Takeaways from Last Week – April 15

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Is DeCoud in danger?

It’s now less than two weeks until the 2013 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday night, April 25. In past years I would have for the top prospects in the draft. I have not done that this year. My job had me traveling a lot in the fall, so I didn’t watch as much college football as normal. Once the winter hit, and now that we’ve rolled into spring, I have a lesser workload but not by a huge margin. And since I typically do a poor job managing my time anyway, I did not get to make up for lost time as much as I would have liked.

So this year, there aren’t going to be many scouting reports on draft prospects. At least not before the draft. After the draft, I intend fully to dive into breaking down the players that the Falcons draft. Although again, because my workload is likely to be hectic that might take a month or so especially if the Falcons wind up making eleven picks.

But I do hope that in the next ten days that I will put a few scouting reports online of some of the players that the Falcons are potentially targeting in the early rounds of the draft. I really want to look at some cornerbacks as well as some pass rushers because I feel that these are the most likely players the Falcons will come away with in Round One.

We have five years of drafts under Thomas Dimitroff to gauge in order to try and guess who the Falcons are taking with their top pick this year. Frankly, that’s all it really is: educated guessing, because none of the many bloggers around the interweb that cover the Falcons really know what is going to happen.

To be honest, I’m not very good with guessing who the Falcons will take with their top pick. In 2008, I was split on Glenn Dorsey and Matt Ryan. That was understandable to a degree because it was Dimitroff and Mike Smith’s first draft, and their tendencies were unknown. In hindsight, it’s obvious why they ultimately chose Ryan but at the time it seemed like a toss-up. Mike Smith was a defensive coach, and Dorsey was widely hailed as the best interior pass rusher since Warren Sapp. And many weren’t high on Ryan. I can proudly thump my chest, and say I wasn’t one of them. I wrote this about Ryan in that 2008 draft guide:

NFL Forecast: He projects very well to the NFL, and should have the mental toughness and ability to take the reins of a team early. Like all he needs a bit more polish, but he’s one of the more polished passers to come out the past few years. May never be a super star, but the type of guy that will consistently keep his team as a contender. Shows excellent leadership.
Value: He’s a first round pick, and one of the 10 best prospects in this draft. Definitely worth a Top 5 pick for a team looking for a quarterback.

Then in 2009, the Falcons took Peria Jerry with their top pick. I was not a huge fan of Jerry at the time when he was picked. I thought he was a solid second round pick, but a reach in the first round. At the time, the Falcons had an open spot at the defensive tackle position due to the departure of Grady Jackson. I don’t recall who exactly I expected the Falcons to take with their top pick that year, but I do remember really liking Larry English and hoping he would be there when we picked.

The following year, I hoped the Falcons would make up for it by getting another edge rusher. I was higher on Derrick Morgan than I was on Brandon Graham, but I thought both players would be good picks for the Falcons. As for Jason Pierre-Paul, I saw his talent, but he was too much of a boom/bust player for me as an Armchair GM to be worth the risk. But all three players were off the board when the Falcons picked. Had it been me in the war room, I probably would have taken either Dez Bryant or Bryan Bulaga, both of whom had higher grades from me than Sean Weatherspoon. But I was happy with Weatherspoon, who came in to push Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas at outside linebacker.

In 2011, nobody saw the Julio Jones trade until the day of the draft. I had been hoping for Gabe Carimi, who has not turned into a good pro. But in most of my mocks, I had the Falcons taking another edge rusher. I looked over the last few mocks I did in that year, and re-discovered that I had seemingly locked in on Adrian Clayborn being the Falcons pick.

Last year in 2012, it became even harder to project who the Falcons would take because they lacked a first round pick. But I had been a big fan of tight end Dwayne Allen, and was hoping he would be there at the end of the second round when we picked. He was, but the Falcons opted for Peter Konz. Konz could come in right away and compete for a starting job at guard, while also being a solid pickup to potentially replace Todd McClure down the road at center.

The reason I’m recapping all of these picks and drafts is three-fold…

First, I want to point out the many times I was on and off on certain prospects. Nobody ever gets it right all the time. You just try to get more hits than misses. As you may recall, Jamaal Anderson was almost universally liked as a Top 15 prospect the year he came out.

Secondly, I want to point out the general inaccuracy of mock drafts. I once contributed to a site called The Huddle Report, which has annual grading of the top mock drafts on the internet. If you correctly match a dozen teams to the right player, then you’re a genius. The hit percentage is essentially like baseball. If you can bat .300, then you’re one of the best in the biz. But most draftniks and experts will bat below .250. The Huddle Report also incorporates your ability to simply get the 32 players drafted in the first round correct. And that’s nearly impossible to get as well. If you get 75% of those players correct, then once again you’re a genius…or just lucky.

Most of the times when people correctly guess the picks they come at the top of the first round because it’s much easier to figure out. Often times, you can be fairly confident who the first eight to ten players are going to be off the board, just that getting their exact order right is difficult. But every year, a team is going to throw you a curveball at the top of the draft somewhere in the Top 15 picks, which is going to throw off projections for the latter half of the round. Making it even harder to project how the draft will fall for the Falcons.

And thirdly, despite all of that, I still want to try and break down logically who the Falcons might be taking by looking at their tendencies over the years.

The one thing we’ve learned about Dimitroff and the Falcons drafting under him is that they are a need-based drafting team. Consistently, their first round picks are expecting to come in and start right away. Ryan supplanted Chris Redman and Sam Baker Quinn Ojinnaka off the bat in 2008. Jerry had to defeat Trey Lewis, who was coming off an injury. Weatherspoon was pushing Stephen Nicholas for the job. Julio Jones supplanted Michael Jenkins, forcing his release.

The obvious guess would then be that the Falcons are going to target a cornerback with their top pick this year. There is an obvious hole at the position with the departures of Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. Robert McClain would be the starter there if the season began today. McClain was a solid nickel cornerback last year, but I’m not sure the Falcons are convinced that means he can be a full-time starter this year.

The problem of course is that while this draft has a good group of corners, it doesn’t have a strong group at the top of the draft. Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes, and Desmond Trufant are widely considered to be the three best and most worthy of first round selection. But the rest of the group are a bunch of consensus second round picks. Milliner is locked in as a Top 10 pick it would seem, while many believe that Rhodes will ultimately be a Top 20 pick. Trufant is probably going to come off the board at some point shortly thereafter, leaving a good possibility that he’ll be gone by pick No. 30. So the big question is will one of those players emerge from the second round pack that the Falcons deem worthy of a first round grade. There’s a dozen guys that most are projecting to be either late first round picks or Day 2 picks at cornerback. If the Falcons really like one of those guys, then it would make sense to take him in the first round. But if they don’t love one and like several, they might be willing to risk waiting until the second round (pick No. 60) to see who remains. That would be reminiscent of the 2009 draft, where the Falcons waited until the 55th pick to take William Moore. The Falcons needed a strong safety to replace Lawyer Milloy at that time, and Moore happened to be the sixth safety taken in the draft (all of which went in the second round). And he’s since emerged as the second best of the group (only being surpassed by Jarius Byrd).

Who are the “second-tier” corners I’m referring to? Jamar Taylor (Boise State) and Leon McFadden (San Diego State) were worked out by the Falcons last weekend. I haven’t heard whether the Falcons have worked out any of the others which include a pair of corners from Mississippi State in Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks, D.J. Hayden (Houston), Robert Alford (SE Louisiana), Jordan Poyer (Oregon State), David Amerson (N.C. State), Logan Ryan (Rutgers), and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Connecticut).

Alford and Poyer might be the least likely candidates considered Alford is considering to be very green with his football development, as his former college defensive coordinator said he was a “long way away mentally.” Poyer got arrested last May for trying to get into a bar that he had been previously banned from. The charges against him were eventually dropped so I can’t say that’s a major character flaw. But given that the other guys are much cleaner off the field, it would seem that incident still works against him. But both Alford and Poyer have return experience, and the Falcons could use a boost in that area.

Hayden is coming off a nearly fatal injury, a torn vein in his heart, that normally kills 95% of people. But he’s managed to recover and since I’m not a doctor, I’m not sure what the risk factor is for him moving forward. He suffered the injury, which often occurs in car accidents, through running into a teammate on the practice field. If that vein is susceptible to tearing, then the higher-speed impacts of the NFL can’t be positive.

We also know that the Falcons generally prefer to draft captains, because of their leadership and typically high character. Of the players mentioned, Hayden, Taylor, McFadden, Poyer, Wreh-Wilson, and Banks served as captains.

What other positions will the Falcons look at early in the draft besides cornerback? Well, first let’s look at how the Falcons approach their second and third round picks. If you look at who the Falcons have drafted over the years in the second round, similar to first rounders, they typically also focus on players that are likely to come in right away and compete for a starting job. Lofton quickly supplanted Tony Taylor in 2008. William Moore would have likely won the strong safety job if not for a training camp injury. Konz came in to push Garrett Reynolds last year at right guard.

In the third round, the Falcons typically target players that are likely to start in their second seasons. Both Chevis Jackson and Thomas DeCoud entered their second seasons competing for starting job. Harry Douglas could not push Jenkins in 2009 due to an injury he suffered in the preseason. Chris Owens battled with Brent Grimes in 2010 for the starting job. Corey Peters started immediately at defensive tackle in 2010 for an injured Jerry. Mike Johnson was drafted as insurance for the eventual departure of Harvey Dahl the following year. Johnson competed with Reynolds the following summer, but didn’t win the job thanks mainly to an untimely injury. Akeem Dent supplanted Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker in his second year. And now Lamar Holmes is the expected frontrunner to replace Tyson Clabo at right tackle this season.

I believe the Falcons will target a defensive tackle in the first three rounds of this draft. After this season, Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, and Corey Peters all are free agents. Given how this team has dealt with older veterans in recent off-seasons (e.g. John Abraham and Clabo), it doesn’t seem likely that Babineaux will be back in 2014. Barring one of the biggest turnarounds we’ve ever seen from a Falcon player, Jerry seems like a virtual certainty to be allowed to walk in 2014. He might not even make it through this summer’s training camp. And while Peters seems likelier to be returning next year, he’s going to have put together a complete season this year. He was a non-factor down the stretch in 2011, and missed most of 2012 with an injury. Travian Robertson is in the mix, and I do believe the Falcons like him. But remember, he’s a seventh-round pick. And thus far currently under Dimitroff, none of his past seventh rounders have ever really had an opportunity to compete for a starting job. You could make the argument that Vance Walker outproduced both Peters and Jerry over the past three seasons, yet he never really had an opportunity to take one of their starting jobs. So it would appear doubtful to me that the Falcons would be counting on Robertson to fill one of those starting spots. So any defensive tackle drafted early this April, is likely to slide into one of those soon-to-be vacant defensive tackle spots next year.

The other two positions that it would seem the Falcons might be most likely to address are outside linebacker and tight end. Outside linebacker is an option mainly because of the Falcons inability to cover tight ends last season. I think the Falcons are prepared to give Akeem Dent a shot at supplanting Nicholas in the nickel subpackage, but they could bring in more help. Someone that is more of a cover specialist. They’ve been linked to players like Alec Ogletree (Georgia) and Sean Porter (Texas A&M), who are both known for coverage potential. If Nicholas can’t retain his job in the nickel this season, it likely means he won’t be back in 2014 when his cap hit jumps to $4 million. That’s too much to pay for a part-time player. Frankly, his 2013 cap hit of $3.5 million is too much to pay for a part-time player, so his roster status isn’t completely safe to begin with moving forward.

Tight end obviously will be an option given that Tony Gonzalez has already stated that he is 100% certain that 2013 will be his final year. Such a pick could help the Falcons out in two tight end sets in 2013, and move into the starting lineup come 2014. Getting that player a year of tutelage by the G.O.A.T. also would be highly beneficial.

Another position that is worth mentioning, especially given how much attention the Falcons are paying to it with their workouts is free safety. The Falcons have worked out a number of safeties that are projected to be late first/early second round picks such as FIU’s Jonathan Cyprien and Florida’s Matt Elam. Now given that both Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are coming off Pro Bowl appearances, it would seem that safety is not a big need for the team.

But I don’t believe the team is invested long-term in DeCoud. They gave him a five-year deal worth $17.5 million last off-season, while awarding Moore with a five-year, $29.5 million deal last month. In fact, Moore is set to make the entirety of DeCoud’s deal in the first three years of his own. DeCoud’s deal is structured that his cap hit makes a significant jump from  $2.5 million this upcoming season to $4.8 million in 2014. If he’s on the roster on the fifth day of the league year in 2014, $2.25 million of his $4.2 million base salary becomes guaranteed. That potentially means that the Falcons could be looking to make him one of their cap cuts next March. DeCoud had a good 2012, but he’s essentially the same player that he was in 2011. The only difference is that Nolan’s scheme made him much more effective. Now if DeCoud has another strong season in 2013, then he will have much less to worry about. It seemed far-fetched at first, but in contemplating it more it wouldn’t shock me if the Falcons really liked a safety enough to take him on the second day of the draft. Potentially targeting a player that is a little bit more consistent against the run than DeCoud has been. I wouldn’t bet on the Falcons drafting a safety, but I could understand why they did it. DeCoud will be turning 29 around the time where he could be cut and since safeties typically hit the wall around age 30, it would be an opportune time to get out if the Falcons wanted to.

If we’re looking at possibilities for the Falcons first round pick if it’s not a corner, then I think any of those positions: defensive tackle, tight end, and linebacker are the likeliest possibilities. And unlike corner, I don’t think there are as many options available that could make the Falcons pull the trigger.

Inside at defensive tackle, I think UCLA’s Datone Jones and UNC’s Sylvester Williams. Neither served as captains during their days in college, but Jones is noted for his high character. Jones also has experience playing multiple positions while at UCLA making him a nice fit in a multiple front of Nolan’s defense. The fact that the Falcons worked him out alongside Taylor and McFadden during their West Coast trip is noteworthy. Williams has limited experience, so his best football might be ahead of him. He’s more of a true interior player, offering size to beef up against the run.

Kawann Short (Purdue) was a two-time captain from a school that has produced a steady line of pass rushers. But many scouts have questioned his motor. And if the Falcons have the same questions, it’s unlikely they would draft him. It was why they ultimately opted for Corey Peters in 2010 over Geno Atkins.

If the Falcons go for a tight end, it’s likely to be Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame). Eifert, a team captain, is widely held to be this draft’s top tight end prospect. Zach Ertz (Stanford) is another player that the Falcons have looked at closely. I’d imagine Ertz is probably more likely to be targeted in the second round by the majority of NFL teams similar to his former teammate Coby Fleener.

At linebacker, I think the Falcons would look at a player like Arthur Brown, who was a two-time team captain at Kansas State. Brown is a bit undersized, but makes up for it with speed and coverage potential. He doesn’t have a true position at the NFL level, as many project him to be a weakside player in the 4-3, while playing predominantly in the middle in that scheme at college. If the Falcons liked Brown, he’d likely be plugged into the middle and Dent would kick outside to the strongside. Dent played that role in his junior season at Georgia, and given his struggles last season to defend the inside run, it would make sense if the Falcons wanted to make that move.

The Falcons have five picks in the first four rounds. It’s likely that at least four of the picks will consist of a cornerback, linebacker, defensive tackle, and tight end. What that fifth pick will be really is a toss-up, ranging from edge rusher to safety to offensive lineman to running back, or doubling up on another position such as cornerback or tight end if need be.

The big question mark however surrounds what order those positions will likely be drafted in. In terms of need, cornerback tops the list. I would think that is followed by defensive tackle and tight end given the likelihood such a player will be starting in 2014. That would then be followed by linebacker given that if Dent improves against the run and in coverage, he could solve a lot of problems there.

But teams don’t draft positions, they draft players. For example, the Falcons could be fairly “meh” on most of the tight ends in this class besides Eifert and Ertz. And if they feel that a good defensive tackle or cornerback will be available in the second round, while neither tight end will be on the road, then it makes sense to get the tight end you like early and wait and see to fill the other positions.

This is where all the guesswork comes back into it. We can say based off previous draft trends that it’s likely the Falcons will have an affinity for certain players, but we really don’t know. Lamar Holmes came completely out of left field when the Falcons took him last year. So despite thinking that the Falcons will be focused on the handful of players that I’ve mentioned previously, it could very well be that they are looking at someone else that hasn’t even crossed my mind.

And this is one of the reasons why the draft is so exciting year after year. It’s like being a kid on Christmas again. When I was young and would make lists for my parents Santa Claus, I had a good idea that I would get many of the things I wanted. But there was always the possibility that Saint Nick would bring you something completely unexpected. And that becomes the thrill.

I am going to have one more of these takeaway columns to write before the draft. I think for that one I will start to discuss some of the Falcons potential options on the third day of the draft. Maybe not go as in-depth as I did this week with the top picks, but talk about some of the depth issues the Falcons might need to address. Atlanta is slated to have eight picks on the third day of the draft, so the meat of their draft is likely to come there as they try to build depth with solid role players.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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