The Atlanta Falcons have been in desperate need for a premiere pass-rusher for several years, and they may find no better opportunity to find one than early in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Falcons have consistently avoided using high picks on pass-rushers for the entire tenure of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, opting to select a number of third-day prospects over the past eight years. That strategy has paid extremely low dividends, as only two teams had tallied less sacks over that span than the Falcons.
For years, the Falcons hoped the likes of prospects like Lawrence Sidbury and Jonathan Massaquoi could develop into complements to John Abraham, who headlined the Falcons pass rush from 2007 through 2012. But both Sidbury and Massaquoi, the most talented of their mid-round targets, failed to pay off. Now after the team dumped Abraham at the outset of 2013, the team instead is looking for a pass-rusher able to fill Abraham’s shoes as a “lead dog.”
The team won’t have a better opportunity than the present, with the 2015 draft class shaping up to be a very top-heavy group at the position and the Falcons holding the eighth overall selection in the first round. It’s long been a nearly forgone conclusion that the Falcons would use that top pick to bolster the pass rush. It really just boils down to which pass-rusher the team will ultimately select.
Given recent off-field incidents involving Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Missouri’s Shane Ray, it raises questions as to whether the Falcons would deem either player worthy of their top selection. That would instead leave Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Florida’s Dante Fowler and Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree as the most likely candidates to be selected by the team at the top of the first round. Fowler played under new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as a freshman at Florida when the latter was that team’s defensive coordinator in 2012. Quinn helped recruit Fowler, and the 20-year old attributes Quinn’s influence as a big part of his development and success.
Both Beasley and Dupree are Georgia natives, but that likely won’t factor much into the decision. That will certainly be a selling point as far as the franchise’s marketing department goes, but ultimately the football people will make what they see as the best football decision. Beasley lacks ideal size to play defensive end, but was highly productive at Clemson. He totaled 44.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks over the past two seasons as a starter.
Dupree is a bit more of a developmental prospect, but has “plus” athleticism, explosiveness and size to suggest that his upside is off the charts. But compared to the others, he may also be the least developed pass-rusher.
Whoever the Falcons select will almost certainly be slotted immediately into the “LEO” or weak-side defensive end spot, and expected to lead the way as far as the team’s pass rush is concerned moving forward.
If the Falcons don’t select an edge-rusher with their top pick, then it likely sets up the possibility that they are hoping that Gregory and/or Ray’s stock slides enough to faciliate them being a target early in the second round. The recent off-field issues for either player may not prevent the Falcons from selecting them altogether, but may make them a bit more hesistant to use a top 1o pick on them given the heightened scrutiny that high in the draft.
It’s possible that the Falcons could also target one of the “second-tier” prospects such as Mississippi State’s Preston Smith or UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa as well in the second round, in conjunction or independent of their first-round selection. Both Smith and Odighizuwa headline a group of prospects that could easily slot into the strong-side defensive end spot in Atlanta. Michael Bennett played that role for Quinn the past two years in Seattle, and often slid inside to defensive tackle in sub-packages. Both Smith and Odighizuwa potentially possess the potential to be used in the same role.
But the Falcons might also look at current players such as Adrian Clayborn or Malliciah Goodman to fill that role, making the need to add such a player in the draft more of a luxury than a necessity.
Regardless of who the Falcons select in the draft, they are unlikely to make a complete reversal from one of the league’s worst pass rushes to one of the best in one year. But much like the selection of quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008 set the table for the success that was to come over the next five years under the previous regime of Smith and Dimitroff, this year’s first-round pick will be expected to do the same for Quinn’s future. It’ll also be pivotal for Dimitroff’s future as well, establishing that he’s ready to be part of the solution than just a continuation of the problem. Thus, it’s paramount that the Falcons come away with a difference-maker that they can begin to build the defense around much like they did for Ryan on the opposite side of the ball.