The Atlanta Falcons find themselves in a unique and possibly precarious position entering the 2016 NFL Draft.
That’s because head coach Dan Quinn is in a position where his team is expected to progress in the second year under his guidance, yet will have to do so by going through perhaps the toughest slate of opponents in the league. A year ago, they had the ninth-easiest schedule when all was said and done.
So the Falcons better take advantage of a draft that is now less than two weeks away.
Their best avenue to make the postseason in 2016 will take substantial improvement from the defense. While one hopes that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can generate more offensive production now that the team has added center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu this offseason, there is cause for concern.
Last year the Falcons struggled to generate points against a relatively soft schedule. Of their 13 opponents, six ranked among the 12 worst defensive teams in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Only two of the Falcons’ 2015 opponents were ranked among the top 12 defenses.
This year’s slate of opponents feature three teams ranked among the bottom 12 defenses with seven in the top 12, a change in competition that flips nearly 180 degrees.
If the Falcons struggled to score points against a number of bad defenses, then one should expect that they’ll also struggle against good ones. Keeping games low-scoring with top-level defensive play will give the team their best chance of success this year.
To do get the necessary improvement on that side of the ball, the Falcons are going to have to see substantially better pass rush in 2016. A league-low 19 sacks and the seventh worst third-down defense simply won’t cut it this year.
Upgrading the pass rush should be a much bigger priority for the Falcons than trying to fill hole(s) at linebacker, especially if that linebacker is not a true linebacker at all.
Unfortunately the Falcons may not be in a great position to secure that pass-rush need within the next two weeks. Clemson’s Shaq Lawson is considered by many to be among the top edge-rushers in this draft, with the right balance of production and measurables to suggest he’ll be successful rushing the quarterback in the NFL.
Yet Lawson may not be available when the Falcons are on the clock with the 17th overall selection. Several teams picking ahead of that are in the market for a pass-rusher, making it tough to imagine Lawson sliding to the Falcons pick.
Another top pass-rusher potentially available is Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who could bolster the Falcons’ interior rush. But he too could be selected highly. There’s probably greater odds that Rankins slides to the Falcons than Lawson, but it’s still far from guaranteed.
If the Falcons are on the clock at pick No. 17 without either Lawson or Rankins still available, they face a potentially difficult choice. Do they try and take a comparable player at another position such as linebacker or reach for a lesser pass-rusher? They could also entertain trading back in the draft in order to recoup more draft picks.
Based off quotes expressed in the MMQB column from SI’s Peter King, many in the NFL would probably vote for the latter strategy. King quoted multiple league decision-makers that suggested that the talent pool potentially available at pick 17 will be roughly the same as it will be when the team picks in the second round at 50th overall.
It makes sense for the Falcons to move back a several spots in the first round if it can net them another pick in the second or third rounds, the drafting “sweet spot” this year.
Yet the Falcons should also consider doing the exact opposite by trading up this year.
Inconceivable? Not really.
Trading Up Has Been Somewhat Lucrative For Falcons in Past Drafts
Yes in principle, trading up is very problematic. I’m wholeheartedly an adopter of the belief that trading up equates to madness.
I’ve conducted my own draft research over the past few years that backs up the idea that the more high picks you have, the better your chances of improving your roster. Thus reducing the number of picks by trading them away in order to move up is counterproductive to that goal.
Yet the Falcons have twice moved up in the first round under general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The first time was back in 2011 to draft wide receiver Julio Jones, and they did so again two years later to pick up cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Both players are arguably the two best currently on the Falcons roster, so clearly the problem doesn’t rest in the Falcons’ ability to find quality players worth moving up for.
Instead the knock on trading up rather has been what is ultimately lost. With the Jones trade, the Falcons lost a lot of premium picks and were unable to plug their many holes with the resources they managed to retain. Thus their talent level had dropped dramatically by the time they reached 2014. This was evidenced from the fact that the team ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of finding talent in the affected drafts in 2011 and 2012.
The Falcons gave up much less to move up for Trufant in 2013 since they only had to jump from pick No. 30 to 22 rather than trying to jump up 21 spots to get Jones with the sixth pick.
The Falcons gave up third and sixth-round picks and netted a seventh-round pick in 2015 (which turned into cornerback Akeem King) to make the first-round swap with the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams to get Trufant.
The Rams used their subsequent picks on linebacker Alec Ogletree, wide receiver Stedman Bailey, and what ultimately became defensive tackle Chris Jones. Not exactly a group of players that evoke regret when you consider what Trufant has given the Falcons over the past three years.
However many might counter this point by suggesting that in the years when the Falcons traded up for Jones and Trufant, they started out with more than five draft picks. This year’s Falcons team has too many holes to afford to give up their precious few picks.
Yet since past research shows that only 22.6 percent of draft picks become quality starters within five years of entering the NFL, the Falcons are already up against the wall with just five picks. Odds are they are only going to find one impact player anyway which is the same as it would be if the team successfully traded up.
Given their past success by hitting on Jones and Trufant, one can be relatively confident that whomever the Falcons select with a higher draft pick would turn out well, especially if that selection winds up being UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.
UCLA’s Myles Jack Could Be Falcons Trade-Up Target
The Falcons interestingly worked Jack out two weekends ago, despite the expectation that Jack will be selected long before the Falcons are on the clock with the 17th pick. Every mock draft I’ve completed since late January has predicted that Jack is selected with the fourth, fifth or sixth selection by either the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars or Baltimore Ravens.
Jack is considered by some to be the best player in this year’s draft class. He is an elite linebacker prospect that has the versatility and athleticism to play practically any role in most defensive schemes. He played for current Falcons linebacker Jeff Ulbrich during their shared days at UCLA in 2013 and 2014, and offers the Falcons a massive upgrade over Paul Worrilow at middle linebacker.
However their are various reports that suggest Jack’s medical recheck for his injured knee did not universally go over well. Jack tore the meniscus in his right knee last September and missed most of his final season at UCLA. He’s recovered very well, but has yet to run a 40-yard dash indicating that he’s not quite 100 percent yet.
If there are indeed concerns about Jack’s knee for some, it could prompt him to begin to slide in the eyes of teams picking at the top. What would happen if the Cowboys, Jaguars and Ravens each passed on him? How far would he fall?
Probably not very far since there are other teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants that could all use additional help at linebacker.
But if Jack were to slide to a certain point in the draft, perhaps the Falcons would become much more willing to move up to get him since the trade in theory should be less costly.
Where that breaking point resides is above my pay grade. But perhaps it’s default point should be wherever the team can move up without having to give up a future first-round pick. The Falcons don’t want to be in the position of the Rams, who just gave up a heap of picks including next year’s first-rounder to move up to the No. 1 spot in the draft.
2009’s Mark Sanchez Trade Serves as Template For Falcons in 2016
There’s a decent possibility that could potentially be accomplished using past precedent on similar trades. Back in 2011 both the Falcons and Cleveland Browns admitted that they based the compensation for the Jones trade around a deal that had happened back in 1995. Then the 49ers moved up 20 spots to select wide receiver J.J. Stokes with the 10th pick, comparable to the 21-pick move by the Falcons.
So there’s reason to believe that the Falcons could similarly use another past trade as a template for this year’s proposed move to get Jack.
One example would be the 2009 trade that involved the New York Jets moving up from pick No. 17 to No. 5 to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Jets gave up their first and second-round picks in 2009, along with three veteran players to trade spots with the Browns and take Sanchez.
Those veteran players consisted of defensive end Kenyon Coleman, safety Abram Elam and quarterback Brett Ratliff. All three players had been signed in previous years by the Jets under the watch of former head coach Eric Mangini, who as of 2009 found himself coaching the Browns.
All three players were mostly middling players. Coleman was a 30-year old veteran that had spent his entire career as a reserve before landing with the Jets in 2007, thereafter starting both seasons as an end in their 3-4 scheme.
Elam, 27, was a former undrafted rookie that usurped a starting spot at safety after an injury sidelined incumbent Eric Smith during the second half of the 2008 season.
Ratliff was a big-armed undrafted passer that came to New York as a practice-squad player in 2007. He joined the Browns as insurance when they were still in the midst of figuring out if Brady Quinn was their future franchise quarterback.
All three players were gone along with Mangini after two seasons in Cleveland. They were part of the Sanchez trade because of their familiarity with the Browns coaching staff, and thus do not offer much precedence. Unless the Falcons find themselves in the unlikely position of trading with the Buccaneers, who pick ninth and also have a new defensive coordinator in former Falcons head coach Mike Smith, they won’t be able to rely on such low-level veterans to “sweeten” any trade deals.
In all likelihood the Falcons would instead need to include another premium pick or two in addition to the first and second-round picks. Ideally any additional picks won’t include their 2017 first-rounder. Perhaps the team’s hypothetical trading partner would be willing to accept a second-round pick in 2017 instead.
Frankly if the Falcons can move up to get Jack this year without having to give up next year’s top pick, it’s a good trade, if not great one.
Keeping Future First-Round Pick Could Make or Break Jack Deal
Keeping next year’s first-round pick could be critical if the team wants to avoid the same talent-deficient fate that resulted from their 2011 trade for Jones. As part of that deal, the Falcons gave up their top selection in 2012 as well. The Browns used that selection on perennially bad quarterback Brandon Weeden, but the next two picks that came off the board became two quality starting offensive linemen.
The Falcons could have potentially had Detroit Lions offensive tackle Riley Reiff or Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro had they held onto that 2012 first-round pick.
Clearly the Falcons desired to upgrade their offensive line in that draft because their top two selections wound up being guard/center Peter Konz and offensive tackle Lamar Holmes later in the draft.
Comparatively, Konz is out of the league and Holmes is one of several tackles competing for a backup role behind Reiff in Detroit. DeCastro is coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Steelers and is one of the premier right guards in the NFL.
Hindsight tells us that if the Falcons had snagged DeCastro, it could have potentially had dramatic effect on their success over subsequent seasons given the revolving door experienced at right guard that featured Konz, Garrett Reynolds, Jon Asamoah, Chris Chester and now presumably Mike Person as starters over the past four seasons.
The perception of how “costly” the Jones trade has become would dramatically shift if the Falcons had wound up landing DeCastro along their offensive line instead of Konz. Thus why it’s important that the Falcons keep next year’s first-round pick as part of any deal to acquire Jack as it could make all the difference down the road.
Another reason why the Falcons must consider moving up is because their alternative options aren’t slam dunks.
Falcons Alternatives to Trading Up Less Enticing
Waiting for a pass-rusher at pick No. 17 that may never arrive isn’t a great “Plan A.” If their alternate plan is to trade back in the first round, then the Falcons have hope to find a willing trade partner, which is far from guaranteed.
If multiple teams agree that the talent level to be had in the middle of the first round is the same to be had at its end, then there is really no incentive to move up is there?
But of course by this point, you’ve already suggested that the Falcons shouldn’t worry about moving up or down in the draft and just stay put at 17. After all, they can potentially find a really good linebacker there such as Ohio State’s Darron Lee. Why should the Falcons be “all in” on Jack, but not Lee?
Simple: comparing the two is like comparing Julio Jones to Jonathan Baldwin. Baldwin was by the way the receiver that the Falcons were advised to select with the original first-round pick in 2011 before deciding to move up for Jones.
Baldwin was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 26th overall pick, caught 41 passes and started 10 games over two seasons there before being traded unceremoniously to the 49ers in 2013. He caught just three more passes before washing out of the NFL in August 2014.
Like those receivers, Jack and Lee are in completely different stratospheres as linebacker prospects. Like Jones, Jack has the potential to be one of the elite players at his position such as Luke Kuechly or Lavonte David. On the other hand, Lee’s best outcome might be turning into a pro much like Ogletree. Lee’s lack of size against the run coupled with his athleticism and coverage potential make Ogletree an apt comparison for him, particularly among early-round linebackers selected.
Ogletree is by no means a bad player, but the Rams made it particularly clear this offseason that they don’t love him as a player. After all, they just gave former safety-turned linebacker Mark Barron $45 million to supplant him at weak-side linebacker.
That’s exactly what the Falcons did when they forked up $45 million to sign Mack as a replacement at center for Person. While Ogletree shouldn’t be considered a bad linebacker in the same way that Person is considered a bad center, it’s clear that if Rams considered Ogletree a true difference-maker then they wouldn’t have invested so much money into upgrading his roster spot. Like the Falcons are doing with Person at right guard, the Rams are now moving Ogletree to middle linebacker to salvage his career.
Lee eventually becoming no better than a player that the Falcons could be desperate to try and upgrade over three years from now should make the possibility of acquiring Jack that much more enticing.
I suspect few at this point are wholly adopting the idea of the Falcons moving up for Jack. But if there was ever a time for the team to try and make a bold splash, this would be the year to do so. The circumstances seem to be pushing them more towards this direction than in past years.
Standing pat in the middle of the first round just seems too passive, especially in light of the probability that both of the top pass-rushers in Lawson and Rankins will be gone by that point in the draft.
Upgrading linebacker probably won’t do the same as what upgrading the pass rush would or the team’s chances this year. But with a unique and rare talent like Jack, it remains worthwhile given that he could become the leader of their defense for many years to come.
A trade up makes even more sense if the Falcons can figure out a way to keep next year’s first-round pick. Even if that means “sweetening the pot” by offering cornerback Robert Alford to the Ravens, then it might be worth it. As I noted last week, the chances that the Falcons give Alford a new contract next year is slim and thus getting some value for him before it’s too late makes sense.
Such a situation would create a hole at cornerback, but the Falcons could always sign a veteran like Leon Hall, Charles Tillman or Antonio Cromartie to serve as a stopgap for a year at right cornerback.
All one should ask yourself is whether it’s more advantageous for the Falcons defense to feature Alford and Worrilow at cornerback and middle linebacker, respectively, or one of the aforementioned veteran free agents and Jack instead.