Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – April 27, 2015

We’re only a few days away from the 2015 NFL Draft and it can’t come any sooner. Whether the draft is held in early May or mid-to-late April, it always seems like the last two weeks leading up to it pass by the slowest.

That likely stems from the fact that compared to the rest of the offseason, it’s a time where very little happens on the NFL landscape. Most teams are doing their last private workouts and player visits, as opposed to all the comings and goings of free agency that rule the month of March.

Not to mention, all the possible scenarios of who any individual team might pick have been dissected and overanalyzed for weeks on end. That is no different for the Atlanta Falcons.

There’s any litany of possibilities that could occur involving the Falcons over the three-day draft process later this week. But one thing is for certain, the Falcons are going to be address their pass rush.

It’s just a matter of who they select and when said player is picked. The hope has always been that it would come in the first round of the draft. That hope became even more apparent when the Falcons failed to “fix” their pass rush in free agency.

Now it’s hard to blame the Falcons for that failure. While there were a wealth of quality pass-rushers available at the start of March in free agency, the Falcons made a clear determination that they were unwilling to overpay for any one of them.

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Dan Quinn

Shift in Spending Moves Falcons in New Direction

That decision is a stark contrast to their previous “code of conduct” when it comes to free agency before the arrival of new head coach Dan Quinn. The possibility of situations like those that happened when the Falcons paid market value for players like Justin Blalock, Sam Baker, Dunta Robinson and Tyson Jackson and received under-market production in return are a lot less likely to occur in the future under Quinn should this new strategy continue.

The team finds itself picking within the top 10 of the draft for the second year in a row, putting them alongside perennial losers like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s not the sort of company that the Falcons want to find themselves among ever again.

That lowly state can be owed somewhat to this team’s poor spending in past years. It’s hard to improve as a football team, when said team is consistently spending a dollar and only getting a quarter or two back. That translates to the Falcons having to spend twice as much to improve compared to other teams. And without infinite cap space or draft picks to utilize, that puts severe limits on how much improvement this team could do in the past and heading into the future.

So the lack of desperation in the Falcons’ free-agent spending in 2015 is really a breath of fresh air. But even though the team has changed its spending habits, that accomplishes very little unless the team actually acquires good players. That of course, is the priority of any draft as all are aware that all successful teams are built primary via the annual player selection meeting, as it once was referred.

That leads us back to the issue of the pass rush. The Falcons now have to find a solution sooner rather than later, and it most likely will come in the form of a first-round pick.

Majority of Quality NFL Pass-Rushers Selected in First Round

The reason why that is is because the vast majority of top pass-rushers are selected in the first round, particularly when it comes to edge players. Based on data accrued by premium website Pro Football Focus, there were 53 edge-rushers that had 20 or more hurries in 2014. Of those, 23 of them or 43 percent were selected in the first round of the draft. Doing the math, the first round alone featured the same amount as the next four rounds combined.

The second and third rounds featured eight and four edge-rushers, respectively, that reached that 20-hurry benchmark. The fourth round had seven, indicating that teams have been semi-successful finding some diamonds in the rough. The fifth round had four, while the sixth and seventh rounds had one each. There were also five undrafted edge-rushers that had 20 or more hurries in 2014.

If the hurries benchmark is raised to 35, then there were 16 edge-rushers that reached that level in 2014. Once again, first-round picks led the way with half that number, along with a trio of third-rounders, pair of fourth-rounders, one sixth-rounder and two undrafted players.

That doesn’t mean that using a first-round pick on an edge-rusher will guarantee success at the next level, but indicates there is certainly a premium placed on quality edge-rushers in the NFL draft. And that’s simply not a premium that the Falcons have shown under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and previous head coach Mike Smith.

Falcons Lack of Pass Rush Due to Lack of Premium Drafting

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Thomas Dimitroff

Since both their arrivals in 2008, the Falcons have drafted eight edge-rushers over the past seven drafts. In that span, they have not one time used a first or second-round pick. The team used a trio of them on fourth-rounders in Malliciah Goodman, Lawrence Sidbury and Prince Shembo. Shembo of course was quickly shifted to inside linebacker upon his arrival in Atlanta last year. It’s also hard to qualify Goodman as an edge-rusher, as Dimitroff quickly made note of his potential to bulk up as a prototypical five-technique defensive end when they drafted him.

That leaves five of their edge-rushers being selected in the last three rounds of the draft. The previously cited Pro Football Focus data suggests that those three rounds combined managed to produce 11 percent of the top edge-rushers in 2014, roughly four times less than the first round alone.

That sort of strategy requires a high number of draft picks in order to find one successful hit. Kroy Biermann would likely qualify as that lone hit, having 28 hurries in 2014 and being the team’s lone drafted edge-rusher to surpass the 20-hurry benchmark a year ago. Osi Umenyiora had 26 hurries according to Pro Football Focus last year, but he of course was not drafted by the Falcons. Instead, he was drafted in the second round by the New York Giants in 2003.

Ultimately the Falcons had to use eight picks to find one decent edge-rusher in Biermann, a hit rate of 12.5 percent. Had the team used a first-round pick on an edge-rusher, they would have seen their hit rate nearly quadruple. Since 2008, 34 edge-rushers were taken in the first round of the draft and 15 of them (44 percent) were among the edge-rushers that had 20 or more hurries in 2014.

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The Falcons missed on the Julio Jones trade

This is why Dimitroff deserves so much blame for the current state of the Falcons. This is part of the argument I raised months ago that blamed the trade to acquire Julio Jones as a reason why the team lacks talent. Far too many people approach that trade as to whether the Falcons should or should have made the trade but that debate is inconsequential since they did in fact make the trade.

The more pertinent issue is that by giving away those picks, the Falcons halved their ability to find talent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 drafts. And within their limited opportunities to add players, the team failed to do so. My argument was never to suggest to folks that they should be upset that the Falcons made the trade or that Jones is currently on the roster. My only point is to point out the correlation between that trade, the lack of talent and thus the recent struggles of the team.

Drafting Well Equals Playing Well

It’s impossible to deny that teams that do not consistently add talent to their roster via the draft suffer, while those that do prosper. Eight of the dozen playoff teams in 2014 were among the teams that acquired four or more qualify starters in the 2011 and 2012 drafts combined that I wrote about in the aforementioned article examining the aftermath of the Jones trade. Of the 21 teams that acquired four or more quality starters in those two drafts, 14 of them (67 percent) won eight or more games in 2014. All seven of the teams that found five or more quality starters in those drafts had won eight or more games. Compare that to the 11 teams that found three or less quality starters, only five (45 percent) finished .500 or above last year.

It’s an easy correlation to make. Teams that draft well, win more games. And it’s harder to draft well when you don’t have an adequate amount of picks. For someone that has been around football for as long as Dimitroff has and had the sort of success both early on in Atlanta and previously in New England, this concept should be fairly basic.

So not only did the Falcons need to show a shift in how they spend their money in free agency, they need to have a shift in how they approach the draft. While there have been very few more vocal critics of Dimitroff than myself over recent months, the one positive is that the arrival of Quinn affords him the opportunity for a “do-over.” Essentially the Falcons have been building the wrong way for the better part of the last seven years, and now Dimitroff can help get the team back on track and do it the correct way.

That starts with finally investing in the pass rush by using a first-round pick later this week. Whether it means sticking with the eighth overall selection or moving up or down within the first round, there’s simply no way that any Falcon fan should wake up on Friday morning to discover that the team didn’t select an edge-rusher on the previous night.

The bottom line is that at some point Thursday night when the first round is being selected, the Falcons must take an edge-rusher. At what point that occurs is something we can only speculate. But it has to happen, if for no other reason than the flawed past strategies of Dimitroff compelling them.

After a modest foray into free agency where the team was able to land Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and O’Brien Schofield, the team must get a coveted difference-maker in the draft to continue to improve the pass rush. Otherwise, it indicates that their plan was that there was no plan. Those three aforementioned free agents are band-aids at best.

That’s not to mean that whomever the Falcons select in the first round later this week will single-handedly fix and solve their pass-rushing woes, but it’s a significant step in the right direction. It’s important that Quinn indicates that he can lead the team even further in that direction, especially given the expenditures the franchise is asking of its fan base. It begins with Quinn showing that he’s going to be different than Smith, Dimitroff and his bad decisions have been leashed and that after waiting for the better part of a decade, the Atlanta Falcons will finally take the necessary steps to actually have a good pass rush. And it should be clear by now that starts and ends within the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

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Aaron Freeman
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