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Takeaways from Last Week – April 21, 2014

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Khalil Mack could be a trade target for Falcons

As indicated last week, looming questions surround the Atlanta Falcons and their potential to make a trade in this year’s draft. Most of those questions center around the team’s rumored desire to move up at the top of the first round. But there is also a good possibility that the Falcons decide to maneuver later in the draft.

The Falcons currently hold the sixth and 37th overall picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Frankly, I would be very surprised if we’re looking back on the first two days of the draft come May 10 and see that they retained both of those picks. It seems probable that the Falcons could move out of one or both spots.

First, let’s once again discuss the Falcons draft-day trade scenarios with the former pick in the first round.

The Falcons need a pass-rusher to try improve the league’s worst third-down defense and marginally better pass rush. It would be ludicrous to think the team does not believe that the most pressing need is adding someone that can line up at either outside linebacker or defensive end and put heat on the quarterback.

Much of the speculation centers on the team’s possible desire to move up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. And I think those rumors have legs. Clowney is clearly the best pass-rusher in this class and from a historical standpoint, matches up with anybody that has come out over the past decade or more. That is an intriguing option for the Falcons, and one that will require careful consideration when we get to the opening night of the draft on May 8.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that trading up for Clowney is unlikely. It’s a definite possibility, but in the end I think it’s going to come down to price tag. If the Falcons can jump up from the sixth overall selection into the top 3 picks of the draft without giving up an arm and a leg, then it’s worthwhile. Last week, I outlined a trade that had the Falcons giving up this year’s first, second and fourth-round picks, along with possibly a second-round pick next year to move up to get Clowney. Whether that meets the definition of an “arm and leg” is up for interpretation, but it’s certainly at least an arm.


And whether the team wants to sacrifice that extra limb for a once-in-a-generation prospect like Clowney remains to be seen. And that desire centers not only on their opinion of Clowney, but also their opinion of other top pass-rushers: Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr.

It is no secret that the Falcons put an emphasis on character when it comes to player acquisition, particularly in the draft. And while Clowney is by no means a player of low character, he just doesn’t quite measure up to Mack and Barr in that regard. And it’s very likely that one or both players will be available for the team to pick if they decide to wait for the sixth overall selection.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Barr is an intriguing option for Falcons

Barr Might Be Worthwile Option for Falcons at Six

Mack is the least likely of the two to be there. If we’re judging from their private workouts, Mack is certain to be a Top 10 pick. No team outside the top 10 has brought him in for a look. Only the Oakland Raiders are among the teams picking ahead of the Falcons that have no brought him according to Walter Football’s interest tracker. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars are the only team picking ahead of the Falcons that have brought in Barr for a workout. Of the seven teams that have worked out Barr privately, four of them pick outside the top 10.

It seems like eons ago, but it was rumored back in February that the Falcons liked Mack better than Barr. And at least as far as reported visits go, it would seem that is the consensus opinion among other NFL teams. But the nonetheless, while Mack’s availability for the sixth overall selection appears to be a toss-up, it seems an almost virtual certainty that Barr will be there.

And so the question then is whether or not the Falcons feel that Barr is worthy of the sixth overall selection in the draft. My bet would be the answer is yes. Barr checks a lot of the boxes that the Falcons tend to look at: He’s a team captain with reportedly very high character and his three-cone drill time of 6.82 seconds at the Combine was exemplary.

But one could also argue that there is nothing substantially “special” about Barr as he compares very favorably with last year’s sixth-overall choice of the Cleveland Browns in Barkevious Mingo.

From a pure athletic standpoint, there is little difference between Mingo and Barr based off their Combine performances:

Category
Mingo
Barr
Height6'4 1/4"6'4 3/4"
Weight241255
Arm Length33 3/4"33 1/2"
Hand Size9 5/8"9 3/8"
40 Time4.584.66
Bench PressN/A15
Vertical Jump37"34.5"
Broad Jump10'8"9'11"
Three Cone6.846.82
Short Shuttle4.394.19

The only significant difference being that Barr’s production in two years (41.5 tackles for loss, 23.5 sacks) exceeded Mingo’s three-year totals (29 tackles for loss, 15 sacks).

The point being that most draft classes feature an edge-rusher in a similar class as Barr, as last year’s did with Mingo. And according to ESPN/Scouts Inc.’s historical grades, Barr’s 89 grade is on par with 2011’s Whitney Mercilus (89) and Nick Perry (88) as opposed to the likes of Mingo (93) and Dion Jordan (95) from a year ago.

Unlike Barr, Tackles May Stand Out

The answer to whether the Falcons like Barr enough at six could be more easily answered if the top two offensive tackles in the draft class: Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews are also off the board. Unlike Barr, both tackles could be considered special relative to recent draft classes.

I don’t believe the Falcons see offensive tackle as a priority draft need relative to their need at pass-rusher. Given the presences of Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder and Gabe Carimi on the roster, there’s every reason to suspect that via the power of a training camp competition the Falcons can get by for another year with some combination of those five at left and right tackle. All except Johnson have NFL regular season starting experience at either tackle spot he was slated to be the team’s starter on the right side until an injury sidelined him last summer.

But Robinson and Matthews both represent massive upgrades in terms of talent, so they cannot be simply dismissed outright as Falcons possibilities. Baker was graded as an early second-round talent back in 2008 that the Falcons traded up for because there was an earlier run in the middle of the first round on other tackles. He was unlikely fall to the Falcons 34th overall pick that year, so they moved up 13 slots to snag him.

Carimi was a late first-round talent that Michael Holley’s book The War Room indicates the Falcons were targeting in 2011 before they opted to move up 21 spots to take wide receiver Julio Jones.

Baker hasn’t quite lived up to his billing, with really 2012 being the lone year that he completed and played at a meaningful level. He’s missed time due to injury in all but two of the six seasons he’s been a Falcon. And while the organization seems to have more confidence in him than myself, they would be fools to be completely sold on him as a long-term option. Another injury-marred season in 2014 and he could find himself playing for another team come 2015.

Carimi certainly hasn’t lived up to his draft potential, as he too has been plagued with injuries. And when he has played, has been a far more effective guard than starting tackle.

Both Robinson and Matthews are universally considered premier tackle prospects, on par with if not better than many of the top tackles taken over the past few drafts such as Eric Fisher, Matt Kalil, Trent Williams and Russell Okung.

It’s not really “settling” if the team’s first-round pick winds up being either tackle. Robinson seems like a sure thing to go in the top five, but there’s a decent possibility that Matthews will be available at six.

Trading Up For Mack Also a Strong Consideration

But getting back to the initial point about trading up, the Falcons may decide to move up for someone. While most of the buzz has centered on Clowney, it’s not crazy to think the Falcons might instead move up for someone like Mack. Trading up for Clowney almost certainly will require them to move into the top three selections, which as previously indicated will be very pricey.

But there’s a strong possibility that Mack could last at least until the fourth overall selection where the Browns pick. Trading up to that spot will require a much smaller price.

Per the traditional draft trade value chart, a move from six to four would only require surrendering picks that are worth 200 points. The Falcons currently hold the 68th overall selection which is worth 250 points. That means that the Falcons could part ways with their third-round pick and potentially get back something in exchange, such as the Browns’ late fourth-round pick at No. 127 overall which is worth 45 points.

At least judging from the Falcons past draft history, this sort of trade seems much more likely than a Clowney trade. Along with the aforementioned Baker trade, the team did something similar a year ago when they moved up eight spots in the first round to select cornerback Desmond Trufant. That position was a glaring need for the team then, just as edge pass-rusher is now as they went up to get “their guy.”

The Julio trade was an issue where general manager Thomas Dimitroff was infatuated with the idea of having two No. 1 receivers and coming off a 13-3 season in 2010, the team was in a much better position to part ways with a plethora of picks.

Contracts of Ryan and Others Could Affect Draft Decisions

But this year, the team is coming off a 4-12 season and needs to be more frugal with their draft picks. Signing quarterback Matt Ryan to an expensive long-term deal is one reason for such frugality. The Falcons aren’t in bad shape financially now, but come 2016 Ryan will have cap hits that exceed $20 million. The Falcons certainly have the ability to adjust those numbers, but are traditionally a team that prefers not to be constantly restructuring deals to push money into later years.

While there are expected to be substantial increases in the salary cap in the coming years, it’s better practice in regards to fiscal responsibility to retain as many premium picks (i.e. first and second-rounders) as possible to strengthen the talent level of the roster now. Otherwise the team may become heavily reliant on future spending that comes via free agency. Throw in looming extensions for Jones, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and eventually Trufant, there may be a substantially higher load on their salary cap in years to come.

But again, the reason for why the door still remains open for a trade that nets Clowney is because he’s such a rare prospect. And the Falcons certainly don’t expect to be picking this high anytime soon and be in a position to get a dominant pass-rusher on par with Clowney ever again. And so the argument to be made is basically trading up for Clowney is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Three Likely Options for Falcons at Top of Draft

So if you one was to break down the Falcons first-round options, they would appear to be:

  • Trade into the top 3 to get Jadeveon Clowney
  • Trade into the top 5 to get Khalil Mack
  • Wait at six and take either Jake Matthews or Anthony Barr

Also, I could easily point out a fourth option where the team trades back at the top of the draft. Moving back a handful of spots, still securing Barr and picking up an additional mid-round pick makes a ton of sense. But in reality it’s doubtful the team would view Barr as worthy of say the 10th overall selection, but not the sixth. However all reports indicate it will be a buyer’s market when it comes to trades in what is widely considered a very deep draft, making trading down in or out of the top 10 possible, but unlikely.

It’s that latter three above-outlined options that likely would precede the team trading up from the second round of the draft, which I now want to discuss.

Particularly if Matthews or another tackle winds up being the pick. There’s certainly a reality where the Falcons like Barr, but may believe that he’s worth the sixth overall selection.

They could lean towards Matthews because the drop-off from Barr to other outside linebackers that could be available in the second round is not nearly as significantly as that from Matthews to similarly projected offensive tackles.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremiah Attaochu seems a likely target for Falcons later in draft

Falcons Have Shown Interest in Second-Day Pass-Rushers

Some of those edge-rushers include Auburn’s Dee Ford, Missouri’s Kony Ealy, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy and Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence. The Falcons have taken a close inspection at all six.

Head coach Mike Smith was on hand to look at Ford this past week in an on-campus workout at Auburn. The team conducted a similar on-campus workout for Ealy at the beginning of April.

Attaochu was among several prospects at the team’s local pro day last week.

Crichton worked out for the team this offseason while they brought in both Van Noy and Lawrence for visits earlier this month.

Ford, Attaochu and Lawrence are the only team captains among the group. Lawrence served three separate one-game suspensions during his time at Boise State for violating unspecified team rules, the most recent of which came in the second game of the 2013 season. But two weeks later he was named a team captain, a role he served two more times before the Boise State season was over.

Ealy is a player that made significant gains as far as being a team player goes over course of his career at Mizzou. Van Noy is another player that has matured over his time at BYU, as he was arrested for a DUI prior to enrollment. But despite not earning captaincy this past season, Van Noy is noted for his competitiveness and work ethic.

But if any had any serious character question marks, they would have been weeded out a long time ago in the Falcons pre-draft scouting process.

Role Could Predict Which Pass-Rush Prospect Falcons Target

The question remains which of these six pass-rushers would the Falcons target. The answer to that question probably depends heavily on the role the team envisions for the player.

Van Noy is probably the most natural linebacker because he is the only one of the six to predominantly play with his hand off the ground this past year. However, Attaochu did stand up as an outside linebacker for Georgia Tech in their 3-4 defense for two seasons prior to 2013. If the Falcons are envisioning an edge-rusher that will have to drop in coverage a significant amount, they would be your best candidates. While the others offer at least the athletic upside to be effective in coverage, they would all be considered projects there.

If the Falcons are seeking someone that will be primarily used as a pass-rusher, then all would suffice. But if he’s going to play with his hand on the ground a lot, then Ealy and Crichton are the two best candidates since they have the larger frame and bulk (both weighed in at 273 pounds at the Combine) to handle taking on larger offensive linemen every snap.

Lawrence lacks ideal size for a defensive end, but could add muscle to his 6’3″ frame, and has the second largest arms (33.75 inches behind Ealy’s 34.25 inches) and largest hands (11 inches) of the six. His subpar three-cone time (7.46 seconds) however suggests that he lacks fluidity and might be an end trapped in a linebacker’s body.

But regardless of which prospect it is, the Falcons may be in the market to trade up into the latter part of the first round to get their guy. Ford, Ealy, and Attaochu seem to be getting the most first-round buzz at least as far as the media is concerned and thus would make the most sense.

I would wager that Attaochu, followed by Ford would be the likeliest targets for the Falcons but your guess is as good as mine. I think they’d be more willing to wait for someone like Van Noy or Lawrence in the second round.

Browns Draft Plans Could Hold Key For Trade Up

In determining how far the Falcons might be willing to leap up, pay close attention to the picks in the 25 to 29 range. San Diego (No. 25), Cleveland (No. 26) and New England (No. 29) present three promising trade-up partners.

What happens with Cleveland’s second first-round pick may be the lynchpin to any scenarios. Earlier reports this offseason suggested the Browns plan of attack in the draft was to take the best position player with the No. 4 overall selection, and try to snag a quarterback with pick No. 26. That still remains a possibility if the top quarterbacks in this draft class continue to slide.

But it’s also possible that the Browns might try to move up from No. 26 to get the quarterback of their choice higher in the draft. Perhaps a quarterback they really like is available in the middle of the first, and they swap picks with a team picking there. For example, the Baltimore Ravens hold the 17th overall pick and don’t have any glaring needs. They are also a team that often likes to trade back at the start of the draft, having traded out of the first round twice in the past five years. They could initially swap with the Browns, and then not be in love with anybody available at the 26th overall selection. They could move further back and be a nice trade partner for the Falcons at No. 26.

San Diego is a team that some experts think should be in the market to trade back. With no additional compensatory picks or ones acquired from previous trades, they could looking at accumulating more picks to fill multiple holes on their team.

New England is notorious for moving back in the draft, and given the close relationship of Bill Belichick and Dimitroff, it makes total sense if a deal gets done.

What would determine such a trade would largely depend on how the pass-rushers went off the board in round one. Teams like Dallas (16th overall), Baltimore, New York Jets (18th) and Arizona (20th) may all be in the market for edge-rushers. If guys like Ealy, Ford and/or Attaochu go off the board earlier than expected, it may prompt the Falcons to move up to ensure they get their guy.

If not, the Falcons may decide to stand pat at pick No. 37 and see who is available when the second day of the draft begins where they could still have an opportunity to move up.

Trade Up Could Be Reminiscent of Baker Trade in 2008

This scenario is similar to the one involving Baker six years ago. It was no surprise when tackles Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Chris Williams and Branden Albert all went in the upper half of the first round in that year. But Detroit taking Gosder Cherilus at No. 17 was unexpected when most were projecting him to go later in the round. That move prompted the Carolina Panthers to jump all the way from No. 43 to No. 19 to take Jeff Otah, who most had rated ahead of Cherilus. Those moves completely threw a wrench into any plans the Falcons had entering that 2008 draft to wait and use one of three second-round picks on a starting left tackle.

That certainly could happen this year, especially if the team opts to use its first-round pick on someone that is not a pass-rusher. Such a trade up into the latter part of the first round won’t be significantly different than the move from six to four outlined previously.

As noted earlier, the Falcons 68th overall selection is worth 250 points according to the trade value chart. The difference between picks No. 25 and 37 is 190 points according to that same chart. So it’s reasonable to assume that at most the Falcons would need to part ways with their third-round pick, but likely get another later pick in exchange.

It all means that there’s a very strong chance that we will arrive on the second day of the draft on Friday, May 9 with a pretty good idea of where the Falcons pass rush stands. If they don’t pull the trigger at the top of the draft, they might jump into the end of the round to get their preferred target.

The team’s draft-day history suggests they are very proactive when it comes to securing and targeting specific needs and players. There is every reason to believe that 2014 is going to be a year where history repeats itself.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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