Now we’re starting to get into the nitty gritty as we approach the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons used almost all of their picks last year on defensive players, and it’s likely there will be a similar focus this year. The Falcons will certainly add some offensive players, but it’s obvious their biggest flaws are on the defensive side of the ball.
None of those flaws are more apparent than their porous pass defense. And a big reason for that was the lack of pass rush. The huge dropoff in production from John Abraham could be considered the primary culprit as the reason why. And if the Falcons hope to improve their defense, it’s likely they will need to make a significant upgrade at this spot this off-season.
Because the Falcons use such a heavy dose of rotation, the Falcons can target more specialized options up front. Right now, Abraham and Kroy Biermann serve as the teams primary pass rushers. But the Falcons are hopeful Lawrence Sidbury to enter into the mix as well this season. On running downs, Anderson and Davis are who the Falcons turn to the most, but Abraham gets plenty of snaps there as well. But the Falcons may want to narrow his focus primarily to pass rushing, so getting more help there makes sense as well.
1. Quickness – The key to the pass rush is a player’s quickness and first step. Having a quick first step allows the defenders an early advantage and set up the blocker. So if the Falcons are targeting someone that can help them in the pass rush it is essentially that they have quickness. A lack of quickness is essentially why Jamaal Anderson has not developed as a pass rusher.
2. Strength/Size – The Falcons already have a nice share of undersized pass rushers in Abraham, Biermann, and Sidbury. None of these players are great run stoppers and frankly can be liabilities if run at. And while both Biermann and Sidbury certainly have growth potential in that area, normally you don’t expect big things from 260-pounders. So the Falcons should target ends that at least have more potential as run stoppers, which usually means they have the potential to be bigger guys in the 270-pound plus range.
3. Motor – Motor is another critical aspect to a good pass rusher. Now if you are a monster athlete you can usually get away with not having a great motor (see Julius Peppers). But when in a rotation, your motor is going to be what gets you on the field. Because the Falcons have so many options in any given situation, a guy is only going to be able to distinguish himself in practice during the week if he plays hard to the whistle on every snap. And if he can do that during the week, then he’ll get more opportunities on Sunday.
4. Technique – Now technique is something that very few college defensive ends possess. Any defensive end will tell you that technique must be developed in order to have success at the pro level. Because NFL tackles are so much stronger and athletic than their college counterparts, defenders will have to learn how to use their hands to get leverage and disengage from blockers. Now it’s low on this list because again, it’s not something that most college defenders have developed. But the Falcons can’t afford any raw guys that lack any technique, because they need help right away in the rotation.
There is a solid group of defensive ends at the top of the draft that can be potential targets for the Falcons in round one.
Best among these is Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan. Morgan has good quickness, is strong, and plays with a high motor. His technique could use some work (as that applies to all college ends), but certainly is developed to a point where he could contribute immediately. Morgan is capable of playing either end spot and can play the run, making him very valuable in a rotation.
Other first round options include Jason Pierre-Paul (South Florida), Everson Griffen (USC), and Carlos Dunlap (Florida). But none are as good fits as Morgan is.
Pierre-Paul has exceptional quickness, and the long-armed tall frame that is an NFL prototype. He is a player that is very much reminiscent of a young Jevon Kearse. But he’s fairly raw with only limited experience playing football at any level (only two years at South Florida), and thus his technique is under-developed. He also played at multiple schools (two different junior colleges before USF) because of academic issues. Some have questioned his intelligence, so while he probably has the most upside as a pure pass rusher, it’s possible that he may not possess the ideal intangibles to reach his potential.
Griffen also possesses a very dangerous first step. But he’s had off-field issues and people questioning his work ethic, and doesn’t have the most developed pass-rushing technique. Like Pierre-Paul, on his speed and quickness alone he could probably contribute as a situational pass rusher. But there are questions about whether he can develop the all-around game down the road to excel.
Dunlap also is a high upside player that had a down junior season. He had an off-field incident (DUI) in December, having many question his character. He’s got great size and athleticism, but he’s drawn a lot of comparisons to Jamaal Anderson due to his size, potential, but inconsistent motor and play. And because of the disappointment of Anderson in Atlanta, it doesn’t make sense for the Falcons to target another player with the same red flags.
Brandon Graham (Michigan) is also in the mix. He’s undersized at 6’1″, but has high motor, good quickness, and better against the run than someone his size should be. But that lack of size has many teams comparing him to ex-Wolverine LaMarr Woodley and projecting him as an outside linebacker. So he might have a limited ceiling as a defensive end prospect.
Corey Wootton (Northwestern) was a player that was projected as a first round pick until he tore an ACL in the bowl game last year. He managed to play this past year, but clearly was effected by that knee. NFL teams will have to determine if he is going to be able to pick up where he left off as a junior, or whether his senior play is more indicative of his NFL future. He has great size (6’7″) but lacked ideal quickness this past year, which he had as a junior. He’s a risk because of the knee injury.
Greg Hardy (Mississippi) also has good NFL size and athleticism. But he battled injuries throughout his career at Ole Miss. And the Falcons struggles with injured rookies this past year likely means they would avoid him.
Virginia Tech’s Jason Worilds is a player similar to John Abraham, in that he has a lightning-quick first step. But he is like Graham in that he is undersized and fits best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Potential mid-round options include Austen Lane (Murray State), Brandon Lang (Troy), George Selvie (South Florida), and C.J. Wilson (East Carolina).
Lane has good size and was productive at a lower level of competition. He is a good athlete that is coming off a nice Senior Bowl week. He doesn’t have huge upside, but may be one of the more well-rounded end prospects in the draft.
Lang and Selvie are bit tweeners. But both have the height and frame to potentially support more weight. Lang comes from Troy which produced DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. But he doesn’t have their potential. He is a nice pass rusher, but probably won’t be great there because he lacks top quickness and technique. Selvie was productive as a sophomore, but injuries mired his junior season, and he didn’t return to his dominance as a senior. His 6’5″ frame could carry more weight, but he isn’t likely to get that much bigger and might be best off moving to linebacker in the pros. He just wasn’t as explosive and productive his last two years, limiting how good an NFL player people can expect him to be.
Wilson has a good first step for his size (6’3″ 284). But it remains to be seen if he’s quick enough to beat NFL tackles. And despite his size, he isn’t that good a run stopper. So he’s not quite a good enough pass rusher to merit much playing time, nor a good enough run stopper to contribute much.
The Final Verdict
Morgan is the ideal prospect. But he’s so talented it’s hard to see him dropping to where the Falcons pick. All of the other first round ends probably have too many red flags as potential first round picks. All have the ability to contribute right away in the team’s rotation. But they are boom/bust prospects, and there have been more failures than successes drafted in Round 1 over the past decade because teams have ignored similar red flags.
Wootton and Lane probably represent the next best options after the first round. Many project Wootton as a second round pick, which will largely be dependent on how teams evaluate his injury situation. And because he’s probably less of a risk, Lane has a chance to move up in the draft in the coming weeks/months, so he might turn into a second rounder as well.
Frankly, if the Falcons cannot land either of those players with their pick in the third round and don’t get a pass rusher in the first round, they may be better off not drafting anybody, since few of the remaining prospects appear to offer anything significantly more than either Biermann or Sidbury do as developmental options.