signed to be the other bookend, but was placed on injured reserve after only 6 games. His play during those six games was not as good as many had hoped for. He was cut following the 2017 season, and then resigned to a one year contract. He is currently listed as the starter, but the waters are muddy. Expect lots of competition at both Defensive End positions.
Backups: Vic Beasley, Tak McKinley, Jack Crawford – Beasley had his coming out party in 2016 when he posted 15.5 sacks to lead the league. The 2017 season did not bode near as well for him. He was only able to garner 5 sacks all season. Part of the drop off in production is because of a position shift the coaching staff made. This off season Coach Quinn has said that they plan on returning Beasley to his more natural pass rush position on the line. He will have to show that he can hold up on running downs to be more than a pass rush specialist. McKinley was the talk of the 2017 draft after his emotional outburst. He showed glimpses of that emotion in 2017 coming off the bench to record 15 tackles and 6 sacks. With the loss of Adrian Clayborn look for McKinley’s playing time to increase. He could even push for one of the starting Defensive End spots. Crawford is an outside guy who can kick inside when needed. His game is solid and he should play better in 2017 if he can stay healthy.
Expectations: Defensive End is one of the most solid positions on the roster. Look for the team to bring in some young blood after the draft to compete in camp and be placed on the practice squad. Last year the team brought in Chris Odom, as an undrafted rookie, who played very well in the preseason but since there wasn’t room on the 53 man roster for him he was placed on the practice squad before being poached by the Packers. With Beasley’s move back to pass rush specialist and the continued development of McKinley, look for the Defense to continue to keep pressure on opposing Quarterbacks. Third and long should become automatic fourth down.
Draft Options: If a player like Marcus Davenport should happen to fall to the 26th pick he might end up an Atlanta Falcon, but do not hold your breath! If the team selects a Defensive End it will probably be a developmental player as there are other much greater roster needs for the upcoming season. Some developmental player options include: Tyquan Lewis, Ade Aruna, Zach Sieler, and Antonio Simmons.
Tyquan Lewis was a high school teammate of Todd Gurley. He has shown the ability to rush from anywhere along the defensive line. Lewis played well during the Senior Bowl game where he had six Quarterback pressures. His hand work is technically sound and he is quick off the line. Projections have him coming off the board early on day three.
Ade Aruna has the height, weight, and length to be an NFL Defensive End, but his college tape shows that he does not know how to best utilize his physical traits. He only played one year of high school football after moving to the United States from Nigeria. Even after his time at Tulane he is still very raw and will need time to develop. Because of his athleticism he is expected to be drafted before the end of the fifth round.
Zach Sieler was the 2016 GLIAC Defensive Lineman of the Year with 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. He competed at State wrestling championships in high school. He was a beast at the DII level and a Harlon Hill trophy nominee. Sieler lined up at both Defensive End and Defensive Tackle during his college career. He is another athletically gifted player who competed below the FBS level. He dominated his opponents with violent hands and his ability to push through the blocker. He will need to prove that he can use his athletic gifts to compete in the NFL. He is expected to come off the board in the sixth or seventh round.
Antonio Simmons is a workout warrior and high effort player. Some timed him as running a sub 4.5 40 at the Georgia Tech Pro Day where he also put up 30 bench reps. Play strength does not always match his physical strength. His pass rush technique needs refining. At 250 pounds he could see a move to Outside Linebacker, but he would need to improve his coverage skills for it to be a successful move. His speed could earn him a spot on Special Teams while he develops as a defensive player. He will be selected in the seventh round if at all. He could end up a Falcon by signing as an undrafted free agent.
Starters: De’Vondre Campbell – Campbell was part of Coach Quinn’s infusion of youth into the teams defense in 2016. 2017 saw him make some good improvements to his game. Look for him to continue to progress in 2018.
Backups: Duke Riley, J’Terius Jones – These two players were both rookies in 2017. Riley was drafted in the third round and expected to be an immediate contributor on defense. His contributions were disappointing at best. He earned the opening day start at Weak side Linebacker opposite De’Vondre Campbell. He finished the game with four missed tackles. A torn meniscus sidelined him for a number of weeks later in the season. He will need to come into camp this year and show the team that his game has improved and that he is ready to be an NFL starter. Jones was moved from Defensive End to Outside Linebacker during the 2017 camp. He saw time in the preseason games at both Strong and Weak side positions. He spent the 2017 regular season on the practice squad. He will have to compete for a spot on the 2018 roster.
Expectations: Duke Riley was selected last year to play opposite Campbell, but he showed that he was not ready for the NFL. If the team drafts an Outside Linebacker before the end of day two then we will know they are looking for a new starter. If the team waits until day three to draft this position then they are just bringing in competition. Competition helps everyone to get better. Depth is needed at the Outside Linebacker position, but the team currently does not have the cap space to sign a veteran off the free agent market. Kemal Ismael was resigned and can play the Outside Linebacker position, but is much better suited to play safety. There are going to be some undrafted rookies that will have a great chance of making Atlanta’s roster in 2018.
Draft Options: At this point it’s hard to know what the front office and coaching staff are thinking at the Outside Linebacker situation. They have met with a number of prospects that are slated to come off the board in various rounds of the draft. Expect them to take an Outside Linebacker at some point in the draft if for nothing else than to back up the current players. Here are some prospects to consider: Leighton Vander Esch, Malik Jefferson, Fred Warner, Shaquem Griffin, Oren Burks, Leon Jacobs, Matthew Thomas, Foyesade Oluokun, and Kendall Donnerson.
Leighton Vander Esch is considered by some to be a one year wonder, but if he can continue to build on that one year as a starter then he should not have any trouble making the transition to the NFL. He has good speed for a 256 pound Linebacker. He has the traits to line up outside or in the middle. He thrives against the run game with great instincts. His coverage skill are solid, but can be improved. He is a late first round prospect.
Malik Jefferson is a former five star recruit that under performed at Texas. He played much better in 2017 under the new coaching staff. Jefferson is a downhill Linebacker that has the athletic traits to be successful in coverage. He is a player who will succeed or fail based upon his coaching in the NFL. His day two draft projection is based heavily on his potential.
Fred Warner has very good coverage skills. He played a hybrid position in BYU’s defense. He will need to learn the positioning of a traditional 4-3 Outside Linebacker. Some teams may use him more like a Safety than an Outside Linebacker. Warner is quick to diagnose the play and react. Current projections have him being drafted late on day two or early on day three.
Shaquem Griffin is one of the biggest stories in this year’s draft. He had a great showing at the Combine posting some of the best numbers in the Linebacker class. He has excellent play speed and has had to work to get to where he is now. Expect him to continue to work to be successful at the NFL level. Griffin has been a fast riser on public draft boards since the Combine. Will he be selected as early as day two like many are predicting, or will he be a day three selection?
Oren Burks played a different position each of the past three seasons. He spent time at Free Safety, “Star” which is an Outside Linebacker Safety hybrid, and Inside Linebacker. He has good coverage skills, but needs to improve his run play instincts. He will have learning curve due to lack of consistently play at any one position. He should come off the board early on day three.
Leon Jacobs has speed to burn. He ran a sub 4.5 40 time at the Combine. He spent time playing the Inside and Outside Linebacker position in college. He may be better suited for a 3-4 defense, but he has the athletic traits to drop into coverage in a 4-3 defense. He is an early day three prospect.
Matthew Thomas has the ideal size and build of an NFL Linebacker. He has excellent closing speed and is fluid enough in his movements to handle coverages. He has a strong punch that he uses to disengage from blockers. Thomas leads with his shoulder when tackling and does not always wrap-up the ball carrier. Improvement in his angles will drastically improve his game. He had a season ending shoulder injury his freshman season, and then also missed all of 2015 while on academic probation. He should be a first round prospect, but the injuries and suspensions have caused him to fall to day three.
Foyesade Oluokun is a converted Safety who plays with speed and athleticism. Playing in the FCS brings questions about level of competition, but if he can continue to improve his instincts for the game then he should fit at Weak-side Linebacker. He is a developmental prospect that could be selected in the seventh round.
Kendall Donnerson is a beast of an athlete that needs refining. At 250 pounds he ran a sub 4.45 40 yard dash, jumped 40 inches, and put up 20 reps on the bench. His athleticism is undeniable, now he just needs a team to development him into an NFL weapon. He might get drafted in the seventh round, but will most likely be an undrafted free agent.
Starters: Deion Jones – He is developing into one the top Middle Linebackers in the NFL!
Expectations: Last season Atlanta only carried one backup Middle Linebacker. That backup was Sean Weatherspoon who could play middle or outside if needed. A high number of the afore mentioned draft prospects have experience playing inside. Look for a few undrafted rookies to be brought in after the draft, but don’t expect a draft pick to be used on a backup until late on day three if at all.
Draft Options: Here are some prospects that may be drafted late or brought in as undrafted free agents to compete for the backup spot: Shaun Dion Hamilton, Quentin Poling, and DJuan Hines.
Shaun Dion Hamilton was the cerebral leader of the Alabama Linebackers corps the past four years. He has been productive when on the field, but he has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career. A team may take a chance on him late in the draft, but he may go undrafted due to the durability concerns.
Quentin Poling led the Ohio Bobcats in tackles three of the four years he played there. His time spent playing Safety in high school laid the foundation for his coverage skills. He has a high football IQ and tests well. He needs to show that his game speed can match his testing speed. A team may take a flyer on him in the seventh round or give him a shot as an undrafted rookie.
DJuan Hines played Quarterback in high school and was recruited as an athlete. After practicing at receiver his red shirt year, the coaches moved him to Linebacker were he has spent the past four years. He led the team in tackles and was in the top 20 in the nation in tackles per game. His time at Quarterback has helped him to understand what the guy across the ball is thinking. He has good coverage ability and closing speed. He’s a seventh round lottery ticket, but might have to compete in camp as an undrafted rookie.
Starters: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford – Trufant and Alford are going to be the starting corners in 2018. Trufant’s play improved drastically after two down years in 2015 and 2016. Alford has been the most consistent Cornerback on the team for a number of years!
Backups: Brian Poole, Blidi Wren-Wilson, Justin Bethel, Leon McFadden, Marcelis Branch – Poole has played well the past two seasons and continues to improve, not bad for an undrafted rookie. He will continue to provide depth at corner and safety. Wren-Wilson finally got his chance to get back on the field with Atlanta in 2017. He played in Tennessee from 2013 to 2015. Bethel was signed this off-season to play special teams where he excels. His play as a Cornerback is subpar at best. McFadden has bounced around the NFL playing on six different teams since being drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Browns. He will have to compete for a spot on the 2018 roster. Branch was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2017. He spent the season on the practice squad. He will have an opportunity to compete for a roster spot during camp.
Expectations: Atlanta has two solid starters and Pool who continues to improve. Beyond these three players there is room for improvement. Current backups will need to step up and prove they belong. With the direction the league is going with all the pass heavy offenses, defenses have to employee more Cornerbacks than in the past. Expect some rookies to be brought in to compete with the current backups.
Draft Options: Coach Quinn has drafted a Cornerback in two of the three drafts he has been in Atlanta for. There is a high probability that a Cornerback is drafted again this year. The question is what round the team might select a prospect to play in the defensive backfield. He are a few options throughout the draft: Josh Jackson, Jaire Alexander, Quenton Meeks, Nick Nelson, Parry Nickerson, and Arrion Springs
Josh Jackson received the highest grade ever given to a Cornerback by Pro Football Focus with a 95.1. College Cornerbacks who have received a grade of higher that 90 by Pro Football Focus have had an extremely high success rate in the NFL. He had a breakout year in 2017 with eight interceptions and 17 pass deflections. He will likely fall to the later part of the first round because there are other Corners who are faster than him.
Jaire Alexander dealt with some injuries in 2017 which affected his play. His 2016 tape looks tremendously better! If he can return to the player he was in 2016 he will be a steal late in the first or second round.
Quenton Meeks is the son of NFL coach Ron Meeks. He has prototypical size for a NFL Corner. He has experience playing inside and outside. He excels in press coverage though may not have the speed to make up lost ground at the NFL level. He may need to switch to Safety. He is projected to be drafted late on day two or early on day three.
Nick Nelson took a step up in competition when he transferred from Hawaii to Wisconsin and he excelled. In 35 college starts he had 42 pass deflections. He plays very physical against the run and against the pass. His game is not affected by double moves and he understand different kinds of coverages. His lack of elite speed will cause him to fall to day three.
Parry Nickerson is very fast, posting a 4.32 40 time. He has a high football IQ and plays with great instincts. Nickerson had very good production during his college career. His lack of size and length may limit him to playing the Slot Corner in the NFL. He will be a steal for a team on day three.
Arrion Springs had very good college production, but was snubbed from the post season all-star games. Pro Football Focus rated him as the number one Cornerback in the Pac-12. He had 17 pass deflections in 2017. Even after running a sub 4.5 40 yard dash during the Oregon Pro Day, he still seems to be flying under the radar. He will be a gem for a team on day three of the draft.
Starters: Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen – Neal is going to be the man at strong safety. Free safety is Ricardo Allen’s job to lose so long as he signs his Restricted Free Agent Tender. Allen has been in mini-camp this spring, but still has not signed. Once a RFA Tender is placed on a player it counts against the salary cap whether the player signs it or not.
Backups: Damontae Kazee, Kemal Ishmael, Quincy Mauger, Tyson Graham – Kazee had significant playing time in 2017 including one start when Ricardo Allen was injured. He played above average for a rookie. If he continues to improve he may be the future at Free Safety for the Falcons. Ishmael was resigned to a one year contract this spring. He has played both Safety positions and Linebacker during his time in Atlanta. He will be a solid backup for Neal in 2018. Mauger spent the 2017 season on injured reserve. He will need to play his way onto the team in 2018. Graham was signed this spring to come in and compete with the other Safeties on the team. He may just be a camp body unless he can show the coaches that he belongs!
Expectations: Atlanta has two quality Safeties if Allen does not hold out. Kazee should continue to improve and become the starter if Allen walks. Veteran Safeties Tre Boston and Eric Reid are still on the open market, but the team does not have the salary cap space to sign either of them. Allen is participating, but has not signed his Tender because he wants a long term contract. Assuming that Allen signs before the 2018 season, there is not an immediate need to add another Safety to the roster other than bringing in some rookies to compete for the backup spots.
Draft Options: There is not a major need to draft a Safety early, but one might be drafted on day three to compete in camp. Some rookie possibilities are: Troy Apke, Godwin Igwebuike, and Jeremy Reeves.
Troy Apke put on a show at the NFL Combine running a 4.34 in the 40 yard dash and touching 41” in the vertical jump. His dad played football at Pitt and for the Steelers. He was an All-State receiver before switching to defense in college. He has great closing speed, but needs to improve play diagnosis. He missed a number of tackles while at Penn State. With some development he is a low risk high reward pick on day three.
Godwin Igwebuike played over 3,000 snaps during his college career. He played very well in the run game and can hold his own in coverage. He is better playing close to the line and will punish Running Backs. He needs to improve his game speed in coverage. He might come off the board in the later part of day three.
Jeremy Reeves is a former Running Back that has translated those skills to the defensive side of the ball. He knows how to navigate traffic to get to the ball carrier quickly. He played previous seasons at the Cornerback position before moving to Safety. He is fluid in coverage, but lacks the top end speed to play man coverage at the NFL level. He could be drafted on day three, but will probably be an undrafted rookie.
Starters: Matt Bryant (K), Matt Bosher (P), Josh Harris (LS)
Expectations: No change to these roster spots unless Matt Bryant decides to retire.
The future of the franchise may hang in the balance during this draft with a number of heavy contributors going into the final year of their contract. If these positions are not addressed then 2019 might become a rebuilding year. That would be a sad occurrence for a team that was one play away from a Super Bowl win at the end of the 2016 season!
Questions for thought:
Can the Defense continue to improve in 2018 or will the unit as a whole regress?
How would you feel if the team drafts three Defensive Tackles? How many do you think they should draft?
How high should the team draft a Linebacker? Why?
Does the team need to draft another Cornerback or are you good with the players currently on the roster?
If Ricardo Allen does not resign with the team, are you comfortable with Damontae Kazee as the starting Free Safety?
The team currently has seven picks in this year’s draft. What seven positions do you think the team should draft? (Note: feel free to spend multiple picks on one or more positions.)