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Who Will Falcons Target on Second Day of 2014 NFL Draft?

May 9th, 2014 Comments off
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons’ interest in Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford signals their goals on Day 2

The second day of the 2014 NFL Draft is upon us where teams will be selecting their second and third-round picks. After the Atlanta Falcons used their top pick on Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, it now begs the question of what is next?

The Falcons top need is at pass-rusher where the team was at or near the bottom of the league in both sacks and third-down defense in 2013. The team has been at the bottom of the league in both those categories for several years, so frankly, their need at pass-rusher has been many years in the making.

The first-round of the draft saw a couple of edge-rushers go late with Auburn’s Dee Ford being selected by the Kansas City Chiefs at 23rd overall and the Philadelphia Eagles selecting Louisville’s Marcus Smith with the 26th overall pick. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the Falcons attempted to move back into the first round in order to select Ford, presumably trying to swap picks with the Philadelphia Eagles, who originally held the 22nd overall selection. They traded that pick to the Cleveland Browns, who selected quarterback Johnny Manziel, Matthews former teammate at Texas A&M.

In terms of compensation, the Eagles were able to move down four spots and also picked up a third-round pick (83rd overall) in return. There were also reports that the Minnesota Vikings were looking to move into that spot, meaning that the Falcons needed to blow away the Eagles with an offer to get Ford. While the Falcons could have given the Eagles a higher third-round pick (68th overall), their second-round selection (37th overall) pales in comparison to the 26th pick that the Browns offered.

The Falcons interest in Ford coupled with their need at the position strongly suggests that their priority with the 37th overall pick to come later this evening, the team will target an edge-rusher.

There should be plenty to choose from. Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Kony Ealy (Missouri), Demarcus Lawrence (Boise State) and Kyle Van Noy (Brigham Young) were all potential second-round targets that worked out for the team this offseason. In fact, I discussed those exact players along with Ford in April as potential second-round targets. At the time, it was concluded that Ford and Attaochu would likely top the team’s list of potential candidates.

There are possibilities that the Falcons could pass on an edge-rusher, particularly if Ford was the sole apple of their eye. Perhaps they deem the rest to be better value in the third round. It’s unlikely, but certainly a possibility.

If that is the case, then what other potential positions could the team opt to address in the second round? Safety and tight end are two potential needs that stand out.

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Categories: Features Tags: , ,

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 65 “Last Thoughts on the Draft”

May 6th, 2014 Comments off

I am joined by Dave Choate of the Falcholic to give some final thoughts on what the Atlanta Falcons could do in the 2014 NFL Draft. We break down several first-round scenarios for the Falcons including whether or not they will trade up for Jadeveon Clowney or stay at six to take an offensive tackle. We also discuss what areas of need could be targeted in the second and third rounds of the draft. Then we follow up with our assessment of which areas could be addressed in the later rounds. We also discuss whether Bear Pascoe’s signing will affect the Falcons draft plans at tight end.

Episode 65 – Last Thoughts on the Draft [Download]

Duration: 48 minutes

Dave writes for The Falcoholic and can be found on twitter: @TheFalcoholic.

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and be sure to rate us there! You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt

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Draft Needs: Is Dwight Lowery Enough for Falcons at Safety?

May 2nd, 2014 Comments off
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

When the Atlanta Falcons decided to cut long-time free safety Thomas DeCoud in March, it created a void at the position. But the thinking may have been that DeCoud’s play in 2013 had slipped so considerably that such a void would be relatively easy to fill.

And while the Falcons made quick moves to help address their weaknesses along the line of scrimmage at the outset of free agency, they stood quiet when it came to concerns in the secondary. But eventually the Falcons addressed their need at the position by signing Dwight Lowery, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Lowery was a forgotten man, having missed most of 2013 nursing a concussion. He was released by the Jaguars midseason after being placed on injured reserve due to that head injury, his second in six years in the NFL. But his inconspicuous exit from Jacksonville should not diminish what he had done for three years, where he was second only to linebacker Daryl Smith as the team’s most consistent defender. And one certainly saw what Smith did in Baltimore last year after leaving behind obscurity in Jacksonville.

Lowery began his career at cornerback, playing three seasons with the New York Jets playing mainly in the slot. That should give him an edge over DeCoud in terms of coverage on the back-end, an area that has been sorely lacking for the team in recent years. Man coverage is anything but a strength for strong safety William Moore (as Jimmy Graham can attest). Not to mention, Lowery should be a vast improvement over DeCoud in run support as he is much less prone to missing tackles. Over the past three years in Jacksonville, Lowery missed a combined 10 tackles (per premium website Pro Football Focus). In 2013 alone, DeCoud missed 12 and combined for 43 over the past three seasons.

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Draft Needs: Falcons Looking to Replace Weatherspoon at Linebacker?

May 1st, 2014 Comments off

When you separate their need for a pass-rusher, the Atlanta Falcons appear relatively secure at linebacker. The unit is anchored by Sean Weatherspoon and the team got production from undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu in 2013, with only room to get better in 2014.

But there may not be as much security as it initially seems. Weatherspoon is coming off an injury-filled season and is entering his contract year where he’ll be set to hit free agency in 2015. Worrilow and Bartu fared well for rookies, but are far from proven at the position.

The team also has Akeem Dent in the mix, adding depth and helping out on special team. But Dent has struggled the past two years when asked to start. And it’s telling in how quickly the Falcons pulled the plug on him as the starting middle linebacker last year in favor of Worrilow, given Dent’s much higher draft status. At this point, the team should only see Dent as an experienced backup in the event of another injury at the position.

The key is Weatherspoon, who is slowly recovering from a knee injury suffered late last year. Spoon also missed a significant portion of 2013 with a foot injury and whether or not he can stay healthy is an unanswered question. He has missed a total of 17 games due to injuries over four seasons with the Falcons. If Spoon comes back in 2014 and has a strong year and avoids injury, it’s likely the Falcons will look to re-sign him to a long-term contract to continue anchoring the defense. But if not, then the team may need to be prepared to move on.

Bartu flashed some things late in the year as a replacement for Spoon but he’s far from a proven commodity. Bartu has good athleticism, but needs to improve in his instincts and awareness for the position. He spent his rookie season primarily playing strong-side linebacker as an injury fill-in for Kroy Biermann, but could move to the weak side if the team is successful in adding an edge pass-rusher in the draft. But at this point Bartu remains a developmental option as opposed to someone that can be penciled in right now as a future starter.

Worrilow had a strong rookie year and showed excellent instincts and awareness given his youth and lack of experience. He will need to continue to get better as a tackler and in coverage to truly take that next step to becoming a trusted starter. But the presence of Dent behind him and the fact that he handled starting duties for an extended period last year should have the Falcons more confident in his future than that of Bartu.

Outside the current four, there are no other true linebackers on the roster. The Falcons will be in the market to add another insurance policy at the position, someone that not only adds depth but also is a potential candidate to be a starter in the near future.

The Falcons need another athletic linebacker that can play on passing downs, since that deficiency led to Dent’s benching as well as the eventual dismissals of Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas.

Given that Spoon is a former first-round pick, any player taken in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft won’t be on the same plane athletically. But the higher said prospect is selected, the better an athlete he’s likely to be.

Any draft pick selected may be relegated mainly to special teams as a rookie, but in the event of Spoon’s departure in 2015, he should offer some potential to compete with Bartu for the vacated starting position. Ideally, Weatherspoon will have a great 2014 and any draft pick selected this year will be used as a capable backup in the event of another injury down the road.

Ultimately the Falcons can’t really control what happens in 2014 in terms of whether Spoon stays healthy, or whether Bartu and Worrilow take those next steps in their NFL development. The goal of adding a linebacker in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft is about giving themselves an insurance policy in case some or none of those things happen.

Draft Needs: Are Falcons Desperately Seeking an Edge-Rusher?

April 30th, 2014 Comments off
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

If you’re making a case for what is the Atlanta Falcons biggest draft need, it starts and ends with edge pass-rusher.

The lack of a significant pass rush has plagued the team for multiple seasons. The last time the team finished in the top 15 league-wide in sacks was 2008, and the last time they finished in the top 10 was in 2004 when they led the entire league with 48 sacks.

Frankly, the Falcons wasted the talents of John Abraham for the seven years he played in Atlanta as they were never able to surround him with a good enough supporting cast to create a consistently effective pass rush. The Falcons have watched team after team tee off on Matt Ryan over the past few seasons, yet have rarely done the same to opposing quarterbacks. It is long overdue that changes.

Thus, it was disappointing when the team opted to not make any major moves during free agency to improve the pass rush. Instead the team focused their attention on adding run defenders like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson along with retaining the likes of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. While the latter three are solid players, they are simply part of the pass-rush-deficient problem that has plagued the team for multiple years.

So things now turn to the draft where the Falcons must find a way to improve the league’s worst third-down defense.

However that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie pass-rusher to essentially carry the unit, even if said rookie isas gifted as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.

But any rookie will get help from the likes of Jonathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora and Stansly Maponga. The Falcons are retaining their hybrid scheme, but may play with “more 3-4 flavor” than previously under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

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Draft Needs: More Beef Needed on Falcons Defensive Interior?

April 30th, 2014 1 comment
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Malliciah Goodman

An offseason priority for the Atlanta Falcons was “toughening up” their team, with an emphasis on bulking up on both lines of scrimmage. The team did just that when they opened up free agency by signing defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

For many, it signaled that the Falcons were moving to a 3-4 scheme. Why else would would they guarantee $25 million to players that have spent the bulk of their careers playing in that defensive scheme? While Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, prior to his arrival in Atlanta he had not coached a defense with a 4-3 as their base scheme in seven years. Nolan’s history signaled a clear preference for the 3-4 defense, and the signings of Soliai and Jackson appeared to be that preference finally coming to fruition in Atlanta after two years of a hybrid unit between the two schemes.

But Falcons head coach Mike Smith was quick to pump the brakes on those expectations, indicating that the team would still be utilizing a hybrid scheme. That makes sense given the team opted to bring back free agents Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry, who all were drafted by the Falcons originally to play in a 4-3 scheme.

Although it’s interesting that between the three of them, they are making less than $5 million in guaranteed money. So if money talks, then the Falcons will be tailoring their defense more towards the strengths of Jackson and Soliai, which should indicate more 3-4 “flavor” than 4-3 in their hybrid unit in 2014.

That should help a player like Malliciah Goodman, who has the ability to play in either scheme, but may project best in a 3-4 at defensive end. Goodman flashed good ability as a run defender as a rookie last year, and has reportedly bulked up considerably this offseason with the mindset of becoming a regular in the team’s base defense.

That development should benefit a player like Babineaux, who was the team’s top pass-rusher a year ago despite having a single sack. Per Moneyball game reviews which focus on All-22, Babineaux led the team with 13 “positive pass rushes,” which are sacks, quarterback hits and pressures combined. Babineaux also played the most of any Falcon defensive lineman last year with 924 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Only William Moore (1,064 snaps) and Desmond Trufant (1,022) played more on defense. Babineaux’s reps were the fourth-most of any interior defensive lineman in the league in 2013, and frankly way too much for a 32-year old player.

Goodman missed two games due to injury last season, but wound up playing 305 snaps. If he can carve a bigger role in the rotation, particularly on run downs, it will allow the team to streamline Babineaux’s playing time on passing downs. That could potentially cut his snap count in half, and thus keep him fresher for this year and give him a better chance to play out the remainder of what is expected to be his final NFL contract.

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Draft Needs: Are Falcons Okay at Center?

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons seemingly solidified their center position by re-signing free agent Joe Hawley this offseason.

But the interesting thing about Hawley’s contract is that it is a significant commitment to the fifth-year pro, but also not really a commitment to him.

If Hawley doesn’t have a strong 2014 season, the team could move on from him rather easily in 2015 based off how his contract is structured. In 2015, the metaphorical keys could easily be tossed over to Peter Konz at center, when he could play out the final year of his contract in order to be given the opportunity to earn a second. At this point, it would seem Konz is unlikely to get a substantial second deal with the team in 2016, but that could change if he shows growth and development over the next year or two.

Given the added presence of Harland Gunn on the roster, the Falcons appear three-deep potentially at the center position. More than likely, they’ll let the competition between Hawley and Konz play out this year without bringing any major addition into the mix. They’ll certainly add at least one more body in undrafted free agency, but drafting a player seems doubtful.

Based off how Hawley and Konz performed this upcoming season, the Falcons could then determine if center is going to be a priority position in the 2015 offseason. The less faith Hawley or Konz instill in them this year, the more likely the team will go out of its way to upgrade the position next year.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

Draft Needs: Should Falcons Add More Depth at Guard

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons stabilized their right guard position with the signing of former Kansas City Chiefs starter Jon Asamoah this offseason. There had been a revolving door at the position since the team opted to let Harvey Dahl go following the 2010 season.

Asamoah joins Justin Blalock as the most proven of the team’s five projected starters, making the interior of the line a potential strength.

But as the injury-riddled 2013 season showed, shoring up the depth at a strong position is a smart move. However, the Falcons do have some internal options.

The loser of the battle at center between Joe Hawley and Peter Konz could serve as a backup at that position. However, both Hawley and Konz were major contributors to the instability at right guard over the past three seasons since both are much more natural as centers. Moving forward, they should only be returned to the position as a last resort.

The team got solid production from Harland Gunn towards the end of last season, relative to what they saw earlier in the year. They also added Gabe Carimi this offseason, who showed promise in 2012 as a guard for the Chicago Bears. Both could prove capable fill-ins in the event of an injury, although neither are proven candidates as of yet. Gunn is a bit undersized for the position, and despite earlier promise, Carimi struggled in three starts at left guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

The team could also move backup right tackle Mike Johnson back to guard, particularly if they wind up using a high pick on an already cluttered offensive tackle position. Johnson has spent the past two summers working at right tackle after failing to earn his way onto the field at guard his first two seasons.

So the Falcons could get by with the players currently on their roster. While solidifying guard depth may not pay immediate dividends this season, it could prove worthwhile down the road.

Blalock has a cap hit that exceeds $7 million this year as well in the final two years of his contract thereafter. He is coming off arguably his best season since joining the Falcons in 2007, but if he is unable to maintain that level of play it’s possible he could find himself playing elsewhere. The Falcons can save nearly $4 million in cap space if they cut him next offseason, and $6 million the following spring. That could be enticing savings if there is any slip in Blalock’s play. Tyson Clabo was 32 when the Falcons cut ties with him, and Blalock will turn 31 at the end of 2014.

Adding a developmental guard that could potentially be in the mix to replace Blalock down the line would be a smart move by the Falcons, in case none of the current players on the roster earn that opportunity. You could expect such a player to be found on the third day of the draft given more pressing needs at other positions.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

Draft Needs: Do Falcons Really Need Upgrade at Tackle?

April 29th, 2014 1 comment

Offensive tackle was a position that plagued the Atlanta Falcons throughout the 2013 season, and has been one long designated as an area that could use improvement.

So the answer to the question of whether the team needs an upgrade at the position in yes. But a better question may be, does the team need to use a high pick in order to make that upgrade? Particularly when looking at the right tackle spot where Lamar Holmes is expected to line up.

Holmes struggled throughout most of 2013, but there were points during the season where he was decent when he was filling in for an injured Sam Baker at left tackle. There was a seven-game stretch between Weeks 4 and 11, where Holmes only allowed one sack and four pressures according to Moneyball reviews. That sort of production over the course of an entire 16-game season would indicate that Holmes is more than capable of holding down a starting job permanently.

The premium at the offensive tackle position comes on the left side, with NFL teams investing considerably more in their left tackles than they do in their right ones. Looking at the grades on premium website Pro Football Focus, I looked at all the tackles that played at least 500 snaps in 2013 and broke them down based on what round they were drafted in. I then also looked at those who finished the season with a positive grade according to PFF’s metrics as they appear in the following tables under the “Good” category. Here’s how left tackles and right tackles broke down separately:

Left Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st1544%1362%
2nd618%314%
3rd39%00%
4th39%15%
5th00%00%
6th00%00%
7th26%15%
Undrafted515%314%

Right Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st824%633%
2nd618%422%
3rd26%16%
4th26%211%
5th412%16%
6th00%00%
7th26%16%
Undrafted927%317%

The numbers clearly delineate how much more NFL teams invest in left tackles than right tackles, with nearly half the regulars at left tackle in 2013 being former first-round picks. They also show how that teams that invest high picks (first and second-rounders) in either position tends to pay dividends with better production. In both cases, more than 70 percent of the regular tackles on both sides that were first or second-round picks wound up receiving positive grades from Pro Football Focus. It became much more hit and miss thereafter.

It suggests that if the Falcons want to upgrade either tackle position, they would be smart to invest a first or second-round pick in them.

But the better question may not be whether the Falcons should invest a high pick in a right tackle to upgrade Holmes, but rather whether they should be looking to improve the left tackle position. Sam Baker has been anything but reliable over the past six years, missing a combined 26 games due to injury. That trend cannot continue, and a first-round pick at tackle could go a long way to address that problem.

But the Falcons invested a significant contract in Baker last offseason and are seemingly stuck with him for at least another season. If he doesn’t rebound this year, then the team may be forced to part ways with him next offseason. So the best strategy for the Falcons may be using a high pick on a player that can be plugged in immediately at right tackle, but eventually move to the left side. That could give Holmes more time to develop and hone his skills. And also give the team a very good insurance policy in case Baker does not bounce back and have a good year in 2014.

The Falcons cannot cut Baker without eating a significant amount of dead money until 2016. But if a rookie tackle shows promise his first year, the team might decide to take that penalty and move on in 2015. The chances of that happen increase exponentially if the Falcons take a tackle in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , , ,

Draft Needs: Have Falcons Really Improved Depth at Wide Receiver?

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons signed wide receiver Devin Hester earlier this offseason, in a move that should bolster not only their special teams, but also their depth at wide receiver. But has that signing really made a substantial improvement to their depth at the latter position?

The Falcons depth at the position essentially boils down to whether or not they can rely on any of their current backups to step up if or when one of their starters goes down with an injury. Last year, the team’s top wideout Julio Jones missed the final 11 games due to a foot injury, which he is still recovering from. Last season long-time stalwart Roddy White, nursing ankle and hamstring injuries, did not look himself until a breakout performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13.

Harry Douglas filled in during both players’ absences. Douglas produced at a high level leading the team with 85 catches and 1,067 yards, but in the six games in which he was functionally their lead receiver, the team scored an average of 17.5 points. In the other 10 games played last season where either Jones or White were healthy and on the field, they averaged 24.8 points, a touchdown more. That may not seem like much, but a single touchdown per game essentially separates what would be considered a top 10 offense in the NFL from one at the very bottom.

In Chicago for the five years prior to 2013, the Bears tried to take advantage of Hester’s dynamic explosiveness as a returner on offense at wide receiver. It did not work effectively as Hester had a single 100-yard game over that span. In 2013, Hester opted to focus on special teams rather than continuing to strive to be an effective offensive weapon. Was a coincidence then that thanks to the emergence of second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery in Hester’s absence, the Bears offense scored more points this season than any other Bears offense ever? Probably not.

If Douglas and Hester’s past careers show us anything, it tells us that in the event of injuries that sideline both Jones and White, the Falcons offense will take a significant dip. That means that there is still room for improvement in terms of depth at wide receiver.

The 2014 draft class is considered one of the deepest ever at the wide receiver position. That certainly allows things to fall into place if the Falcons plan to address their depth at the position.

Targeting a player that can line up outside the numbers and help stretch the defense would bring something new to the roster. The Falcons already have plenty of guys that can line up inside in the slot. Douglas, Hester and Johnson are at their best playing inside, given their lack of size and struggles to beat press coverage outside. And White and Jones certainly have also made their share of plays when they’ve been asked to play in the slot over the years.

Another slot receiver would simply be overkill. The Falcons sorely missed a playmaker that could line up outside, beat press coverage and stretch the defense last year when Jones was out. White is slowing down and still occasionally provides those vertical plays, but is much more of a pure possession wideout at this point in his career.

In the event of another Jones injury, something that has occurred all three years he has been in the league, the Falcons should have someone on the roster that can do some of the things he can do. Few can do all of the things that he does, that’s what makes him Julio Jones. But a player that can at least mimic his role in the offense, which is a player that forces defenses to have to respect the deep ball can open up things for the other receivers that do the underneath stuff.

But any rookie added may not be able to make major contributions right away. Rookie receivers are notorious for a slow transition into the next level, having to refine their route-running and ability to read coverages, critical to success in the NFL.

But the earlier said player is added to the roster, the sooner he can eventually contribute. And even if he’s not able to make huge strides in 2014, he certainly can start to impact in 2015. White is no spring chicken, and even with a contract extension, he’ll be turning 33 in November. There may only be a few more years where he can be expected to contribute as a starter. If the Falcons can begin developing his heir apparent, by the time White might opt to hang it up a few years down the road, that player will have an easy and smooth transition into the starting lineup.

One thing is for certain, between Douglas, Hester, Johnson, and Davis that eventual replacement is not currently on the roster. It would be prudent of the Falcons to add him via this year’s draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , , , ,