Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – February 29, 2016

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY SportsDan Quinn answers questions in front of media at 2016 NFL Scouting Combine

The 2016 Scouting Combine kicked off over the weekend in Indianapolis, an event that I’ve heard termed the NFL’s annual “convention.”

It’s an analogy that makes sense given that Indianapolis is chock full of coaches, scouts, general managers and owners as well as player agents and a record-breaking 1,200-plus credentialed media members. Besides the actual draft, it’s the biggest event on the NFL’s offseason calendar and it’s growth in popularity over the past decade is a testament to the league’s ever-increasing popularity as a whole.

However there are some pitfalls and disclaimers often associated with the Combine that you’ll hear on an annual basis. One statement that is often made is how the Combine is overrated and that NFL success is not determined by stopwatches and measuring tape.

That statement is true in surmising that the best athletes don’t always make the best NFL players. However, athleticism does play a significant factor in NFL success. Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller simply hasn’t achieved the things he has during his career because he’s out-hustling opposing offensive linemen.

Despite “Overrated” Label, Combine is Important Part of NFL Draft Process

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Ohio State WR Braxton Miller runs a 40-yard dash

The Combine is an important and integral part of the annual draft evaluation process. It’s often described as scouts and teams “checking boxes” in terms of looking to see if prospects confirm what they saw on film during the previous college season.

If there is a wide receiver that is blowing past cornerbacks on deep passes throughout the year, then one expects that he’ll clock a fast 40-yard dash time at the Combine. If he does, then that box is checked. If he doesn’t, then it raises some doubts.

One concern could be the quality of the competition. Perhaps the cornerbacks this receiver was running past are slow and when he faces much faster players at the NFL level, his speed will be far less effective.

Another worry may be that he didn’t time well because he didn’t put enough effort and energy into the training process in the weeks leading up to the Combine.

This is why the Combine matters because those are potentially things NFL teams will want to know before they decide to invest millions of dollars into a player as a draft pick.

However the Combine isn’t solely about confirming things seen on film, but also allows teams to discover things that might only become apparent when the stopwatches and measuring tape come out. There may be a player that tests very well, yet didn’t show it on film during the season.

That too will raise more questions that need to be answered. Perhaps it’s because the team or scheme he played in during college wasn’t conducive to displaying his natural ability. Perhaps he’s a “late-bloomer” that didn’t quite develop over his collegiate career as well as others to produce on the field.

There could be any number of reasons to explain this and it once again will cause teams to dig further into the prospect to try and address any uncertainties, eventually with the expectation that it’ll lead to better, sounder decisions on draft day.

Obviously the draft remains a “crapshoot,” yet imagine would it would be without this important vetting process. Teams would essentially be taking shots in the dark and it’s why it’s important to have events like the Combine to help illuminate the process.

The Atlanta Falcons showed up at the Combine looking to illuminate their decision to improve their front seven on the defense, as noted in last week’s column. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff came to Indianapolis talking a lot about speed and their need to improve that element on the defensive side of the ball. That is why Sunday, when defensive linemen and linebackers went through workouts, probably represented the day in which the Falcons’ brass were most alert during on-field drills.

But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons were coasting during Friday and Saturday when offensive players were conducting their workouts and drills. The Falcons will also be looking for significant upgrades along the offensive line as well as wide receiver and tight end this offseason.

Slow Wide Receivers Might Push Falcons to Upgrade Via Free Agency

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Travis Benjamin

However if the goal is to get faster at the wide receiver position, the Falcons may find themselves at one of the more inopportune times in recent years as this year’s crop of wide receivers were historically slow. According to NFL.com, this year’s group of wideouts collectively were tied for the second-slowest average in the 40-yard dash since 2003.

It’s no wonder that both Quinn and Dimitroff talked up second-year Falcons receiver Justin Hardy in their press conferences this week in Indianapolis as a player they expect to make a significant leap in 2016. The team may not be in an ideal position to get much help in the draft beyond Hardy’s development.

That may be a factor in why it was also rumored over the weekend that the Falcons are poised to make a big push for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin when free agency kicks off on March 9. Unlike the prospective 2016 picks, Benjamin isn’t hurting for speed as he was tied for the fastest 40 time (4.36 seconds) among the 2012 class of receivers.

Benjamin played for Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2014 and is coming off a breakout 2015 campaign in which he caught 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns. Last year alone outpaced Benjamin’s production in his first three NFL seasons, when he combined for 41 catches, 717 yards and five touchdowns.

The 26-year old would certainly add a big-play element sorely missing from the Falcons offense if the team manages to sign him next week. Despite only catching 18 passes under Shanahan in 2014, eight of them went for 20 or more yards. There were only two other receivers that had that many long receptions despite catching less than 30 total passes: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (26 catches, eight big plays) and Browns tight end Jordan Cameron (24 catches, eight big plays).

Outside leading receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons were utterly devoid of big plays at the wide receiver position this past year. Roddy White, Leonard Hankerson, Nick Williams and Hardy combined for 13 receptions of 20 or more yards while being targeted a total of 177 times. Benjamin was targeted 125 times this past year in Cleveland and recorded 12 receptions of 20-plus yards.

Pass-Rushers Impress at Combine But Also Raise Doubts

Unlike the receiver group on Saturday, the front-seven defenders on Sunday did not disappoint observers with a solid collective workout. As noted before, the team’s offseason plan likely entails upgrading their front seven which makes it a good bet that the team will use their first-round draft  pick on one of the players that worked out on Sunday.

The short list for that pick could include edge-rushers: Emmanuel Ogbah (Oklahoma State), Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd (both from Clemson) and Noah Spence (Eastern Kentucky). All have been variously designated as potential Falcons first-round picks in mock drafts this offseason.

One could also potentially throw Florida’s Jonathan Bullard into the mix, but his combination of size (6-3/286) and quickness probably makes him best suited to playing inside at defensive tackle rather than playing on the edge at end. But his experience working with Quinn during his collegiate days could have the Falcons taking a further look as the next eight-plus weeks until the NFL Draft tick down.

Unlike the wide receivers where the 40-yard dash is king, the 10-yard split is much more important in regards to pass-rushers. That is the time it takes the player to cover the first 10 yards of their run. Its importance is due to its correlation with lower-body explosiveness and thus being indicative of first-step quickness.

According to MockDraftable, defensive ends measuring in the 90th percentile for 10-yard splits clock in a time around 1.58 seconds or lower. For defensive tackles that same benchmark is about 1.67 seconds.

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Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah

Despite Strong Workout, Ogbah’s Films Leaves Questions

Ogbah shined in that regard, recording a 10-yard split of 1.59 seconds, which matches Falcons 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley’s time. Ogbah also had excellent on-field production with 63 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks this past year at Oklahoma State. But despite the impressive production and workout, he might be a case of a player that is a bit underwhelming on film.

It’s worth noting that he was shut down by Mississippi left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the Sugar Bowl. While Tunsil is the prohibitive favorite to be selected by the Tennessee Titans with the No. 1 overall pick and also considered to be as good as any left tackle prospect in recent memory, it would’ve been a feather in Ogbah’s cap if he had proven more effective against such a premier talent.  As Pro Football Focus noted, nearly all of Ogbah’s production in the bowl game came essentially in garbage time after the Cowboys were down 34-6 at halftime.

Teams will now be compelled to dive back into his tape to determine if he’s a “workout warrior” or a player that can legitimately achieve at the levels his athleticism suggests he’s capable of. How teams, including the Falcons, decide based off that reassessment will determine ultimately how high in the draft Ogbah goes.

Lawson’s Production Could Exceed His Length

Lawson scored a competent 10-yard split of 1.64 seconds, which is much closer to the middle of the pack as far as defensive ends go. But his on-field production (59 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks) and better film to back it up makes him a relatively safer bet than Ogbah.

If the Falcons look at Lawson, they’d likely target him for the “LEO” defensive end spot and slide him into a niche that combines the roles of impending free agents Kroy Biermann and Adrian Clayborn. In that capacity, Lawson has the run-stopping ability to play in the base defense like Biermann, but also has the pass-rushing prowess to play on the edge in the nickel sub-package like Clayborn.

Perhaps the biggest question hovering over Lawson is going to be whether his lack of height (6’3″) and length (32 ¾-inch arms) will prevent him from being a top edge-rusher at the next level. There is no shortage of shorter-armed edge-rushers, as recent years have produced players like Everson Griffen (32 ⅝ inches), Brandon Graham (32 ¼), Vinny Curry (32 ¾) and Melvin Ingram (31 ½) that couldn’t reach any further than Lawson and yet have still found success in the NFL.

But it’s also worth noting that all four of those players had relatively slower starts to their NFL careers, serving as backups for multiple seasons before they were able to live up to their potential. Another player in Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who has a nearly identical frame as Lawson, also didn’t become a full-time starter until his fourth NFL season.

Lawson’s Combine performance and measurements might prompt teams to question if his development might take a little longer than hoped, thus influencing his draft stock.

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Clemson DE Kevin Dodd

Dodd Must Prove Himself at Pro Day

Dodd suffered a hamstring injury upon running his second 40-yard dash and was unable to participate in the other drills. His 10-yard split of 1.70 seconds wasn’t particularly worthy of note but he’ll have an opportunity to redeem himself at Clemson’s pro day, which is scheduled for March 10.

Dodd’s claim to fame was the dominant performance he had in the National Championship Game against Alabama. In fact it wasn’t just his final collegiate game but the few months of the season where Dodd really shine. During his last five games, Dodd recorded a combined 21 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks, a significant chunk of his yearly totals (62 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks).

But despite a strong finish to 2015, it does prompt skepticism over whether he was a “one-month wonder” while starting only one season at Clemson. He may wind up being labeled a late-bloomer that due to a talent-laden Clemson defensive line over the years, never quite took advantage of any opportunities before this past year. That could mean that Dodd’s best football could be ahead of him in the NFL.

Teams will have to decide that and how he tests athletically in the coming weeks will go a long way to determine where they fall along that fence. If Dodd tests well, there will be a more teams willing to roll the dice on his upside than they will be if he’s average athletically.

Spence’s Workouts Fails to Quiet Off-Field Question Marks

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Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence answers media questions at the Combine

Spence also did himself few favors with his Combine performance. Not because he was particularly poor as his 1.62-second 10-yard split is a fairly solid indicator that he can bring heat off the edge. But unfortunately Spence was dealing with a double-edged sword of higher expectations and character red flags entering this weekend.

The high expectations had many hoping his workout would be on par with past studs like Beasley and Khalil Mack that were each selected in the top 10 picks of the past two drafts. Instead Spence’s workout was much more in line with a trio of pass-rushers from the 2014 class in Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence and Jeremiah Attaochu according to MockDraftable’s similarity scores. That trio was selected between picks No. 23 and 50 that year and have each turned into competent player thus far in limited opportunities in the pros, so it’s not as if Spence is in bad company.

But when coupled with off-field issues centering on Spence’s past actions that led him to be booted out of Ohio State in 2014 before landing at Eastern Kentucky, his draft stock might be reeling a bit. Teams inclined to pass on him because of that off-field uncertainty won’t be as compelled to give him the second look that an outstanding workout might have prompted.

Spence has remained mostly clean since arriving at Eastern Kentucky, which should help mitigate fears that he might be Randy Gregory in the making. But teams will have a tougher time balancing the risk versus the reward if they don’t feel that the latter indicates they will be getting a unique and special pass-rushing talent.

Lee’s Speed Stands Out, But What About His Size?

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Ohio State LB Darron Lee blazes at the Combine

There will be far less questions raised from the workout of Spence’s former teammate in Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee, who blazed a 4.47-second 40 time. That put him among the fastest linebackers at the Combine over the past decade. If the Falcons are looking to upgrade their speed on the second level, Lee certainly can provide.

Athletically, Lee compares with Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner based off similar Combine testing. Unlike Wagner, Lee is unlikely to play inside and rather projects to weak-side linebacker for the Falcons. Lee played on the strong side at Ohio State, which often asked him to play in space where his speed was an obvious asset.

If there’s going to be a major knock on Lee, it might center on his lack of size and strength. His bench-press performance of 11 reps of 225 pounds certainly didn’t allay those concerns. But players can often get stronger and if the Falcons are looking to maximize their playing speed this offseason, then they might be willing to trade off and lose a little bit of bulk in the process.

Each of the aforementioned players have strengths and weaknesses and the Combine is a good tool to help highlight them. In the case of a player like Lee, his speed really stands out and could ultimately overshadow any problems with his size. For a player like Spence, a good but not great workout may not ultimately obscure the off-field issues surrounding him.

The Falcons have decisions to make in the next two months not only on the aforementioned prospects, but several others. The Combine will help steer them in certain directions in regards to these players but it won’t be the final determining factor. What the team does in free agency, including whether they sign a player like Benjamin or not, will also play a significant role in parsing out their offseason plan.

Yet the Falcons as a team that is looking to get faster and more athletic across their entire roster, can definitely utilize the data that the Combine provides to take some of their first, significant steps to improve this offseason.

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Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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