It’s been no secret this offseason that the Atlanta Falcons’ biggest priority will be improving their pass rush. And most of the premier pass-rushers were on display yesterday in Indianapolis during the annual Scouting Combine.
As noted last week, the Combine is good for creating separation within a glut of NFL draft prospects. It’s possible that occurred over the weekend for a top-heavy group of edge-rushers that the Falcons may be targeting with their first-round pick at eight overall.
Chief among those players are Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree.
Beasley Could Fill “Irvin Role” for Falcons
It was Beasley that “blew up” the Combine with some eye-popping measurements and numbers and created the most separation from the pack. His weight (246 pounds) and arm length (32.5 inches) suggests that he’s destined to play on his feet as a linebacker, Beasley showed excellent speed with a 4.53-second 40-yard dash time and quickness with a 6.91-second three-cone drill. His bench press (35 reps of 225 pounds) and vertical leap (41 inches) displayed excellent weight-room strength and lower-body explosiveness.
The knock on Beasley was his size since he was listed at 235 pounds while playing at Clemson this past year. In my first mock draft from nearly two weeks ago, I had Beasley being selected at pick No. 24 mainly due to that limited size. But the added bulk and impressive workout numbers may vault Beasley into the Top 10. It would be unfair to label Beasley as a workout warrior, as his tape certainly backs up the fact that he’s one of the premier pass-rushers in this year’s draft class. He’s tallied 33 sacks the past three seasons while at Clemson.
The easy comparison based off similar size and athleticism is current Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin. Of course, new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has plenty of familiarity with Irvin as the Seahawks’ former defensive coordinator.
Irvin was drafted in the first round in 2012 with the 15th overall selection. At the time it was deemed a major reach on the part of the Seahawks. But as a situational edge-rusher, Irvin had a promising rookie season with 6.5 sacks. However, his lack of size got exposed in the Falcons win over the Seahawks in that playoff game, as he was pushed around quite a bit against the run when forced to replace an injured Chris Clemons as Seattle’s primary defensive end.
When Quinn returned to Seattle in 2013, the team moved Irvin to play more of a stand-up linebacker position as a strong-side linebacker. This past season, Irvin was allowed to put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer from the defensive end spot in a lot of passing situations.
Could Beasley be destined for this role in Atlanta? It would seem a better fit than playing on the defensive line. Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril played defensive end for the Seahawks over recent years, manning what is termed the “LEO” spot in their defensive scheme. Clemons (254 pounds) and Avril (260 pounds) aren’t that much bigger than Beasley, so it wouldn’t be too big a stretch for Beasley to continue to pack on more pounds and play with his hand in the dirt. Beasley doesn’t have the ideal length there, but to be fair, neither did Clemons or Avril. But in the latter cases, both players had four or more years to prove themselves as a capable defensive ends and pass-rushers before being asked to man the LEO spot for the Seahawks.
Gregory, Fowler, Ray and Dupree Provide Variety of Fits
Length wasn’t the problem for Gregory, with his 6’5″ height and 34-inch arms. However, weight proved problematic when Gregory measured in at 235 pounds, the lightest of any of the five aforementioned edge-rushers. He’ll have to bulk up considerably even for 3-4 teams to feel comfortable with him as an outside linebacker. With his frame, teams will likely want him playing at 250 pounds or more. Gregory might fit a bit better long-term as the LEO for the Falcons, but considering he’ll have to spend at least his first year hitting the weight room hard, he might need a bit of a “redshirt” season. Meaning, that if the Falcons draft him, he’ll likely only be a situational player as a rookie as opposed to an every-down starter right away.
Gregory could easily be characterized as the “upside” guy, meaning he’s more of the developmental prospect. He certainly flashed skills while at Nebraska, collecting 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in two seasons. He’s a former JUCO transfer, which is often indicative that a player’s best football is still ahead of him.
is an easy projection to the Falcons, mainly because he was recruited and coached by Quinn during his days at the University of Florida. Fowler has closer to a defensive end body, measuring in at 6’3″ and 261 pounds with decent arm length (33.75 inches). His 40 time was impressive at 4.60 seconds, but he didn’t quite show the same explosiveness in other ares. His bench press of 19 reps was by no means poor, but came in under both Gregory (24 reps) and Ray (21), each of whom were more than 15 pounds lighter. Fowler’s vertical jump of 32.5 inches and broad jump of 9 feet, 4 inches were also a bit underwhelming in comparison to the others, especially considering how powerfully built Fowler’s lower body is.
But on the field, Fowler seems like a good fit at that LEO position for the Falcons. He could certainly carry more weight if need be since he was listed at 277 pounds at Florida, which was closer to his weight during the days when Quinn was there in 2011 and 2012.
Ray was unable to work out due to a toe injury he suffered during his final collegiate game. He did however participate in the bench press, and measured in at 6’3″ and 245 pounds. His arm length of 33 and 1/8 inches isn’t ideal, but isn’t that much different than a lot of similar-sized edge-rushers although most of those players typically play linebacker at the next level. And the concerns over Ray are whether or not he possesses the athleticism to play extensively on his feet in a similar role.
Those questions really won’t be answered until he goes through his pro day workouts later this offseason. Asking Ray to drop into coverage may not be the best way of utilizing his ability, as he was able to tally 14.5 sacks as a senior. He plans on bulking up to 250 later this offseason, but there may be questions about whether his frame will support a lot more weight than that. Ray would be an undersized LEO for the Falcons, but if he can bring pressure like Clemons and Avril can, that won’t be too much of a concern.
Dupree is probably the last option for the Falcons with the eighth overall pick. From a size perspective, he seems to stand out the most of the group, measuring at 6’4″ and 269 pounds. His arms aren’t quite as long as you’d want (32 and 5/8 inches), but they may not need to be. Dupree played as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 at Kentucky, and probably best projects for that same role at the next level. More than likely, the Falcons would likely ask him to play with his hand in the dirt as a LEO as opposed to the strong-side linebacker. Dupree’s vertical jump (42 inches) and broad jump (11 feet, 6 inches) were among the best of any players in Indianapolis this weekend. That coupled with his 4.56-second 40 time suggests he has the burst and lower-body explosiveness one looks for in a defensive end.
UCLA’s Odighizuwa Leads Crop of Potential Second-round Targets
Other pass-rushers that also impressed in Indianapolis were UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa, Virginia’s Eli Harold and LSU’s Danielle Hunter. The Falcons probably won’t be looking into drafting any of them with their first pick, but might be interested in them at the top of the second round with the 42nd overall selection.
Odighizuwa should get a boost on the Falcons’ draft boards from his former coordinator in Jeff Ulbrich now coaching the Falcons linebackers. However, it’s more than likely that Odighizuwa will be seen exclusively as a defensive end for the Falcons. His size (267 pounds) and strength (25 bench reps) probably lock him in there. Helping his draft stock was that Odighizuwa showed linebacker-esque athleticism with a 40 time of 4.62 seconds and 39-inch vertical jump. That might have pushed him up into the latter part of the first round, but the Falcons might be hopeful that he slips to the top of the second round should they look to double dip on edge-rushers at the top of the draft.
Harold played outside linebacker in Virginia’s 3-4 scheme, and like others has more of a linebacker frame (6’3″ 247 pounds). More than likely, the Falcons would look to develop him as that strong-side linebacker in the mold of Irvin, but one who might be a bit more comfortable dropping into coverage and playing in space.
Hunter is another developmental guy, but has all the physical tools teams want in such a player. His size (6’5″ 252 pounds), length (34.25-inch arms), explosiveness (4.57-second 40 time) and strength (25 bench reps) suggest tremendous developmental upside for a player that only tallied 4.5 sacks during his three seasons at LSU.
Which of these players the Falcons target will depend obviously on which ones are available when the Falcons pick, but also whether or not the team is successful with landing a veteran player in free agency.
It would seem given the priority placed on the pass rush, the Falcons won’t rely solely on the draft to bolster the position and will try to make a splash early in free agency. As noted before, it’s a relatively deep group of edge-rushers that could be available on the open market in March. And no different than the draft, so much on who the Falcons might sign will depend on which players eventually become available.
Deep Group of Free Agents Could Become Shallow
There are basically 10 higher-profile edge-rushers that could earn lucrative contracts and be expected to be significant upgrades for the Falcons right away:
- Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
- Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
- Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
- Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
- Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans
- Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
- Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
- Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
- Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
A player like Houston won’t hit the market as the Chiefs are set to place the franchise tag on him. Hardy is another player that even if he does hit the open market, probably won’t be on the Falcons’ radar given their emphasis on character. Pierre-Paul is another long shot in Atlanta since he’s a priority re-signing for the Giants. The Eagles and Graham have also been talking about a contract ever since December. The Titans also want Morgan back. The Bills have been in contract talks with Hughes since January.
Should all their respective teams be successful in retaining those players, that leaves the Falcons down to just four options that are likely to hit the open market: McPhee, Worilds, Sheard and Orakpo.
Versatility Could Attract Falcons
McPhee could become the most intriguing of the group given that he possesses the most versatility. He was a player that moved all around the Ravens front the past few years, working primarily as an outside linebacker in their hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme. But in nickel situations, he would often line up inside as a defensive tackle. That is reminiscent of how Quinn and the Seahawks utilized Michael Bennett the past two years. Bennett played predominantly as the left defensive end for the Seahawks, but McPhee could just as easily be plugged into that LEO position on the right side for the Falcons.
The only real concern about McPhee is that he’s always been a situational rusher for the Ravens, and there are questions whether his production will fluctuate if he’s forced to become an every-down player. The hope is that increased reps will equal increased production, but that always isn’t the case in the NFL. As a rookie, McPhee tallied six sacks and is also coming off a 7.5-sack season in 2014. But in 2012 and 2013, he combined for just 3.5 sacks suggesting that there’s no guarantee that McPhee will be a reliable producer moving forward as a starter.
Worilds has shown steady production the past two years as a starter, collecting a combined 15.5 sacks. While playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Steelers, Worilds might be a better fit to play LEO defensive end in Atlanta. Worilds can play in coverage, but in Pittsburgh was mostly playing zone coverages as opposed to lining up man-to-man as a true strong-side linebacker would on many occasions.
The biggest knock on Worilds is tht while he’s an effective pass-rusher, he’s not the sort of guy that can take over a game. The Steelers used the transition tag on Worilds a year ago, but clearly didn’t see the level of production they wanted from him this past year to make him the high-priority re-signing two consecutive years.
Sheard, Orakpo Offer Potential Bargains
Sheard is coming off a down year with just two sacks. Sheard’s production was much better his first two seasons in the NFL as a defensive end in the Browns’ 4-3 scheme, collecting a combined 15.5 sacks. But with the Browns’ move to a 3-4 defense in 2013, his production has seen a sharp decline. Sheard played his best football early in his career rushing the quarterback from the left defensive end spot, where he was more effective facing slower-footed right tackles. More than likely in Atlanta, he would be put in a similar position, but could also play that LEO spot on the opposite side of the defensive line.
Working in the Falcons’ favor should they target Sheard is that his lack of production might lower his price tag on the open market, meaning that the Falcons could get a relative bargain.
Orakpo might also be another bargain player given the fact that he’s been plagued by injuries in recent seasons. Orakpo tore his pectoral muscle for the third time this past season. This past year, he tore his right pec after tearing his left pec both in 2011 and 2012. The pectoral injuries have caused Orakpo to miss a combined 23 games over the past three seasons and he also missed one game in 2013 with a groin injury.
The Redskins tagged Orakpo a year ago, which was a mild surprise at the time. According to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Orakpo was a player that the Falcons would have targeted had he been available last offseason. They’ll have the opportunity to rectify that missed opportunity this year. More than likely, Orakpo would play the LEO position for the Falcons as opposed to playing linebacker. But he does offer at least the athleticism to potentially play both.
Orakpo could be a relative bargain since teams could be scared away due to his durability concerns. But when healthy, Orakpo has been mostly productive, tallying 38.5 combined sacks in his four healthy seasons. A healthy Orakpo has proven that he’s a capable guy that can be the lead pass-rusher for a team, as he often was with the Redskins over the past six years. Orakpo also would bring a bit more experience and leadership than the other free agents offer and become a good mentor for any young pass-rusher that the Falcons should add via the draft.
At age 28, Orakpo is in a very similar boat as John Abraham when he was traded to the Falcons in 2006. Abraham was approaching his 28th birthday and coming off several injury-plagued seasons with the New York Jets when the Falcons engineered a rare three-team trade with the Denver Broncos to acquire him from the Jets. While a groin injury sidelined Abraham for most of the 2006 season, he wound up only missing three more games for the Falcons over the next six seasons. Should the Falcons grab Orakpo, they will hope for history to repeat itself.
Should the Falcons land one of these free-agents and slot them into the LEO spot in the defense, then it might shift their focus in the draft to someone like Beasley, who might be a better fit as a strong-side linebacker.
The other part of the equation is that if the Falcons are comfortable with their free-agent signee, they might not feel forced to take another edge-rusher at the top of the draft. They could potentially wait until the second round of the draft and target someone like Odighizuwa, Harold or Hunter.
I would speculate that is an unlikely scenario, as the Falcons will probably still target a pass-rusher with their first selection in the draft. But with teams like Tennessee, Jacksonville, Oakland, Washington, N.Y. Jets and Chicago picking ahead of them and all having needs for pass-rushers, the player that the Falcons might desire may not be available with the eighth selection. Even picking that high, the Falcons may wind up being in a position where they are selecting the fourth or fifth best edge-rusher in this draft class.
2015 Class Features Rare Crop of Edge-Rushers
Over the past 25 years, there hasn’t been a draft class that featured more than three edge-rushers selected in the first 10 picks, making the 2015 class potentially unique should it feature four.
The simplest explanation is that this year’s draft class is an especially strong group of edge-rushers. Another explanation is that there is also a dearth of premium offensive linemen and defensive backs, two position groups that typically have players taken at the top of the draft on an annual basis.
The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, being a combination of both factors. Given the Falcons draft position, it may result in them selecting an edge-rusher that in a “normal” year might be selected in the middle of the first round.
This possibility is another reason why it’s important the Falcons seek to upgrade their pass rush via free agency instead of relying solely on the draft. But as noted above, the pickings may be slimmer than initially hoped.
The key will boil down to the Falcons finding the right players both in March’s free agency and April’s draft. Once again pointing back to a notion I’ve consistently harped on for the past several months: the Falcons’ success moving forward will depend heavily on their ability to make better personnel decisions than they have in recent years.
The Falcons can’t afford another free-agent miss a la Ray Edwards or whiff on a high draft pick as they did the last time they held the eighth selection when they took Jamaal Anderson in 2007.
Much like the team’s decisions when signing running back Michael Turner and selecting quarterback Matt Ryan in their first offseason under former head coach Mike Smith in 2008, the Quinn regime will also need a similarly good start in 2015 to find future success.