It’s time for the moment you’ve been waiting for, one that has been three weeks in the making. It’s now time that I break down what prospects the Falcons will be looking at in the first round of this year’s draft with their twenty-seventh overall selection.
I won’t pretend this will be a brief read, but I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can possibly make it without leaving you dissatisfied. I’ll try not to spend too much time re-hashing concepts that have already been discussed before. So if you haven’t already then you should go ahead and read my thoughts on why the Falcons taking an offensive linemen with their first pick is a long shot, as well as Stacking the Draft Board series at running back, wide receiver, and defensive end.
And don’t worry, this will not be the last time I discuss the Falcons thought process. I’ll definitely be getting into the nitty gritty of the Falcons options next week once I’ve completed this exercise and discussed all thirty teams approach to the draft.
But without further ado, I think the Falcons will use their top pick on Georgia defensive end Justin Houston. Please keep reading for an explanation why and who else the Falcons will be looking at.
As previously discussed, the Falcons top need this off-season is their defensive end position. John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, and Jamaal Anderson are all free agents after this season. Chauncey Davis is a one-dimensional role player, and Lawrence Sidbury is an unproven youngster. When you project that unit into 2012, the only player that is a strong bet to still be a Falcon is Biermann. And while I’m personally hopeful that Biermann will ascend to the level in 2011 that many expected him to be in 2010, it’s certainly no guarantee that he’ll be capable of anchoring the unit. And the Falcons could be looking at a situation in 2012 where their defensive end position is dire.
And the best way to abate that urgency is to use their top pick on that position this year, especially when you factor in that the pass rush was arguably the weakest area of their defense this past year. The best candidate available through this exercise is Houston. Not only is Houston is a locally grown product, but he would slide very easily into the potentially vacated role of John Abraham at right defensive end. But the Falcons could have other options. Ryan Kerrigan‘s high motor and polished skills would also make him a premium target for the Falcons. But Kerrigan’s stock has improved this off-season, and it’s unlikely that he will fall to No. 27. Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn is also an option in case Houston is also gone. Clayborn can play the right end position and while there are question marks about his production and potential at the next level, he should be a good every down defensive end in the Falcons scheme. So while he’s not as ideal as the other two, he still should be firmly on the Falcons radar.
The question the Falcons must answer is whether they are significantly higher on Kerrigan and/or Houston to move up in the draft to snag them. With both Tampa Bay and New Orleans in the market for a pass rusher, the Falcons could move up in the draft not only to get a better pass rusher, but also potentially hurt two division rivals in the process. It wouldn’t take much (a third or fourth round pick presumably) to move up 8 or so spots to get ahead of both teams. As noted before, No. 17 and 18 would be two prime positions for teams to land that are looking to move up into the middle part of the first round. The Falcons will have to determine whether or not they think Kerrigan/Houston are worth losing an extra pick over, or are they happy to settle for Clayborn and see if he’s available.
While defensive end is the Falcons overwhelming top need, it’s not as if the Falcons won’t be looking at other positions and players. Wide receiver is another position that the Falcons can find some intriguing talent at the top of the draft. Maryland’s Torrey Smith would definitely add an explosive element to the Falcons offense, something they are desperate to do. Smith has good size, vertical speed, has humble, high character, and is a willing blocker, making him an ideal fit on the outside in the Falcons offense going forward. The team should be on the lookout for a potential replacement to Michael Jenkins there since it’s clear that Jenkins doesn’t possess the skillset to make teams pay for doubling Roddy White. But if Smith is not on the board, it’s hard to see the Falcons taking one of the other receives. Miami’s Leonard Hankerson is probably the next best fit due to his size and ability to play in the slot a la Marques Colston. Jon Baldwin, while having intriguing upside due to his size/speed combination, probably doesn’t grade highly enough in the character department to really be a strong bet with the Falcons top pick.
Other options mentioned for the Falcons include Troy’s Jerrel Jernigan and Boise State’s Titus Young. Jernigan is an explosive slot option that compares favorably to DeSean Jackson and would give the team an explosive element in the slot. Young is similar, but has character concerns. The question becomes are the Falcons likely to get good value out of a slot receiver in the first round. The slot receiver has never been a huge option in the Mike Mularkey offense, and that probably won’t change now. So despite their talent level, both players should be considered reaches in the first.
Offensive line is a possibility, but a low probability since at this point the Falcons can expect all five of their starters to return. With the way the labor situation is shaping up, if/when the league year starts in a few weeks or months Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, and Justin Blalock will all be restricted free agents. Meaning the Falcons won’t lose any of them unless they want to. And since Thomas Dimitroff almost always uses his first round pick on a player that can come in right away and be a starter, it’s doubtful they would do so up front to add a player that will most likely be a backup.
But with that said, the Falcons would certainly look at players like Mike Pouncey, Danny Watkins, Gabe Carimi, Derek Sherrod, Anthony Castonzo, and Nate Solder if available. But unless something happens that jeopardizes one of current starters’ status between now and April 28 or they think one of those prospects is a can’t miss guy, they are all longshots.
Outside those areas, the Falcons could try to upgrade their nickel cornerback position which was an obvious weakness in 2010. Brandon Harris and Aaron Williams both have experience playing in the slot during their days in college, making them very good fits to come in right away and challenge Chris Owens for that role. Williams is a bit more of a physical, press corner in the same mold as Dunta Robinson, while Harris is smaller, quicker athlete a la Brent Grimes. If the Falcons plan to become a bit more aggressive defensively in the future, then Williams would be the preferred choice. If not, then Harris is probably the safer bet. But with the investment the Falcons have made in Robinson, and potentially could make in Grimes in the near future, it doesn’t seem likely the Falcons will use their No. 1 pick on a player that will solely be a backup for the forseeable future.
Linebacker is also a possibility if UCLA’s Akeem Ayers is still on the board. Ayers is a very good fit in the Falcons scheme, and would be a major upgrade to the strongside linebacker position. Ayers can play all three downs, and his ability as a pass rusher gives him added value because of the Falcons issues there. But the Falcons will have to decide if the questions surrounding Ayers motor make him a great fit in Atlanta. The Falcons tend to avoid such players, which lowers Ayers chances of landing in Atlanta even more.
All things considered, the most obvious signs point to the Falcons using their top pick on a defensive end. If not there, then wide receiver is the next strongest bet. Torrey Smith is probably the lone player that would probably make the Falcons second guess their decision to take a defensive end. The possibility of the Falcons trading down is there of course, but seems only likely if all three (Kerrigan, Houston, and Clayborn) defensive ends are gone, as well as Smith. If that were to happen, then you could expect the Falcons to take one of the lesser receivers like Hankerson or Baldwin, or still to target a defensive end like Brooks Reed, Jabaal Sheard, Sam Acho, or Allen Bailey with an early to mid-second rounder.