Normally I write my weekly takeaways column on Sunday afternoon or evening with the intention of it being posted first thing Monday morning around 8:00 a.m. This week, that was no the case.
That’s partly to blame for the fact that it was Mother Day’s weekend, and instead of doing all the things I normally would have done on a Sunday afternoon/evening to get this weekly column posted, I decided to spend time with my mother, who had driven four hors from Virginia to North Carolina to witness my sister-in-law’s graduation from grad school. In the interest of being a good son, my mother took precedent over this column.
Secondly, I had not watched all of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 draft picks play yet. And the column after the draft is the one devoted to my thoughts on whether I believe the Falcons’ draft was a good one or not.
Because unlike most people, I try to be informed before giving my opinions. If you want to know my take on any of the Falcons undrafted free agents, I don’t have one because I haven’t seen any of them play. Until I do, which will be in the first preseason game, my opinion on them will remain largely non-existent.
I was born in 1983, so I spent a significant portion existing in a world without the internet. That was a world where people couldn’t post their opinions, thoughts or insights with the click of a button on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or in Yahoo! News comments.
Back in those times, the only people that were given a platform to express opinions were people that had earned that right to be called experts in their give fields. There was a filter, and it was one that you had to work hard to break through.
The idea that Courtney Love could be involved in finding a missing plane in that time was laughable at best. Instead of social media, people expressed their opinions to companions and family members in their respective living rooms, kitchen dinner tables or bars.
But that age doesn’t exist anymore, and now people are free to give their opinions with no filter. Today, everything is thrown at the wall, and it’s only a matter of what sticks.
Why am I telling you this? Because one of the things I find fascinating is how everybody, including those least informed, will give their opinions on the draft. Besides watching a YouTube highlight clip and reading a bunch of online scouting reports, most people aren’t informed about most of these players with their own eyes.
It often leads to people have overly optimistic expectations about a particular draft prospect, or overly pessimistic ones. There is no longer a middle ground. And people should know that most things fall into that middle area.
I’m saying all this because I believe it will take time to see how these draft prospects develop. Patience is really the key, and while it won’t stop me from having an opinion today, I’m at least aware of the fact that what my opinion today is relatively meaningless in the big picture. That big picture will be determined by where the Falcons 2014 draft picks are three to five years from now.
What will this column will entail from this point is my best guess on where those players will be at that point. While that guess is an educated one based off informed analysis from watching these guys play a handful of collegiate games, it is still a guess nonetheless.
Jake Matthews Corrects the Mistake of Sam Baker
One beneficial side effect this delayed column was I got the opportunity to learn that the Falcons were targeting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews from the get-go with their first pick. SI’s Peter King wrote this morning that the Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars were in trade talks together last week to swap picks at the top of the draft, with Atlanta receiving Jacksonville’s third overall selection, and the other getting the sixth pick.
It’s an interesting development because it meant that the Falcons were locked in on upgrading their offensive tackle spot from the beginning with Matthews. This was an opinion I had only guessed at from the start of the offseason, which is why I never ruled out the possibility that the Falcons top selection would be a tackle when everything else screamed pass-rusher.
A player like Matthews really fits everything the Falcons like in a prospect: a high character player with an NFL pedigree. While the Falcons probably will never admit they made a huge mistake in paying Sam Baker last offseason, their selection of Matthews indicates that they secretly know they did.
Let’s first set things straight by stating that Sam Baker did deserve to get a contract from the Falcons last year. He was coming off his best season, and deserved to be rewarded with a new deal. But the mistake was when the Falcons gave him a market-level deal that guaranteed $18.5 million over the first two years of the deal. The deal was structured in a way that the Falcons would be hard-pressed to get out of the deal until three years down the road.
That was the mistake when it came to Baker. Nothing Baker had shown over the previous five years should have informed the team they should be locked into him for three years. At best, it should have been a deal that they could have gotten out of one year in, if Baker had done like he did in most years and gotten injured. And thus it wasn’t that much of an unforeseen circumstance when Baker did indeed miss nearly all of 2013 with an injury.
Had the Falcons been smarter at the time, they would have offered Baker a modest deal that had an easy out. Had Baker been unwilling to accept the deal, they should have turned to 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes to handle the position and brought in a veteran stopgap that could have competed for the job. This is exactly what I suggested in February 2013 in terms of the team bringing in someone like King Dunlap, Sean Locklear or Jonathan Scott. Locklear would eventually sign with the team after Baker’s injury this past season, but would not play a single snap. Dunlap would land in San Diego, getting paid a modest $3.7 million over two years with the Chargers. At least according to premium website Pro Football Focus’ grades, Dunlap finished 2013 as the league’s ninth-best left tackle compared to Baker who was the 18th best left tackle in 2012 during his best season.
Matthews Could Be First Good Decision Among Pattern of Past Mistakes
But that mistake led directly to the team’s decision to draft Matthews. Matthews will begin his career playing right tackle for the Falcons, but it’s only a matter of time before he moves to the left side. That could come this year given Baker’s durability concerns, but at least the plan is for that to come in 2015 or 2016. When Matthews makes the switch is solely dependent on Baker’s play in 2014 and beyond. If Baker returns to 2012 form, then he should be relatively safe. If not, he’ll be shown the door. Essentially at this point, Baker will be operated be year-to-year.
As far as how Matthews projects, my informed opinion tells me to expect him to be one of the better left tackles in the league. At best, he’s one of the premier pass protectors in the league. At worst, he should be above average to good starter. He was one of the safer picks in this draft, and given all the mistakes made along the offensive line by the team over the years, it made sense for the Falcons to target him.
When the Falcons made other poor decisions three years ago, what had been the strength of their offensive line: the right side, became a weakness. At that time, the team decided to overpay Justin Blalock instead of retaining Harvey Dahl. During the first three seasons under head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Dahl and Tyson Clabo formed a formidable pair of right-side blockers. They weren’t dominant, but they were clearly better than the oft-injured Baker and underachieving Blalock.
But Clabo and Dahl were both undrafted free agents, while Baker and Blalock were former first and second-round picks. I’m betting the Falcons subsequently believed that the former pair was thus more expendable than the latter because they were far from premier talents. And thus the team would give Blalock a $39 million contract in 2011, letting Dahl leave for St. Louis for $16 million. They would also pay Clabo $25 million that same offseason, but within two years would be moving on after awarding Baker his $41 million. The Falcons spent twice as much money on solidifying their left side as they did on their right, making the mistake of backing the weaker pair.
Now we fast forward to 2014, and the Falcons just used their top selection on Matthews, who will team with free-agent pickup Jon Asamoah on the right side. It seems like it took the team three years to correct the mistake made during the lockout in 2011.
But enough about Matthews, what about the other eight selections the Falcons had over the course of the three-day draft? The sad reality may be that the rest of this draft class won’t have nearly as big an impact as Matthews will.
Outside second-round pick defensive linemen Ra’Shede Hageman and fourth-round running back Devonta Freeman, it’s hard for me to see any of these players become more than role players with the team moving forward.
Ra’Shede Hageman Has Upside, But Could Be Years From Reaching It
Hageman has upside to be an impact player, but alas he seems to be a couple of years away from that. Hageman is blessed with an ideal NFL body and athleticism. With a 6’6″ 310-pound frame, 34-inch arms he looks every bit the part you want in a top-level 3-4 defensive end. That is the role he’ll primarily play in Atlanta, where he is expected to line up as a five-technique end.
The best comparison I could make is that Hageman could become in Atlanta what Red Bryant was in Seattle, who was a similar prospect coming out of Texas A&M in 2008. Bryant had talent and physical tools, but was plagued by an intermittent motor, the same as Hageman.
That reputation followed Bryant to the NFL where over the first two years of his career he was oft-injured and made very little impact with the Seattle Seahawks. That all changed when Pete Carroll was hired in 2010 and moved Bryant to defensive end. There Bryant, produced as a two-down run stuffer. He would quickly become a valuable role player for the Seahawks defense over the next four seasons, doing the bulk of his damage as an immovable object on run downs, but rarely impacting in the pass game.
At least in Hageman, there is greater potential that he can impact in the passing game. With his size and strength, he could be the sort of player that could help collapse the pocket. But given his relative lack of polish and pass-rush moves, it might take him some time to get there.
In the meantime, the Falcons will count on Hageman to help out their rotation, where he will likely split reps with Malliciah Goodman and Tyson Jackson as the team’s strong-side defensive end that will be shaded over the right tackle in a five-technique. It represents a glut of these types of players, which makes it seem that the Falcons stated intentions of not moving to a 3-4 are more talk than substance.
While the team will certainly still be multiple, the selections of Hageman and Goodman in the past two drafts indicates that they plan to get both on the field at the same time eventually. Since both are ideally five-technique ends, logic only dictates that the ideal scheme for both to get on the field and impact is to play in a 3-4 front.
But like Goodman did a year ago, Hageman still needs time to develop. So I suspect in the meantime, the Falcons will still be a hybrid unit particularly playing a lot of four-man fronts in passing situations. Down the road, as Goodman and Hageman develop, the Falcons could switch to a “truer” 3-4.
Devonta Freeman Could be Next Ray Rice or Next Quizz Rodgers
The future is also bright for fourth-round running back Devonta Freeman. When I watched Freeman on film, there were times when he reminded me a bit of Ray Rice, and I think he has that sort of potential if he gets into the right situation. The question then becomes whether or not Atlanta is that situation.
I won’t pretend to know the answer, but a lot of that will depend on how good a player Matthews develops into, and whether or not the improvements the Falcons have made and will make on their offensive line work. Because while Freeman flashes Rice-like potential, there is also the very distinct possibility that he is just Jacquizz Rodgers v2.0.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the issue with Rodgers is that he plays on a team that is not ideally suited to his skill-set. When Rodgers came out of Oregon State, he reminded me a lot of Warrick Dunn when he was playing for the Falcons under Jim Mora. Then, the Falcons had a zone-blocking scheme ran by legendary coach Alex Gibbs. In that scheme, Dunn’s vision and quickness were true assets that allowed him to find daylight in the spaces and creases that blocking style naturally creates by getting defenders on the move and finding cutback lanes.
However under Mike Smith, the Falcons have typically done more power and man blocking. That relies on blockers that can move defenders off the ball to create the necessary space. Rodgers is a player that needs that space in order to really work. But the Falcons have not done the best job of giving him that space mainly because their blockers have been unable to perform up to the standards of the scheme.
The same could happen with Freeman, who is a smaller back that is more quick than fast. Like Rodgers, Freeman has a small, compact build that gives him good power for his size. But he’s not a guy that is going to consistently run over NFL linebackers and defenders and create significant gains after contact. Occasionally Rodgers has been able to use that power in the open field, but he first must get into the open field. And that’s where the Falcons blocking has failed him more often than not.
The same could ultimately be said of Freeman if the Falcons run-blocking doesn’t significantly improve. I believe Freeman is a more explosive runner than Rodgers is/was, but it’s not as if there is a night and day difference between the two. Like Rodgers, Freeman can be a factor in the passing game and develop into a capable pass protector. Freeman also has soft hands and the sort of burst and quickness that can make him a dynamic option out of the backfield and on screens.
Essentially in Freeman, the Falcons got a better version of Quizz. But whether or not Freeman is afforded the opportunity to shine will depend on whether he gets the blocking that he needs to be successful. Behind a line that routinely can’t win in the trenches, Freeman is going to struggle to produce on a consistent basis.
Ideally, the Falcons would have drafted a more physical runner that can form a nice one-two punch with Rodgers, who is primarily a change of pace runner that does his best work running outside. Freeman is the same andthis move potentially signals that the Falcons are prepared to let Rodgers walk after 2014, as it is the final year of his contract. That would be a shame because Rodgers already is one of the better third-down running backs in the league. Freeman has the potential to develop into the same, but whether or not he is prepared to be the lead tailback in Atlanta remains to be seen.
Freeman has the potential, and because we share the same last name, I will be driving the bandwagon on rooting for him to reach that potential. There will be nothing better than the possibility of being able to jokingly claim that we are cousins in the event that Freeman is very successful in Atlanta.
Remainder of Draft Class Are Largely Role Players
But after Hageman and Freeman, the rest of the Falcons 2014 draft class is for lack of a better word: underwhelming.
Third-round free safety Dezmen Southward flashed top athleticism at his pro day more so than he did on the field. The problem is that Southward is more athlete than playmaker. While he has the track speed to cover a lot of ground and is capable in run support, he doesn’t seem to show great awareness or instincts in coverage. He’s experienced coming down in the slot and covering receivers, but was not particularly good at it in college. So the idea that he will be better when facing the likes of Marques Colston, Randall Cobb, and Victor Cruz in the NFL is tenuous at best.
Ultimately, I think Southward can start for the Falcons, but I don’t believe he’ll be considered a good starter. He isn’t entering the league as a better prospect than Thomas DeCoud, who was a third-round selection in 2008. Like DeCoud, Southward has plus speed and range potential, and is probably a better open-field tackler than DeCoud. But he doesn’t have that “it” factor that you expect him to make a lot of plays in coverage, which is ultimately where a starting NFL’s safety’s bread is buttered.
Whether it’s in 2015 or 2016, I suspect the Falcons will be going back to the well at free safety. A healthy Dwight Lowery should be more than capable enough of handling the starting job in 2014. And it’s likely the plan going forward in Atlanta is for Lowery to walk after this season, and Southward to take over in 2015 as the starter. It’s just hard for me to see Southward being an upgrade over Lowery when the time comes, so it’s a pretty good bet that the Falcons will use another early-round pick on or sign a free-agent coverage safety by 2016.
Ricardo Allen Is Reminiscent of Robert McClain
If I’m being honest, I think fifth-round cornerback Ricardo Allen is a better option to be the team’s starting safety than Southward. What I like about Allen is his ball skills and instincts when working in zone coverage, something I did not like particularly well when looking at Southward on film. Allen has the sort of ability to locate and find the ball in the air that you love in a safety, able to anticipate some throws and make plays in space.
However, the problem is that Allen is small and plays small. Standing one-eighth of an inch about 5’9″, Allen gives the Falcons another undersized corner in a league where the receivers are increasingly getting bigger. If Allen were two inches taller and about ten pounds heavier, I’d say he’d be a prime candidate to be developed as a potential safety.
He reminds me of Robert McClain, who is also undersized, but projects well to the safety position in my eyes.
Like McClain, Allen is a good tackler for his size, and takes his duties in run support seriously. But at the end of the day he is still 187 pounds and regardless of toughness, at that weight, it’s going to be difficult to be a reliable tackler in the NFL unless you happen to be this man.
Also like McClain, Allen doesn’t have the size or speed to really play outside and may be destined to the slot. In that role, he could be an effective nickel cornerback, but probably won’t be a star. In fact, I think the ideal role for Allen is the same as McClain, which is a designated dime back. In such a role, there will be times depending on the matchup where he could be asked to come up and cover a slot receiver, but other times where he would be asked to play deep coverage on the back-end as a sixth defensive back.
The rest of the Falcons draft class was spent on linebackers with “S” names, each representing a slightly different type. We could affectionately call them the “Law Firm” of Shembo, Spruill, Smallwood and Starr.
Shembo Could Become “Prince” on Special Teams
In fourth-round pick Prince Shembo, the Falcons got a high-motor pass-rusher that likely won’t make much of an impact on the pass rush. Shembo is a guy that wins because he outworks his opponents, not because he has the skills to beat them. He’s a short-statured player that if he was 15 pounds heavier would compare easily to former Falcon defensive end Chauncey Davis. In his heyday, it could be argued that no one on the team played harder than Davis, although it didn’t result in him making a ton of plays. The same might ultimately be said of Shembo, who is a bit of a tweener. He is too small to put his hand in the dirt, and a too big and slow to be a stand-up player in space.
I expect Shembo’s skills to translate best on special teams where his non-stop motor and toughness can be assets. Defensively, he’s really just a backup that will have a difficult time earning snaps behind a more athletic player in Joplo Bartu. Yes, an undrafted free agent like Bartu should translate better to the pros than Shembo, which speaks volumes.
Marquis Spruill Can Run But May Do Little Else
With Marquis Spruill, the fifth-round pick, they did find a plus-athlete. Spruill is a pursuit player that runs very well in the open field. He closes very well on the ball when allowed to play in pursuit and space. He played inside at Syracuse, but will be miscast in that role at the next level. He struggled to get off blocks and win in traffic, and will get swallowed up by NFL blockers on a consistent basis if asked to take them on. But the man can run. And if he can develop that ability in coverage, he could be an asset for the team there. Ideally, he joins Bartu and Weatherspoon at the team’s best options potentially in pass coverage.
But like Shembo, Spruill will have to impact early on special teams. His speed should be an asset in coverage, but if he can stick as a special teams maven, then he won’t be afforded the necessary time he needs to develop in coverage.
Yawin Smallwood Offers Most Potential Among Late-Round Linebackers
If Spruill is a player that shines in space, then Yawin Smallwood is his polar opposite. Smallwood is simply a downhill, phone-booth type of linebacker that lacks the athleticism and range to make plays outside the hashmarks in the NFL. He’s on the same spectrum and class of linebacker that Akeem Dent and Curtis Lofton are on. Like them, he’ll be more often than not a liability in coverage but he can make plays against the run. And when he’s not asked to have to play sideline to sideline, he can potentially be a more than effective starter.
Smallwood is more Lofton than he is Dent, who at least in 2012 seemed to show decent range and made the bulk of his plays outside the hashmarks. Will Smallwood be as good as Lofton? That remains to be seen. While Smallwood represents the best fit of anybody on the roster in terms of playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, it may be that sort of linebacker just doesn’t impact as much in the NFL anymore.
Lofton was a player that was miscast in the Falcons 4-3 over the years because of his lack of range, speed, and coverage ability. But this past year with the New Orleans Saints moving to a 3-4 scheme under Rob Ryan that fits more his style as a thumper and Lofton didn’t particularly fare any better.
We may be approaching a time where guys like Spruill are simply going to be more impactful than someone like Smallwood because of how the game is played today, where passing and spacing taking precedence. But we shall see.
Smallwood has the potential to be a starter in Atlanta, but at least in the immediate future will be asked to be a backup and play on special teams.
Tyler Starr Unlikely to be a Star in Atlanta
Seventh-round pick Tyler Starr was a highly productive pass-rusher at South Dakota over the past three years with 27 combined sacks. And I think he is a better bet to impact the pass rush than Shembo, but I still don’t expect him to add much help.
Starr is at his best when he can pin his ears back and get after the quarterback. But like Shembo, he too will probably be limited on how many times he’ll succeed there because he is a player that largely relies on his motor too. He has better length than Shembo and has a slightly better array of moves, but against NFL-caliber starting tackles, it likely won’t mean significantly better results, because he’s still lacking there by NFL standards.
Starr will be asked to play the strong-side linebacker and be groomed as a potential heir apparent to Kroy Biermann. They are similar players, but Starr still has a ways to go before he reaches Biermann’s level.
Biermann has made himself into a good run defender that despite being undersized, knows how to get leverage and make plays at the point of attack. In contrast, Starr seemed to be tentative and struggled to take on blocks in what little tape I saw of him. Not exactly an endearing trait when it comes to playing on the strong-side. But Starr is more comfortable playing in space than Biermann was entering the league, which means his learning curve in coverage should be a lot lower.
But like the others, Starr will have to impact early on special teams because he’s not going to be a significant member of the team’s rotation.
Will all the “Law Firm,” they will play reserve roles and depending on whether they can prove their value on special teams will determine if they garner significant reps. At this point, none are really better talents or players than Paul Worrilow, Bartu or Sean Weatherspoon. And eventually, if one turns into a player as valuable as Stephen Nicholas was, it will be a win for the Falcons.
Nicholas started 50 games over seven seasons in Atlanta because of injuries and the fact that the team rarely had better options. But Nicholas did bring certain things to the table, like toughness and effort. And for the most part, he was rarely out of position. When he got beat, and that happened quite a bit over the years, it was mostly due to athletic deficiencies, not mental ones.
With four linebackers on the roster to develop, the odds are good that at least one of them emerges into that sort of player.
Lack of Pass Rush Help in 2014 is Glaring Deficiency of the Draft
But ultimately, the major flaw of this draft and subsequently the offseason, is the lack of pass rushers. The Falcons still appear like a team that is going to be primarily reliant on the same players from last year’s roster to provide heat on the quarterback. And given how poorly they fared in 2013, it does not give me much optimism for 2014, at least in that regard.
That is at least what my informed opinion says. If I’m being overly optimistic, I will think some guys like Jonathan Massaquoi will take a significant leap forward. The hope is also that the Falcons are aware of this pass-rush deficiency and will make a move at some point between now and September to address it.
Whether that is trading for someone like Philadelphia Eagles edge-rusher Brandon Graham or scouring the waiver wire in August for a veteran that gets lost in the numbers, it appears that the Falcons defensively will be marginally improved over where they were in 2013, which is near the bottom of the league. They’ve certainly made significant gains to improve their run defense, but that will only get you so far in a league where nearly sixty percent of plays are passes.
Instead, at least in how this 2014 draft informs me, this year’s success will be largely dependent on the Falcons offense bouncing back. That will mean that the skill guys like Julio Jones and Roddy White are healthy, and Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah are the stabilizing pieces on the offensive line that this team has missed the past few years.
If that happens, and Matt Ryan can stay upright for sixteen games, the Falcons have a good shot at making the playoffs. If that doesn’t happen, and injuries mar the team as they did in 2013, then the Falcons are in for another struggling season. And I’m not sure if Smith and Dimitroff will survive if that’s the case. But I’ll leave those thoughts for another week…