Stacking the Draft Board: Defensive End

As the Falcons move forward this off-season with their eye towards the draft, they emerge with a pressing need at defensive end.

Although John Abraham had a resurgent season with 13 sacks, he’s not getting any younger and the Falcons need to try and secure their pass rush for the future. That future becomes even more tenuous once you consider that Abraham along with Jamaal Anderson and Kroy Biermann are all entering contract years in 2011. That means with a worse case scenario, the Falcons could be entering the 2012 season with Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury as their starters.

It all adds up to the Falcons trying their best to solidify this position early in the draft with a strong candidate to upgrade their pass rush immediately, but provide some stability for 2012 and beyond. It is likely that however the Falcons add in the draft will enter 2012 with a tentative hold on a starting job depending on how the Falcons handle the contract situations facing Abraham and Biermann.

The best opportunity the Falcons have to do this is in the first round. This is a relatively strong year for defensive end prospects with many experts projecting as many as eight defensive ends to be drafted in the first round. With the Falcons picking at No. 27 in the first, they will probably be at the tail end of this bonanza, but should still have an opportunity to get one or two of these guys.

Unfortunately, for the Falcons the drop-off in talent after the first round is significant. To the point where I don’t think the Falcons could draft a single player and be convinced that player would be ready to be a starter by his second year. And because this year’s draft class is particularly top-heavy, I suspect that we’ll see guys that would normally be mid-round talent being pushed up in the earlier rounds to fill the void after the “Big Eight.” And I’m not sure any one of these players off a significant upgrade in terms of talent over players like Sidbury and Davis.

It’s why it seems the Falcons will probably have to approach things with the mindset that they must secure their defensive end position on the opening night of the draft on April 28.

So the Falcons really have to decide between now and then which of the defensive end prospects they really like. Because with their third and/or fourth round pick, they have the potential to move up several spots to get the player of their choice since most current mocks have the majority of the “Big Eight” going between picks No. 13 and No. 24. Or the Falcons can play a wait and see game and see which of these players fall.

Most likely to top the Falcons draft boards will be the guys that are more geared to being edge rushers in a 4-3 scheme. The eliminates at least three of the Big Eight, by taking J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, and Cameron Heyward from major consideration. North Carolina’s Robert Quinn is widely expected to be a Top 10 pick when all is said and done, which probably puts him out of reach as well .So now, we’ve whittled our board down to four.

In some order, that leaves Missouri’s Aldon Smith, Georgia’s Justin Houston, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, and Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan as most likely options and targets for the Falcons to choose from.

Smith is widely considered to be the best of that group and unlikely at this point to fall to the Falcons at No. 27. And is expected to be a potential Top 15 pick, so the Falcons would almost certainly have to trade up to get him.

Houston is probably the next highest rated according to a consensus, and again would require a trade up. But he’s a fluid athlete with good speed off the edge, and has the potential to be a force as a right end and heir apparent to John Abraham. But Houston is an underclassman, and the Falcons tend to prefer seniors with their picks.

Clayborn and Kerrigan are more likely to fall to No. 27 for the Falcons. Kerrigan is probably the preferred option of the two. He is a high motor player that was very productive at Purdue, something the Falcons would certainly be attracted to. Clayborn entered his senior year with a lot of promise and production, but had a disappointing year. Questions about his work ethic and motor abound, making him a less than ideal fit. But he still is an intriguing prospect due to his size, strength, and athleticism. And through the interview process the Falcons can come to judge for themselves how much they should consider Clayborn’s lack of production as a senior is reflective of his true ability and potential going forward.

If the Falcons can’t find their pass rusher in the first round, they may have tough sledding from that point in the draft.

Someone like Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard, Arizona’s Brooks Reed, or Texas’ Sam Acho are widely considered potential second round candidates. But all three players are considered somewhat undersized tweeners that may wind up being better 3-4 outside linebackers than 4-3 defensive ends. That essentially makes all three more project than producer. The Falcons have also shown considerable interest in Miami’s Allen Bailey. And while an intriguing athlete, Bailey seems like a player that is still raw as a pass rusher and may not pay immediate dividends at the position.

Even later options may include a few sleepers like Pitt’s Greg Romeus, South Carolina’s Cliff Matthews, or Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee. Romeus entered this past season as a highly touted senior, but injuries robbed him this past year. He suffered a torn ACL in November, which would likely put him out at least for the beginning of the 2011 season, but if the Falcons like his junior tape in 2009, he might be a guy that they could use a middle round pick and stash for a year. Matthews hails from the same alma mater as Abraham, and has flashed potential before. If taken under Abraham’s wing for a year, there is some hope that down the road it could pay dividends for him. McPhee also had a down year similar to Clayborn. A year ago, he was one of the top pass rushers in the SEC, but finished with only 2 sacks in 2010. He’s coming off a disappointing Senior Bowl and Combine performances, but could be a nice sleeper candidate if the Falcons believe he can rebound with coaching.

Topping the Board:
1. Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue – Kerrigan’s production and high character are exactly what the Falcons look for in prospects, and they would be extremely happy if they managed to nab him with their top pick in April.
Next Best Things:
2. Justin Houston, Georgia – A local product like Houston would be intriguing to the Falcons, particularly if he fell in the draft to them.
3. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa – There are question marks about Clayborn, but he still would make a good roll of the dice for the Falcons if he happened to be available.
Later Consolation Prizes:
4. Allen Bailey, MIami – The Falcons have shown interest in Bailey at both the Combine and Senior Bowl, indicating that they are at least intrigued by the athletic 285-pounder as a potential second round target.
5. Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh – Has the potential to be an edge rusher with good production at Pitt. He could make a good target in the early part of the second round if the Falcons trade down.
6. Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh – His injuries likely would preclude the Falcons from putting all of their eggs in his basket, but potentially in conjunction with another pick, Romeus would be a potential sleeper in the third or fourth round range.

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Aaron Freeman
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