The Atlanta Falcons have more pressing matters to consider on their defensive line in the 2015 NFL Draft, but they could certainly make a bold move for the future of the unit by selecting a defensive tackle.
Heading into the 2015 season, the Falcons will likely deploy a rotation that includes Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson, Ra’Shede Hageman and Cliff Matthews on the interior of their defensive line. The latter trio could also see extended reps at defensive end in the team’s base package due to their ability to stuff the run.
However, the problem is that Babineaux turns 34 in October and Soliai will be 32 little more than two months later. Given their advanced ages and increasing cap hits, there’s a strong possibility that one or both will be released next offseason. Babineaux is probably the safer of the two to stay with a cap hit of only $3.6 million. But he’s been on a slow decline for the past few years and if that continues, then the Falcons might decide that they can get a much younger and cheaper player to perform at a comparable level.
Soliai will need a very strong 2015 campaign to merit being brought back a year from now. A more natural fit in a 3-4 defense rather than the 4-3 scheme that the Falcons will run this year under new head coach Dan Quinn, he will count $6.9 million against the Falcons’ salary cap in 2016. The Falcons may decide to bite the bullet and reap the nearly $3 million in cap savings by cutting him next offseason, unless he can prove to be the dominant run-defender to merit such a high price tag.
Jackson is also a strong potential candidate for release given his $6.35 million cap hit in 2016. Should all three players get cut, the Falcons may be in line for a total rebuild at the defensive tackle position. Barring an unexpected breakout year, Matthews is not viewed as anything more than a rotational guy and special teams contributor.
That leaves just Hageman, who’s future is somewhat in doubt. Not because the Falcons don’t intend to develop him, but his play in 2015 will determine whether the team sees his long-term future as a tackle or end. There’s a real possibility that a slimmed down Hageman could be converted into a full-time end much like Quinn did for Red Bryant in 2010.
Even if the Falcons manage to retain both Hageman and Babineaux as their defensive tackles starters in 2016, bolstering depth and the rotation would remain a priority. The Falcons could conceivably look to get a head start on addressing that issue in this year’s draft.
Players like Leonard Williams (South Carolina) and Grady Jarrett (Clemson) are two of the more highly-rated tackles that the Falcons have shown interest in. Williams likely won’t be the Falcons preferred target at the top of the draft, but if available, the Falcons won’t hesitate to take him. The only issue with Williams is that like Hageman, he could be better suited to play defensive end in their base packages than being a prolific interior disruptor.
However, it’s unlikely given other needs that the Falcons will use that a high pick on a defensive tackle unless they absolutely love a prospect. Jarrett would be an intriguing option at the top of the second or third round if available. He is the son of former Falcons great Jessie Tuggle, and likely would be considered the sort of penetrating nose tackle that Quinn’s scheme prefers and had in Seattle in the form of Brandon Mebane.
If not one of those two, then the Falcons might opt to take a flyer on an athletic and physical prospect late in the draft with the hopes that he can develop into a key contributor in the rotation.
Because the Falcons can potentially make due with the current players on the roster, defensive tackle isn’t necessarily a need and they may forgo drafting one entirely in 2015. But if they do select someone, it’ll be because there was a talented player too good to pass up that they feel is a perfect fit for Quinn’s defense in the future.