Falcons Gearing Up to Take Pass Rusher Atop Draft
The Falcons primary needs heading into this offseason were upgrading their running game, replacing/retaining Tony Gonzalez at tight end, securing the cornerback spot opposite Asante Samuel, and improving the pass rush. While there were certainly other areas of the roster that could be improved, those four spots seemed to be the primary needs where the Falcons couldn’t afford to stand pat upon.
Well after the first few days of the off-season, it seems that the Falcons have already addressed the majority of them except for the pass rush.
Steven Jackson was added to replace Michael Turner as the starting running back. While Jackson won’t fix the Falcons running ailments, he certainly should provide a short-term boost. He’ll also give the team another year to evaluate Jacquizz Rodgers to determine if he will have a say in the Falcons long-term answers at the position.
Tony Gonzalez was retained for at least one more year. While the Falcons certainly could be in the market for drafting his heir apparent this April, Gonzalez’s presence means it ceases to be a priority.
While the cornerback spot remains open, the market has been flooded with so many good veteran corners such as Antoine Winfield and Nnamdi Asomugha to join free agents like Brent Grimes, Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter, etc. that it seems impossible at this point that the Falcons won’t find someone competent to man the starting spot at least short-term. Worst-case scenario is the Falcons find a veteran seat warmer that at least prevents the Falcons need to use a very high pick looking for an immediate starter.
That just leaves the pass rush, which hasn’t been addressed yet following the release of John Abraham, by far the team’s best player in that category last season. And the market as of this writing doesn’t appear to be as favorable as the Falcons potential options in the secondary.
At this point, the best case scenario for the Falcons may be a lateral move in replacing Abraham with a similarly aged veteran like Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora. The Falcons could also choose to address their pass rush with a quick, interior presence but aren’t likely to find much help on the open market. Quality pass rushers like Henry Melton, Jason Jones, Desmond Bryant, Chris Canty, and Cullen Jenkins have already worked out deals elsewhere.
Given Thomas Dimitroff’s proclivities for needs-based drafting, it would seem likely that the Falcons’ off-season is setting them up to address that key need with their top pick. Whether that happens to be an edge rusher or interior disruptor remains to be seen, but it would be a major upset at this point if the Falcons top pick six weeks from now won’t be playing a position that makes it living chasing down quarterbacks.
Typically, the Falcons’ draft strategy in early rounds centers on taking players that will be asked to be immediate contributors. First rounders from 2008 in Matt Ryan and Sam Baker were expected to “compete” for starting jobs immediately. I use the term compete loosely since their primary competition were Chris Redman and Quinn Ojinnaka, journeymen players. The following year, the team drafted Peria Jerry who was expected to slide in as a starter to replace Grady Jackson beside Jonathan Babineaux. In 2010, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon started on the strongside, away from his natural weakside position just so the team could get his playmaking abilities on the field at the same as Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson. And obviously, the most recent first rounder in Julio Jones prompted the immediate release of Michael Jenkins and his insertion into the starting lineup.
The Falcons have similarly approached their second round picks with the same expectations as Curtis Lofton, William Moore, and Peter Konz all competed for starting spots as rookies. Lofton had no trouble unseating Tony Taylor from the middle linebacker position. Moore likely would have won the starting job as a rookie if not for a hamstring injury during training camp that cut his rookie season short. His time on the bench did not last long as he took over for an injured Erik Coleman in Week 2 of 2010 and never looked back. Konz almost beat out Garrett Reynolds for the starting right guard spot last summer with a late surge. But similar to Moore, not longer after an injury to Reynolds forced Konz into the lineup.
This means that up to now, the Falcons have always used their highest picks on essentially immediate starters. There will always be a competition so to speak, but the expectation is that the draft pick will win the job quickly.
With Jackson, Gonzalez, and the retention of offensive linemen Sam Baker and Garrett Reynolds, the Falcons don’t really have any starting positions open. They could certainly bring in an interior linemen to compete at right guard, but between Konz, Reynolds, and Mike Johnson the competition is already potentially thick.
On defense, the most obvious spots open are right defensive end and right cornerback. If the season began tomorrow, the team would likely be starting Jonathan Massaquoi and Robert McClain. But as previously stated, it won’t be hard to get a competent stopgap at the cornerback position, so that’s likely to change. That means edge rusher is probably the most likely spot that could be upgraded. While I’m certain the team likes Massaquoi’s potential, he is a fifth round pick after all. While that won’t preclude him from being the starter in 2013, it does probably indicate that isn’t the current plan. While Massaquoi’s talent level certainly exceeds that of your typical fifth round pick, it’s not common practice for NFL teams to hand starting gigs to second-year fifth rounders that played a relative handful (41) snaps as rookies.
That likely means the Falcons will be looking for an edge rusher with their top pick. But it may not preclude them from taking an interior player. Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry all have contracts expiring at the end of the 2013. While it would not fit the Falcons M.O. of taking a first-year starter, the likelihood that any defensive tackle selected would be expected to start in 2014 could prompt the team to still take him. But that distinction likely depends on the talent available when the Falcons pick. If there isn’t an edge rusher on the board that the Falcons like, then their attention could focus more on a defensive tackle.
Recent mocks have been pushing edge rushers like Bjoern Werner (Florida State) and Damontre Moore (Texas A&M) down boards after the Combine, while others like Dion Jordan (Oregon), Barkevious Mingo (LSU), and Ezekial Ansah (BYU) have shot up them. Werner is probably the more likely target since Moore has some character red flags that typically scares off the Falcons. But Moore’s talent level and production could be enough to cause the Falcons to look the other way, since at one point in time Moore was projected as a Top 2 pick by experts. Other edge pass rushers that are attempting to make a late climb up boards into the back-end of Round One are Werner’s teammate at Florida State, Cornelius “Tank” Carradine, and Texas’s Alex Okafor.
On the inside, players such as Sylvester Williams (North Carolina) and Kawann Short (Purdue) have been projected as defensive tackles taken late in the first round that could be targets of the Falcons. Short is a two-time team captain (which the Falcons value) that is projected by many as a good potential fit in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
Two potential targets that could play both inside and outside are Datone Jones (UCLA) and Margus Hunt (SMU). Both have an excellent combination of size and athleticism to potentially be able to affect the quarterback off the edge or as interior players. Hunt is a special teams maven (17 career blocked kicks) due to his height (6-8), that is projected as more of a pure 3-4 defensive end. Jones is interesting because he would line up at multiple positions across UCLA’s front, and thus might better fit the multiplicity that Mike Nolan prefers in his defensive fronts.
Either way the Falcons should have options towards the end of the first round to find prospects that can help improve their pass rush. Assuming the Falcons address the cornerback position in the coming days in free agency, that leaves the remainder of their draft open to address many of those lesser needs. Most of those needs likely will include addressing their depth on the defensive side of the ball.