There is no doubt that the penalty that the NFL levied on the Atlanta Falcons last week stemming from their “Noisegate controversy” was on the light side.
Frankly, it was a mere slap on the wrist. Which was more than a surprise when reports surfaced the weekend before that they would be “severe.”
In fact, had someone asked me what was likely to be the Falcons’ penalty in the weeks after news first broke in February, it would have been more in line with the eventual punishment. But Adam Schefter’s report that the penalties would be severe falsely led myself and othes to believe that the NFL’s punishment would be felt.
But the loss of a 2016 fifth-round pick is one that will hardly be felt. While the $350,000 fine that owner Arthur Blank will be forced to pay is a significant one, it is a mere pittance in the landscape of the NFL. NFL teams make $200 million annually just from the broadcast contracts they have with various television and radio networks before a single ticket is sold.
Compared to that revenue, a fine of $350,000 represents a fraction of a penny. And of course a fifth-round pick essentially amounts to the Falcons losing a role player. History suggests that the chances a fifth-round pick turns into a quality starter within five years is about 11 percent. The chances that a player picked in that same round is out of the league by that same point is more than five times higher.
The fact that the NFL opted against penalizing the Falcons with a 2015 pick makes their penalties even more ineffective. The Falcons’ draft plans won’t be disrupted one bit. And it’s possible that by the time 2016 rolls around, they will have found a way to compensate for the loss of that late-round pick. That compensation doesn’t appear likely to come in the form of a compensatory pick, but any number of trades could happen between now and then to restore.
Falcons Front Office Shake-Up Makes Draft Plans Mystery
As to what the Falcons’ 2015 draft plans will actually be remains a question mark, which is one of the inevitabilities when a team has a new regime in place. While general manager Thomas Dimitroff still retains “final authority” over the offseason, there will be considerable input from head coach Dan Quinn and assistant general manager Scott Pioli.
Determining the exact power structure within the Falcons organization ultimately may prove fruitless. All parties have made it clear that it will be a collaborative effort when it comes to making the roster decisions moving forward.
We can only make educated guesses to how things will go when the draft commences on April 30. Most likely, the Falcons will continue their “needs-based” strategy as they have practiced over the past seven years with Dimitroff calling the shots.
The biggest changes that are likely to come are just how the team values those needs. The team will still prioritize prospects that can be immediate starters over role players but it raises questions about which positions are likely to be considered as immediate starters.
While there is little doubt that the Falcons top pick will be an edge-rusher, given the team’s critical desire to upgrade one of the league’s worst pass rushes. Whoever the Falcons choose with their top pick will be expected to compete for a starting job at the “LEO” defensive end position. And there’s a good chance that whoever it is will ultimately win it.
Questions Still Surround Falcons Left Guard Position
After that, things become a bit more muddled. The Falcons have an obvious whole at left guard in the wake of Justin Blalock’s release. While the team has expressed the possibility that Sam Baker is a potential option, it seems unlikely that is their primary plan since Baker has three strikes against him.
Firstly Baker hasn’t played much guard in his career, is alos coming off a major knee injury that still hasn’t yet healed and is very expensive with a $7.3 million cap hit in 2015. As expressed a week ago, Baker appears to be more of an insurance policy at this point in case the Falcons can’t find a better option in the draft that is considerably cheaper and doesn’t have the injury concerns.
Mike Person might also be in the mix for the position, but given the fact that he’s only played 69 regular-season snaps in his four-year career, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons are counting on him to be the front-runner heading into training camp.
That likely means that the Falcons will look to add a starter in this year’s draft. But at what point in the draft remains to be seen. It could come as early as the second round, or it could come much later. Typically, there is less of a premium on zone-blocking guards. suggesting the Falcons may be able to find starting-caliber talent a bit later than normal. But at the same time, if the Falcons are looking for a guard that can start Week 1, then the chances of finding that player increase the earlier he is drafted.
The earlier a player is picked, generally the better he is expected to be. And thus, the more confidence his prospective team should have in him starting. The Falcons could very well use a sixth-round pick on a guard and he winds up the team’s Week 1 starter at left guard through competition, but that certainly won’t be the plan.
Again, the presence of Baker on the roster gives the Falcons a potential alternative. It means that the team may not be as compelled to reach as they have done in past drafts for a “need” position.
Southward Another Example of Falcons Mid-Round Reaches
Take for instance the Falcons’ third round pick a year ago in safety Dezmen Southward. By the accounts of most, Southward was a bit of a reach. Most sites graded him in the fourth-round range of the draft, yet the Falcons took him early in the third round. CBS Sports ranked him as their 133rd overall prospect, and he was selected 68th overall. NFL.com ranked him as their 109th overall prospect. The Falcons held the 103rd overall selection, which they ultimately used on running back Devonta Freeman.
Yet why did the Falcons take Southward a round earlier than most thought he merited? Was it because the Falcons thought Southward was a better prospect than the consensus suggested? That’s certainly a possibility, but it’s doubtful. Instead, the Falcons likely selected Southward when they did because need compelled them to.
The Falcons had a significant need at free safety a year ago. The team had signed Dwight Lowery in free agency to replace Thomas DeCoud at the spot. But Lowery had missed most of 2013 with a concussion and had an extensive injury history that made him a player that wasn’t particularly trustworthy as the lone option.
The Falcons needed an insurance policy at the very least. Given Lowery’s durability questions marks and age at the time (28), he was not really considered a long-term solution for the team. That was something the Falcons were hoping to find in the draft, and ultimately settled on Southward.
However, the notion that the Falcons were higher on Southward than most is dubious considering how raw a prospect that Southward was. He had only played football since his senior year of high school meant Southward had relatively little experience compared to other safety prospects. Also, for the scheme that Southward was going to be asked to play in, he was a bit more of a project. In former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme, the free safety was often tasked with dropping down and covering slot receivers. One of the reasons for DeCoud’s struggles in 2013 were due to his struggles in performing this task. DeCoud was always a safety better suited to playing in zone coverage than being asked to line up man-to-man against wide receivers. Lowery as a former cornerback was much better suited to this task, and Southward certainly had the potential to do so as well.
The issue is that Southward was not asked to do this very much at Wisconsin. In fact, the only season where covering slot receivers was a primary role of his was as a senior. But he struggled at various times doing so, especially in his final collegiate game against South Carolina where he allowed wide receiver Bruce Ellington to rack up four catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. Ellington was ultimately taken in the fourth round (106th overall) by the San Francisco 49ers and was stuck as that team’s fifth wideout for much of the season. If Southward struggled against Ellington, he certainly was likely to struggle against more experienced and capable NFL receivers. Essentially, Southward was going to be a work in progress in terms of being the player that the scheme was going to ask him to be.
So it should becoming clearer that the Falcons took Southward a round earlier than they probably should. But why? Because they wanted to ensure that they got their man.
That’s often the reality of the draft, in that NFL teams have a finite number of players they want. And if they’re not confident a player is going to be available the next time they are on the clock, they will then be more likely to take him sooner rather than later. And that was likely the case with Southward.
Corey Peters might be a “reach” that worked out for Falcons
Coupled with the possibility that of the other players potentially available to them at the top of the third round, none likely stood out enough to preclude the Falcons from going for need with Southward.
This is an action that the Falcons have performed numerous times in past drafts. I’d argue that this often comes in the third round of drafts, where the Falcons will target a player that most think is a later-round pick because of their need. Corey Peters, Akeem Dent and Lamar Holmes were arguably all taken a round or two earlier than their talent merited because the Falcons had a need at the position.
In the case of Peters, Peria Jerry was coming off a devastating knee injury and the Falcons needed a player to line up beside Jonathan Babineaux in the starting lineup. Dent was drafted during the lockout before the team had made the decision to re-sign Stephen Nicholas in free agency. Holmes was an insurance policy to put behind Baker going into the latter’s contract year, as up until that point he had been an underwhelming starter.
Falcons Reaching For Players Unlikely to Stop
One of the biggest questions moving forward is whether the added influence of Quinn and Pioli on the team’s drafts, will such mid-round reaches continue. The answer is probably yes. Simply from the fact, that the Falcons aren’t unique in this perspective as most NFL teams draft in a similar fashion.
The notion of value, at least as NFL teams are concerned, is vastly overrated. For example, if the Falcons feel like guard is a major need for them, they’re going to draft one even if that means taking a player a round earlier than many “experts” might feel is necessary.
The same could easily apply to a number of other positions for the Falcons including running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and free safety. Again, the chief question is exactly how the Falcons will prioritize and evaluate those needs. Which positions are more dire than the others? It would appear that nickel cornerback and free safety are the two positions that are most dire as things stand today.
But there’s no telling where the other positions stack. Any of those other positions could certainly use an upgrade. If the Falcons aren’t being completely honest with their appraisal of Devonta Freeman at running back, that may be a position that could become a higher priority. Freeman isn’t an ideal between-the-tackles running back, so the Falcons are certainly going to add a player that can fill that role. But how important is that role going to be? Are the Falcons looking for a player that can split reps with Freeman, perhaps only earning 80-100 carries as a rookie? If so, then that might be a player the team is willing to wait until the fourth or fifth round to target. However, if the Falcons want a back that may start off as a situational player but potentially grow into the No. 1 back on the roster and be an every-down workhorse, then that’s more likely to be valued in the second-round range.
Another example might be the team’s need at middle linebacker. After signing Justin Durant and Brooks Reed in free agency, the Falcons have presumably upgraded the outside linebacker positions. That leaves only the possibility of upgrading Paul Worrilow as the guy in the middle. When Quinn evaluated the Falcons’ 2014 tape, what was his opinion about Worrilow?
Was it that Worrilow was a talented player with a bright future ahead of him? If so, then it’s unlikely that middle linebacker will be seen as much of a need at all and might not even be addressed in the draft.
Or did Quinn see Worrilow as a competent player with some upside, but someone that he could not completely place his trust in? If that’s the case, then the Falcons might look to add a developmental starter in the middle rounds somewhere arounds rounds four or five.
Perhaps Quinn came away thinking that Worrilow was more of a backup than a starter and feels that it’s a critical area that requires an immediate upgrade. If so, then it’s likely that the Falcons will look to address the spot on the second day of the draft, possibly as early as the 42nd overall selection they hold in the second round.
We’re unlikely to get the answers to these questions until draft day. But whatever they are, they will certainly be enlightening to what sort of team Quinn is trying to put together in Atlanta. And it’ll also make it a lot easier to predict what the Falcons’ plans may be come 2016, even if they are missing a fifth-round pick.