The 2013 NFL Draft was held this past weekend, and as usual it was an intriguing affair. I told my brother, who did not watch one minute of the draft mainly because his wife detests football, that this year’s draft was much like recent NBA Drafts meaning that in future years the 2013 draft class won’t be particularly memorable with its star appeal. Not to say this draft won’t produce good or even great NFL players, because every draft does, at least everyone that I can recall. But as we often heard over the weekend, this was a draft in which the linemen were front and center. Try as they might, ESPN and NFL Network did their best to insert as much “star appeal” as possible by spending as much time as possible talking about this quarterback class and Manti Te’o.
The media desperately wanted to talk about those players, but ultimately I think the quarterbacks and Te’o will be largely forgotten in the NFL. Ultimately the best you’re going to hope from the group of quarterbacks drafted this year is that they produce a Matt Schaub or David Garrard-caliber passer. They may be competent to good starter, but the only time they’ll be really discussed by the media by and large is to talk about how they aren’t great.
Also, it’s not that I doubt Te’o will be a good NFL player, it’s just that his infamous catfishing incident may ultimately eclipse his NFL career. I think Te’o probably winds up playing a decade in the NFL, most of it as a starter. But I think he winds up being comparable to players like Curtis Lofton or Lofa Tatupu, capable starters that their respective team likes, but are rarely mentioned among the best in the league.
I know it’s unrealistic to think that I could turn on league’s flagship channel or the Worldwide Leader in Sports, and expect them to spend hours talking about the greatness of Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Dion Jordan, or any of the players at “blue collar” positions. But there were really good players in this draft and none them played quarterback or middle linebacker for Notre Dame, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the television coverage as they never went more than fifteen minutes without mentioning one of those lesser players.
My final comments on the draft before I start to discuss the Falcons picks specifically is that I do think it’s interesting that quarterbacks did not get pushed up the board. I talked about that in an earlier column this off-season. And at that time, it was difficult to fathom that there wouldn’t be any Top 10 selections at the quarterback position. I compared it to the 2011 class, where a number of lesser prospects went high in the draft and ultimately none of those teams are better for it. I still think the passers did get pushed up the board, but not as far as they normally do. So I tip my hat to NFL teams for not reaching too far on subpar passers. We’ll see if this trend continues next April.
But onto the Falcons…
I liked the Falcons draft. It’s not very sexy, nor is it one that I think people will look back and say made a huge impact on the team. But it’s a solid group of players. I think moreso than in recent drafts, the Falcons seemed more intent on looking at players that had higher ceilings. I think a hallmark of some of the Falcons post-2008 drafts has been targetting players with high floors, but relatively low ceilings. I think the opposite happened this year.
I counted myself a big fan of the first two selections being cornerbacks. They certainly bolstered an immediate need, and I think Desmond Trufant will be expected to step right in and start. I don’t know how good he and Robert Alford will ultimately be, but I do think they have a lot of potential to be key pieces for the Falcons defense down the road.
I think the league is shifting towards a “dime-based” league. We’re already amidst the shift to nickel. With more dynamic weapons and more utilization of spread offenses nowadays, teams will have to compensate by playing more defensive backs. Five years from now, the “base” defense is basically nickel. Five years ago, it was unheard of to have a middle linebacker that didn’t play every down, as there was only one in the league (Stephen Tulloch with the Titans). This past season that had multiplied to five. In another five years, it could be over a third of the league that treats the middle linebacker, a position formerly known as the anchor and centerpiece of the defense as a situational player. We may reach a point by the end of this decade that the quarterbacks of a defense ostensibly become the free safety as the assignments and calls in the secondary are much more critical to defensive success than in the box.
I think you need to have strong depth at the cornerback position, so when many thought Alford was a waste of a pick given we had already addressed that spot in the first round, I think they are being short-sighted. What people don’t quite understand is that the best way to deal with the Aaron Hernandezes of the world and the new-fangled “joker” tight end is to put bigger corners on them. There aren’t many linebackers and safeties that can handle that assignment. The best defenses will be able to put their defenders on islands with an opposing teams weapons. One of the reasons why I believed the Packers defense was so good in 2010 but has struggled since is how critical Nick Collins was to their success. Collins could be trusted to play on an island with a quality wideout or tight end. The 49ers have Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who are the rare linebacker that can be put on islands against a Tony Gonzalez or slot receiver. If you don’t have a Collins or Bowman at safety or linebacker, then the next best thing becomes a backup cornerback in your subpackage.
I believe the Falcons are going to have to play a lot more dime this year if they intend to deal with all of the quality tight ends they will face in 2013. They will see Jimmy Graham, Jared Cook, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski before the bye week, and Greg Olsen, Jermichael Finley, and Vernon Davis highlight the remainder of the schedule. That’s not even factoring in players like Zach Miller and Fred Davis who also torched the Falcons last year. I think one solution for the Falcons is to bring William Moore up into the box, and put another corner on the field. I think it’s interesting that Trufant did play a little bit of safety at Washington in their subpackages.
I think selecting a second cornerback really is thinking two or three years ahead while many are stuck only in the next six months. Not to mention, Alford also should bring value as an explosive return threat, something the Falcons really haven’t had since nearly a decade ago in the heyday of Allen Rossum. Eric Weems was the man as far as I’m concerned, but I certainly was well aware that he was not a threat to take it to the house every time Falcons opponents kicked off or punted. Alford has that sort of potential, and I hope he realizes it.
I didn’t have an issue with the Falcons trading their third round pick to move up to get Trufant. I didn’t have Trufant that highly rated, and had a significantly higher grade on Xavier Rhodes, who one could argue could have been a greater asset in the dime-oriented NFL of the future. But I’ll give the Falcons the benefit of the doubt in knowing what works best for their team and system. This was a draft that had good depth in rounds two through four, but the Falcons didn’t have that many pressing needs besides cornerback. So I don’t think that pick will be sorely missed moving forward. Also the fact that the Falcons third round picks going back to 2009 have been fairly lackluster in my opinion, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over a pick that historically was likely to be a reach.
What I found also to be very interesting about the Falcons draft was who they selected in the fourth round: Malliciah Goodman and Levine Toilolo. As stated before, the Falcons tend to go for the high floor guys rather than the high ceiling players. But this year was different. Relatively speaking, Goodman and Toilolo have fairly low floors. But they do have pretty high ceilings.
Goodman is a long, edge rusher that lacks ideal edge speed. I think he’s a player that in order for him to reach his ultimate potential, he’ll either have to lose weight or gain it. I think the best thing for him might be to drop weight, because it won’t require as much modification to what comes natural to him which is attacking off the edge. I also believe he has the frame to bulk up say 15 or so pounds and become a very disruptive interior player. But as of today he doesn’t quite know how to use his hands which is more critical to playing inside. And thus if that was the path to go, then I think it might take more time for him to impact. I know this is going to cause a lot of people to become disheartened, but I think you could compare Goodman quite a bit to Jamaal Anderson. But remember this, if Anderson had been taken 127th rather than 8th overall, your opinion of him would be significantly different and he’d probably still be a Falcon today. But similarly Goodman has good physical tools that are worth developing, but he’s raw just like Anderson, who are didn’t know how to use his hands when he came into the league. Anderson never really started to develop that until his fourth and final season. Hopefully Goodman has much earlier success. I do think he’s probably a few steps quicker than Anderson.
I seemed to be the only person still on the Toilolo bandwagon this off-season as I couldn’t fathom why he was widely considered a late round prospect. He entered this past season as a potential first round pick alongside Tyler Eifert and teammate Zach Ertz. But while that pair took their games to new levels, Toilolo sort of toiled in mediocrity. But I think Toilolo has much better tools and upside than Ertz. Toilolo is a boom/bust player, but I think in the fourth round it’s a worthwhile risk to take. His combination of size and speed is rare for the position, something that I think is reminiscent of Jermaine Gresham and Jimmy Graham. If he develops, I don’t think he’ll be the next Graham, but I do think he can be as good or better than Gresham. He’s a bit inconsistent as a blocker, but can definitely get better there as he just needs to be coached up and improve his technique. His hands and concentration are inconsistent, but I really think being able to work with Tony Gonzalez for a year is going to help him there. It’s just hard for me to imagine that Toilolo can work with Gonzo between now and next January, and not try his best to mimic him as much as possible. Whether he winds up being a good pro remains to be seen, but the blueprint to doing so is going to be wearing No. 88 and he’s going to see him every day.
Stansly Maponga is similar to Jonathan Massaquoi and Lawrence Sidbury in that he’s an undersized defensive end but with developmental potential to be a capable situational rusher. That gives the Falcons three African-born defensive ends (technically Umenyiora was born in London but to Nigerian parents), and with Maponga’s selection the Falcons have doubled the odds that one of the younger guys develop into a worthwhile replacement for Osi in 2015.
I don’t know much about Kemal Ishmael besides he is a tackling machine. Given his subpar size and speed, I’m not expecting big things for him on defense, but I think he might be an impactful special teams player. I think Zeke Motta’s future likely too will come on special teams. But I also think there is some potential for Motta to differentiate himself potentially as a Coy Wire-type that can bulk up and play some linebacker in the box. I expected the Falcons to draft a safety that would at least push Shann Schillinger for his roster spot. I doubt the Falcons are intending to keep six safeties and Charles Mitchell should be relatively safe unless he regresses this summer. So I think between Ishmael, Motta, and Schillinger they will be competing for one or two roster spots. I think that’s why it’s possible the Falcons could look into Motta moving to linebacker, where their depth is fairly thin. I was actually surprised that the Falcons didn’t draft a linebacker. At this juncture, the only backup that I trust is Pat Schiller. But going to back to the dime subpackage, one method of approach is to have the sixth defensive back being an in the box safety. And it’s possible, although probably not likely given that both were seventh round picks, that either Ishmael or Motta could grow into that niche moving forward.
With the final pick the Falcons took Duke quarterback Sean Renfree. He’s a smart guy (he went to Duke afterall) with NFL tools. I saw only one game of Renfree’s last year, which was his bowl game vs. Cincinnati. I wasn’t overly impressed, but I’ll watch more tape this week in the hopes that my opinion of him improves. I think the bonus is that he’s been coached by David Cutcliffe, a guru of sorts. You know the guy is good when Peyton Manning works with him every off-season since their shared days at Tennessee. Cutcliffe is reportedly very high on Renfree’s intangibles and intelligence. Given Renfree’s shoulder injury, I expect Dominique Davis should still retain the backup quarterback spot. I’d much rather see the Falcons pick up a player like Trent Edwards between now and camp, but the Falcons seem to want to develop these young guys. It’s nothing against Davis, but the guy who is the backup for this team needs to be competent enough to be inserted into the lineup and win games if the Falcons really have Super Bowl aspirations. And while Davis was impressive last summer, I think he’s still at least a year or two away from being that caliber of quarterback. Odds are that Matt Ryan will remain healthy and it won’t be an issue. But given the minor scare the Falcons had with Ryan being injured in the NFC Championship Game, to me it’s a bit too risky a proposition. But that may just be me being overly cautious. We’ll see how things play out.
I think overall it was a solid draft for the Falcons. I think many fans expected that the Falcons would somehow make the big splash that would take their middling defense to one of the best in the league, but I think that is and was a foolhardy notion. This Falcon defense is probably two elite playmakers from being that sort of unit. And it’s probably three or four good playmakers from being that sort of unit. I’m optimistic that Trufant and possibly Alford will be two good playmakers. The rest of the group likely will just be role players. And realistically speaking, that’s all you can really expect from players taken after the second round. You hope every now and then you stumble across a mid or late round sleeper that becomes the next Josh Sitton or Stevie Johnson. But you’re much likelier to wind up with the next Anthony Collins or Chaz Schilens, and even that is relatively speaking, a success.