First Round Targets: Defense
Previously, I discussed potential offensive targets the Falcons should look at in the first round if they are in the business of maximizing their value. And now I’ll turn my attention to defense.
The Falcons defense was exposed by the mighty Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, unable to force a single punt during that entire game. Mike Smith is a coach that wants to be physical on both sides of the ball, and the Falcons defense was embarrassed in that game, indicating they have a long way to go. That means that the Falcons probably could use the most help on defense, but does that mean that they will get the most value by using their top pick on that side of the ball?
This isn’t about projecting who is going to be there, just discussing which players give the Falcons the most value if they were.
Houston and Smith are similar prospects that fit in a similar fashion in Atlanta. Both guys are considered tweeners as far as playing defensive end in a 4-3 vs. outside linebacker in a 3-4. Both played mainly with their hand on the ground in college. Both possess very quick first steps, the caliber of quickness that makes them good heirs apparent to John Abraham as the right end with the edge speed to beat NFL left tackles. The issue for both is that their technique isn’t that great. They both are still fairly raw as far as that goes and will need a number of years (probably two or three) before they are ready to be impact pass rushers and starters. But they both can immediately come in and help the rotation on passing downs, and have the potential that if the Falcons choose not to re-sign John Abraham after this season, then the team can be content with plugging them into the starting lineup. Will they be as good as Abraham? No, probably not. But it would be a very similar situation to what was the case back in 2000, when the Falcons let Chuck Smith go, started Patrick Kerney in his second NFL season, he underwent some growing pains, and then broke out in 2001 with a 12-sack season.
I separate Kerrigan from the other two pass rushers because I feel his best NFL potential may be playing on the left side. Kerrigan is more polished in terms of his technique, having an array of moves and not just relying on his speed to beat tackles. He has good quickness, but not quite the kind where you think he’ll be able to match up with left tackle and beat them consistently around the corner. Playing on the left side against right tackles, he should fare a lot better. Kerrigan is a high motor player that is probably the safest of the prospective defensive ends the Falcons can draft, but may not have the elite upside due to him being a step or so slower. But he has the versatility that the Falcons like because he can play on either side of the line, helping out the rotation as a rookie, and then be plugged into the starting lineup in Year Two on either side. Like Smith and Houston, he’d likely be viewed as the heir apparent to Abraham, but also gives the team a potential replacement for Kroy Biermann on the left side because of his ability to develop the run.
Clayborn is not a prospect I really like. He was a dominant defender as a junior, but showed very little of that ability as a senior. He seemed like for a big chunk of the season he was going through the motions. And for that reason, he is a boom/bust prospect that makes me weary. If the Falcons coaching staff can get him back to a level where he was as a junior, he could be a good player in Atlanta. Because Clayborn suffers from Erb’s Palsy, which limits the strength he has in his right arm, it means he’ll be limited to playing right defensive end in the pros which will allow him to take on blocks with his left arm. That means that he can fit in Atlanta as a replacement to Abraham there, but he doesn’t offer the sort of speed to really beat NFL left tackles. So instead, in order for Clayborn to be an effective and productive pass rusher at the next level, it will largely depend on how much improvement he can make to his technique and really developing his bull rush. One of the best bull rushers in recent NFL memory was Chris Doleman, and if Clayborn really worked on his game, then it’s not too presumptive to think he could be reminiscent of Doleman. Now Doleman is a prospective Hall of Fame player that ended his career with 151 sacks over 15 seasons, and it would be silly for me to expect the same from Clayborn. But I just mean he has potential, and whether he reaches that potential is based around how much he loves the game and how hard the Falcons think he’s going to work. And based off his last year at Iowa, I can’t be too optimistic about him in that realm.
Now the Falcons have used a first and third round pick in the past two drafts on a defensive tackle, and I’m sure a majority of fans would be unenthusiastic about using a third pick on that position again. But Paea offers much greater potential than either Peria Jerry or Corey Peters. Paea is a very good fit in the Falcons scheme, because they like their defensive tackles to play multiple techniques. Paea played mostly 3-technique for the Beavers, but also got quite a bit of work at the 1-technique (nose) and 5-technique (end) which means that the Falcons can be confident they can move him around to create the best possible matchups. Paea impressed with his strength at the Combine, but it’s his quickness and disruptive capabilites coupled with that giving him his high upside. I’ve compared Paea to Haloti Ngata when one considers his raw strength and athleticism. Paea probably isn’t a guy that is going to come in right away and make a huge impact since he’s still relatively new to the game of football, but if he can improve his technique, in two or three years, he could potentially be a dominant defensive tackle. Not only is he an upgrade over Peters and Jerry opposite Babineaux, but also offers the potential to take over for Babineaux in a few years as the team’s dominant and disruptive interior presence. Babineaux has played well the past three seasons, but realistically probably only has two or three more years at that level. Paea gives the team a player that can extend that interior presence through the next decade if he lives up to his potential.
There isn’t much to say about Liuget that I already didn’t say about Paea. He played mostly nose tackle at Illinois, but has the quickness, size, and ability to also play the 3-technique and be effective. Liuget is big, powerful, and has a high motor to be an impact interior defender. Like Paea, he needs more polish in terms of being able to use his hands, but with his combo of physical tools and potential he can be one of the premier interior guys in the league. He immediately should be able to help the Falcons rotation if not be a starter as a rookie, and gives them a solid two-way disruptor to develop down the road as the anchor of the line.
Ayers has had a disappointing off-season, which has hurt his draft stock. But in terms of his talent and potential, he’s practically as good as any linebacker prospect in recent years. Ayers has the ability to make impact plays in all three phases: playing the run, rushing the passer, and playing in coverage. The problem with Ayers is that he has a questionable motor and the less than stellar off-season workouts have done little to change that belief. Ayers could immediately step in as the SAM linebacker for the Falcons, allowing Weatherspoon to move to his more natural WILL spot. Ayers is rangy against the run, but what makes him an even better fit in Atlanta is his potential as a pass rusher. On third downs he won’t have to come off the field because he can put his hand in the dirt and play end, or he can be used as a blitzer. And given the Falcons issues in the pass rush, that makes Ayers extra valuable. Coupled with the fact that he’s a much better athlete in coverage than Stephen Nicholas, it means the Falcons don’t have to worry as much when they match up him against a back, tight end, or slot receiver. The issue with Ayers is that if his motor is poor, that’s not a great mix for an NFL linebacker. Now, playing beside guys like Lofton and Weatherspoon should help him, since their energy and toughness should rub off on him somewhat, but what you’re afraid of is that despite his potential, Ayers struggles transitioning to the league reminiscent of Seattle’s Aaron Curry. Curry and Ayers are similar athletes, but Curry has yet to develop into an impact defender despite his skill level. And that is the same fear you have with Ayers.
What makes Harris and Williams so intriguing for the Falcons is their experience playing in the slot for their respective schools. The Falcosn need an upgrade at slot corner badly, and the idea of Chris Owens and Dominique Franks competing for that role shouldn’t fill the team with a ton of confidence. Harris is quick with good ball skills. He’s not completely polished, but has the sort of athletic upside that if he can work on his game, he has the potential to be a No. 1 corner. Williams is big, physical, and plays well in run support, making him a very similar prospect to what attracted the Falcons to Dunta Robinson. Like Robinson, he is a good press corner, and that is also attractive if the team is forced to blitz a lot again this season. His size makes him an intriguing matchup against big slot receivers like Marques Colston that the Falcons will face on a regular basis. The value of both is that they offer an immediate upgrade at nickel cornerback, but also have the potential that down the road can slide outside and be starters there.
It’s no doubt that the Falcons need help on defense. But given the available prospects there is probably a bit more risk regarding the potential for reward on that side of the ball. The success rate of first round picks on the defensive line isn’t particularly strong, but that is where the most reward is if you do indeed hit on a pick.
Targeting the back seven probably gives them more immediate help since Harris or Williams can log significant minutes as rookies in the nickel set for 25-30 snaps a game. Ayers also is a guy that can come in right away just like Weatherspoon and be a starter and part-time player in their nickel. Up front, the Falcons probably need more help and anybody they draft will probably start off in the rotation. But they certainly all could carve out starting roles in their second years. On the interior, while the Falcons are relatively solid with their interior rotation, it wouldn’t hurt to get the potential elite caliber interior presence that Paea and Liuget offer, something none of their current options do. And their future at defensive end is most dire since Abraham, Anderson, and Biermann are all potential free agents after the season. And the goal there is not only to get someone that can immediately help their rotation, but also become a starter by his second year, and hopefully an impact playmaker by his third at the latest.