The Atlanta Falcons came away from the 2016 NFL Draft with six players in the hopes of building towards their future under second-year head coach Dan Quinn.
Just like their first draft class a year ago, much of Quinn’s future success will hinge upon his staff’s ability to develop and maximize the talent within this draft class.
The 2015 class had much more overt talent, while this year’s crop is a bit more latent. It leaves me a lot more cautious and hesitant to heap effusive praise on this draft class until they actually start to hit the field and see whatever development unfold.
The Falcons started their draft off right by getting an instant day-one starter in Florida strong safety Keanu Neal in the first round, upgrading over incumbent Kemal Ishmael at that spot. Neal will provide physicality on the back-end of the defense much like his predecessor William Moore.
As Moore showed over the years that adds significant value to the defensive side of the ball. While Moore’s impact lessened in 2015, likely prompting his release, it was clear that his presence on the defense was a difference maker.
In 2014 when the Falcons sported one of the worst defenses in NFL history, Moore’s presence made a real difference.
The Falcons sported a 4-1 in games in which Moore appeared in at least half of the defensive snaps that season, while they sported a 2-9 record otherwise. In those five games that Moore played the majority of, the Falcons defense allowed an average of 20.8 points per game. In the 11 others, it was 37.9 points per game.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Moore’s presence alone accounted for that 17-point difference, but having the “swagger” that Moore brought to the table clearly held some significance.
The team should be optimistic that Neal can make a similar mark on their defense moving forward.
Neal Must Improve Coverage At Safety
While much can be debated about the team’s decision to draft Neal with the 17th overall pick instead of other players that were available, I’ll leave that topic for future columns and simply focus on Neal himself today.
However it’s fair to say that expectations will only increase for Neal as he dons the black and red.
Much of those expectations won’t center on his ability to impact in run support, but to upgrade weaknesses in coverage. Despite Moore’s ability to affect games by being an enforcer against the run, he often had to be hidden when it came to the pass, especially in man coverage.
Unfortunately for Moore, one of the last impressions he made in Atlanta was his struggles to cover tight end Ben Watson in the team’s first loss of the 2015 season to the rival New Orleans Saints. Watson’s 10 catches for 127 yards had been up to that point career-highs for a 34-year old tight end.
Neal is going to have to change that, otherwise the Falcons just made a very lateral move and paid a much steeper price given that Moore was taken with the 55th overall selection in the 2009 draft rather than being selected in the middle of the first round like Neal.
Based off my initial forays into watching Neal at the University of Florida, he was rarely asked to cover opposing receivers and tight ends in man coverage. He was instead most often given assignments roving the secondary in zone coverage and provide his trademark big hits wherever necessary.
The Falcons themselves didn’t seem sure that Neal was up to snuff in coverage, which is why the coaching staff took efforts to conduct in-depth drills during their private workout of Neal before the draft. They wished to see if he could handle impending coverage assignments at the next level and obviously came away satisfied given their selection of Neal so high in the draft.
But Neal’s ability to impress the coaching staff in drills while wearing shorts doesn’t guarantee it will translate to when he puts on the pads on Sundays this fall and in ensuing years.
This year Neal will find himself in the position to cover tight ends such as Greg Olsen, Zach Ertz, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham. While no one should expect Neal to be able to shut down some of the best tight ends in the league right out of the gates, the reality is that he’s going to have to become more than an enforcer to ultimately live up to his first-round billing.
If not, then many will look back and ponder what could have been had the Falcons gone in a different direction at the top of the 2016 draft.
Jones’ Lack of Size Could Be Overcome By Abundance of Speed
The Falcons’ next selection in the second round was LSU linebacker Deion Jones, who doesn’t have quite as high the floor as Neal does upon arrival in Atlanta. Jones isn’t guaranteed to be an instant starter from the jump.
Jones will be expected to compete for a starting job at his natural weak-side linebacker position, but the presences of veterans like Sean Weatherspoon and Philip Wheeler allows the Falcons to be a bit more patient with the LSU product.
Instead Jones likely will revert to where his collegiate career began as a special-teams maven before assuming any starting role with the team. That will be good since Jones will probably need to bulk up before he can be counted upon to handle the rigors of battling offensive linemen, tight ends and fullbacks at the NFL level.
Jones measured in 219 pounds at the Senior Bowl in January this past year, but only managed to add three pounds between then and the Scouting Combine in late February. At his pro day in mid-March, Jones had in fact lost a single pound and was down to 221. That could be considered a red flag suggesting that adding bulk may not be as easy for Jones as it could be for others.
The Falcons may ultimately have to resign themselves to accepting that Jones will always be on the smaller end of NFL linebackers. But the Falcons hope that whatever Jones lacks in bulk, he’ll more than make up for with speed, having clocked a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
If Jones were to play at that speed, it would make him one of the fastest linebackers ever to step foot on a professional football field. And the Falcons hope to capitalize on that speed in the hopes that advanced physics will allow an object (Jones in this case) moving at a high rate of speed will be able to provide increased force to make plays in the open field.
However Jones’ ability to redshirt in 2016 isn’t guaranteed. The fact that Weatherspoon sits atop the depth chart at weak-side linebacker makes the possibility that Jones gets significant playing time right away likely to occur.
Weatherspoon has missed 35 games due to injury over the course of his six-year career, which averages out to nearly six per season. He’s missed 27 of those games over the past three years, indicating that if Spoon has just an average season, Jones will likely get opportunities to impact for a good chunk of the year.
Even if Jones doesn’t get his chance this year, he should by 2017. Both Weatherspoon and Wheeler are operating under one-year contracts. Spoon will be 29 years old when he hits free agency next year while Wheeler will be 32.
Jones will be just 22 and the Falcons will certainly be inclined given his age and his draft status to give him every opportunity to land the job by then if not much sooner.
If there’s a knock on Jones, it has less to do with him specifically and more to do with the school from which he hails. That’s because LSU has had a long history of productive weak-side linebackers that haven’t quite been successful in translating that ability to the next level.
Jones Hopes to Exceed Expectations of Past LSU Linebackers
One of the reasons why Quinn and the Falcons were likely attracted to Jones is largely due to his role at LSU, whose defenses during the Les Miles era have typically mirrored the character of Quinn’s own defenses in Seattle.
LSU has been consistently known for their defenses having talented defensive lines and secondaries, while featuring speed at the second level at linebacker. That is one manner in which one could describe how Quinn’s Seahawk defenses operated in 2013 and 2014 when they were making consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
That desire to employ fast linebackers that can cover space and make plays all over the field is likely a reason why there wasn’t much pressure for Jones to bulk up in college. He arrived at Baton Rouge as a skinny 200-pound recruit out of New Orleans. Keeping his weight low was likely designed to maximize his speed.
However while the fast, undersized linebacker has given LSU’s defenses much success over the years, it hasn’t always translated well when those players have tried to make the jump to the professional ranks. Jones was preceded at LSU by players like Ali Highsmith, Ryan Baker, Lamin Barrow and Kwon Alexander.
None were able to produce the type of NFL careers that the Falcons hope Jones engenders, although the jury is still out on Alexander.
Highsmith was an undrafted rookie that injured his knee after spending two years primarily playing special teams with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 and 2009. He was cut the following year, arrested and found himself out of football since.
Baker had a slow 40 time at the 2012 Scouting Combine and went undrafted. His pro career lasted one summer with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Barrow was a fifth-round selection of the Denver Broncos in 2014, but was cut last summer. He landed with the Chicago Bears and managed to produce on special teams in 16 games last season. Although it should be noted that the Bears traded up in the fourth round to take another inside linebacker with an eye towards special teams in selecting West Virginia’s Nick Kwiatkoski on Saturday. So Barrow’s future is far from settled moving forward.
Alexander had a very promising rookie campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year after being a fourth-round pick. He took over as the starting middle linebacker by the midpoint in training camp when Bucs free-agent signee Bruce Carter foundered in that role.
Alexander’s strong rookie year was marred by a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in the final month of the year.
Alexander certainly made plays, particularly against the Falcons where he combined for 21 tackles, one sack, one interception and two forced fumbles in last year’s pair of contests. But he also struggled mightily with missing tackles, another symptom of his slight weight (227 pounds).
However Alexander’s relative success as a rookie in 2015 should give the Falcons hope that a smaller, undersized linebacker from LSU can find a way to make plays and produce at the pro level.
Hooper Should Help Falcons in the Red Zone
Just like the team hopes that Jones can blaze a new path for LSU linebackers, they also hope that third-round pick Austin Hooper sets a new standard for Stanford tight ends.
If there’s a concern about Hooper, it isn’t anything physical but rather than possibility that he might have come out a year or two too early, which may add to his development time. As a redshirt sophomore, Hooper could have potentially gotten additional seasoning by working in the Stanford offense over the next two years.
Hooper’s exit from Palo Alto likely had to do with trying to capitalize on a relatively weak crop of tight ends in the 2016 draft, in an attempt to maximize his draft stock. Hooper did wind up being the second tight end chosen off the board, but being selected in the middle of the third round was probably less than ideal considering he might have potentially figured into the first-round mix by the time he reached the 2018 draft.
Yet despite Hooper’s youth (he turns 22 in November), he potentially brings a lot to the table for the Falcons offense.
At Stanford, Hooper was often flexed out in the slot rather than working traditionally as an inline tight end as many might picture when they think of the traditionally physical Stanford offensive attack.
Thus it wouldn’t be right to automatically assume that Hooper is going to enhance the running game due to his blocking ability.
Instead Hooper’s primary value in Atlanta will be as a pass-catcher where his large size and frame could make him a reliable security blanket for quarterback Matt Ryan. That is something that has been sorely missing from the passer’s arsenal since the retirement of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez in 2014.
The Falcons will hope that Hooper can provide immediate impact in the red zone, where the Falcons struggled for much of last season.
As I noted in a March column, Ryan has been very effective targeting tight ends in the red zone throughout his career.
Incumbent starting tight end Jacob Tamme struggled in the red zone last year, converting just one of eight targets into a touchdown. In previous years with Ryan at the helm, even when eliminating Gonzalez’s production from the sample, Falcons tight ends typically converted 38 percent of their red-zone targets into touchdowns. That means that Tamme basically underachieved by two touchdowns last year. The Falcons are hopeful that Hooper will change that reality.
Hooper will likely serve as a role player as a rookie rather than an instant starter. Backup tight end Levine Toilolo (a fellow Stanford alumnus) started 15 games last year versus Tamme’s eight, but played about 250 less offensive snaps than the latter did over the course of the year.
Toilolo “started” due to his blocking ability and ability to help out on first and second downs rather than because he was the team’s principal tight end. Thus Hooper’s fastest path into the lineup will be to show that some of that Stanford pedigree has rubbed off and become at least competent in that regard. If so, then he too should slide into the “starting” spot, although it’s likely that Tamme will still receive the majority of the playing time again in 2016.
While the Falcons envision Hooper securing that same role long-term, like Jones, he may be stuck waiting a year before he truly gets his opportunity. Tamme is entering the final year of his contract and will turn 32 at the outset of free agency next March. Hooper will get opportunities to perform this year as a role player with the likelihood that he’ll be inserted as a starter next year.
Campbell Adds Depth and Potential at Inside Linebacker
While the Falcons clearly have a plan for their first three selections from this year’s draft, things are a bit more nebulous for fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. The Minnesota product thus becomes the most interesting and compelling selection of the team’s six picks because where exactly he fits remains to be seen.
Campbell served primarily as a weak-side linebacker at Minnesota, yet presumably will have to transition to a new position given the presence of Jones. That should come at middle linebacker, where his size and length should be more of an asset as he tries to transition there.
Campbell contrasts well to Jones, at least in terms of the ability to bulk up. While at Hutchinson Community College during his freshman year, Campbell weighed just 210 pounds and was able to bulk up to 240 pounds by his junior season. By the time the Combine rolled around, Campbell had settled in at 232 pounds.
Campbell should be able to produce right away on special teams coverage units, meaning that his immediate role will likely be the same as that which Nate Stupar served last year. Stupar played all three linebacker positions and was the team’s top special-teams tackler last year. Campbell at least has the potential to provide depth at two positions for now and help out on special teams.
Whether Campbell can make the transition to the middle remains to be seen, making his potential a pure projection at this point. But like Weatherspoon and Wheeler, incumbent starting middle linebacker Paul Worrilow is also set to be a free agent after this season. That means if Campbell has a promising rookie year, he’ll be in a position to take over the duties next year.
That might seem a major leap to make given that it involves a position switch, but Campbell at least appears poised to put in the work upon arrival.
Schweitzer Bolsters Competition and Depth Along Interior Line Group
The team’s four top selections represent the players with the best chances to turn whatever opportunities come their way into starting roles, but that doesn’t mean that the Falcons’ two late-round selections should be forgotten.
San Jose State guard Wes Schweitzer was taken in the sixth round and I have to admit he was very much unknown to me at the time of the selection. That was much the same way when the Falcons used the first of two seventh-round picks last year on Eastern Washington offensive tackle Jake Rodgers, and it’s through that lens of comparison that I’ll gaze at Schweitzer.
While Rodgers was a better athlete than Schweitzer (at least on paper), the former’s skill set was much more raw coming out of college. With Schweitzer, there should be less development necessary to get him NFL ready even though he’ll likely be transitioning to guard after spending three years starting at left tackle for the Spartans.
Another late-round blocker from the past that is a comparable move is when the Falcons used a seventh-round pick on Fresno State guard Andrew Jackson back in 2011. Jackson was joining first-year offensive line coach Pat Hill in Atlanta after Hill had coached him in college. Schweitzer will be rejoining his former position coach from 2014 at San Jose State in Falcons assistant offensive line coach Keith Carter.
Schweitzer should be a solid depth piece for the Falcons moving forward, but probably isn’t a threat to start in the near future even though the Falcons might be looking for two new starters at both guard spots beginning in 2017.
Left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chris Chester aren’t guaranteed to be Falcons beyond this season. Levitre will be hard-pressed to stick on the roster next season without a pay cut given his $6.625 million cap hit and Chester will be a free agent.
If Schweitzer proves to be as fast a study on the football field as he is in the classroom, then he’ll have an opportunity to compete for one of those potentially vacant spots.
But in all likelihood he’ll provide depth by competing with veterans James Stone and Ben Garland for what may be one or two reserve spots along the interior offensive line behind Levitre, Chester and Mike Person.
Fuller Gives Falcons Another Option Beyond Hester on Special Teams
Like Schweitzer, any assessment I give of seventh-round UCLA wide receiver Devin Fuller will be based off only a very cursory look at his college game.
Certainly the speed and experience as a return specialist jump out immediately when looking at how Fuller fits in Atlanta. He provides the team a good insurance policy in case they decide to move on from veteran Devin Hester between now and the start of the regular season.
The Falcons won’t cut Hester until he’s cleared to practice recovering from offseason toe surgery. The it’s likely that the 33-year old Hester is still a ways away from returning, but is not in any imminent danger of losing his job on special teams.
Fuller likely gives the Falcons another receiver in the same vein as recent free-agent signee Aldrick Robinson, as a player with the speed to stretch the field and provide occasional big plays. Fuller’s average size and smaller hands suggest that like Robinson, he’ll likely be in the mix as a fourth option rather than a burgeoning third receiver that can leap-frog Justin Hardy in the coming years.
But Fuller has the tools worth developing since his speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash), big-play potential with the ball in his hands and physicality are not common in receivers his size.
Adding Fuller is especially nice since it means the Falcons have drafted receivers in consecutive year after largely ignoring the position for the previous seven.
Overall the Falcons draft class features plenty of youth and speed that can be developed down the road to become assets for the Falcons.
Beyond Neal, this isn’t a draft class rife with players that will likely instantly impact, but all six players have the capacity to contribute as role players from the start and grow from there.
That’s what you’d expect from most draft classes, and the Falcons’ 2016 group is no more or less.