The 2015 NFL Draft may potentially go down as the best draft in Atlanta Falcons franchise history.
Although to be fair, the bar might have been set fairly low given that Falcons may be better known historically for producing some of the worst picks of all-time.
Yet, there’s still the possibility that the 2015 draft may go a long way to help resurrect this team from being one of the NFL’s worst in recent years to one of its best. The reason for that can be attributed largely to the introduction of new head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn has brought a new identity and vision to an organization that desperately needs it. At least stemming from this year’s draft class, that vision borrows heavily from his roots with the Seattle Seahawks.
Under previous head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons had a vision and identity during the years (2008 to 2010) when the identity of the offense was built on the thighs and shoulders of running back Michael Turner. Also over the first three years of Smith’s tenure, the Falcons spent the majority of their early-round picks and free-agent dollars to add defensive players. However, that all changed when the team invested the bulk of their early-round picks from the 2011 and 2012 drafts in moving up to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones.
Simply put, the Falcons got off track in 2011 thanks to that trade, which was primarily driven by general manager Thomas Dimitroff. While that trade decisively put the team in a position to win a Super Bowl in 2012, it also had a hand in the decline of the team in subsequent years.
As I’ve noted before, that trade prevented the team from acquiring the necessary amount of talent to stay competitive at the highest levels of the NFL. Meanwhile, the Seahawks stockpiled talent in those years and it’s the major reason why they currently sit atop the league as the only team in the past decade to go to back-to-back Super Bowls.
And it’s no coincidence that the Falcons sought out one of the bigger components of Seattle’s success by hiring Quinn, who spent the past two years serving as their defensive coordinator. It’s not to dissimilar from when the team sought to bring Dimitroff from New England in 2008, after the Patriots had dominated the league for the better part of the previous decade. Team owner Arthur Blank doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that bringing success to Atlanta involves bringing successful people here.
The early returns of the 2015 draft suggests that Quinn has gotten the team back on a similar track to what Smith and Dimitroff had begun in 2008 before things faltered around 2011.
‘Clemson Connection’ Establishes Falcons Newfound Pass Rush
Quinn added the much-needed pass-rusher that the previous regime failed to add in the form of Clemson’s Vic Beasley. Much like John Abraham, Beasley possesses the potential to be a “lead dog” in regards to the Falcons pass rush. Beasley won’t be able to carry the team’s pass rush alone, no more so than Abraham could. But he’s the necessary first step to establish an identity that will attack opposing quarterbacks, just as the Seahawks defense has done in recent years. Given Quinn’s past success as a defensive line coach, there’s every reason to believe that Beasley will be able to develop into a difference-maker here in Atlanta.
Yet again, even if Beasley himself develops into a double-digit sack artist, he alone isn’t going to solve the Falcons’ pass-rush problems. The team will need to continue to add subsequent pieces around him, as the Seahawks show that a top pass rush isn’t built around one good player, but several.
The Falcons took those first strides to add one of those complements to Beasley when they traded up for his Clemson teammate: defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Upon hearing that part of Jarrett’s family home burned, losing most of his football memorabilia, Blank ordered the team to immediately get him Falcons gear to make up for the loss.
One also wonders if Blank’s desire to help Jarrett and his family, also compelled the team to move up to get him. But even so, the Falcons still got a good player and one of the biggest steals of the draft when they gave up their sixth-round pick to move up nine spots to choose Jarrett at the top of the fifth round. Jarrett had by ranked by many among the top 60 or so prospects in the draft, and being able to nab him with the 137th overall selection is without a doubt, a steal.
I’ve heard many comparisons of Jarrett and top NFL defensives tackles like Aaron Donald, Jurrell Casey and Geno Atkins. I don’t quite think Jarrett is at their levels, but he’s not very far off. Regardless, he’s certainly in a position to be the anchor to the team’s interior pass rush moving forward as Jonathan Babineaux has done in the past. The names of both Jarrett and Babineaux’s games equals disruption, and Rotoworld’s Josh Norris would say that “disruption is production.”
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons utilize Jarrett moving forward, as he could be used as a three-technique pass-rusher in the form of Babineaux, or potentially as a one-technique nose tackle as Quinn had in Seattle in the form of Brandon Mebane. Jarrett potentially combines the best of both with athleticism comparable to Babineaux when he entered the league at 286 pounds in 2005, within Mebane’s squat, powerful build.
If Quinn can also get 2014 second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman to live up to his lofty potential, the Falcons potentially have an emerging nucleus of a strong defensive front moving forward.
Quinn Targets ‘Seahawky’ Corners to Atlanta
Even more obvious fingerprints of Quinn on the Falcons’ draft can be found in their second-round selection, LSU cornerback Jalen Collins. Collins certainly looks the part of one of cornerbacks that Quinn coordinated in Seattle, with a long 6’1” frame and 32-inch arms that will make him very effective at reaching out and jamming NFL receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Adding a corner like Collins is just in time for the Falcons, who showed an out-of-touch affinity for smaller corners last offseason with additions Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas and Ricardo Allen. Wilson and Arenas are already gone, and Allen may soon follow suit thanks to the arrival of Collins, Phillip Adams and seventh-round pick Akeem King.
King is the definition of a project, having started his collegiate career at San Jose State as a wide receiver before making the switch to defense his second year on campus. He spent most of the next three seasons playing special teams before finally seeing significant time on defense this past year. If looking solely at the stat sheets, King didn’t make the most of it, with only a pair of pass breakups and no interceptions.
Yet this is another place where Quinn’s vision stands out. From a physical and athletic-testing standpoint, there’s really no significant difference between King and Collins.
Athletic Comparison (Jalen Collins vs. Akeem King)All figures are courtesy of 3SigmaAthlete.com
It will take time for King to develop at the next level, he’ll have the opportunity to do so given the lack of depth the Falcons have at the cornerback position. However, Collins will be asked to step up immediately by becoming the nickel cornerback. That’s a challenge for another defensive back that doesn’t have a ton of starting experience.
Collins started just 10 games at LSU, but was a regular part of their sub-packages over his last three seasons at the school. Collins answered the challenge going against Alabama’s Amari Cooper, the nation’s top receiver who was taken fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders. Collins was beat a couple of times in that game, but the LSU coaches had enough confidence in his abilities to leave him on an island several times against the prolific Alabama receiver. It’s likely that the Falcons coaches hope that Collins’ play in 2015 will instill that same confidence in them in the future when he’s facing the top receivers in the NFL and not just the SEC.
The Falcons will have flexibility between Collins and incumbents Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant over who primarily plays in the slot when the team uses nickel alignments. Collins will be the nickel cornerback that likely comes onto the field in sub-packages, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll be playing in the slot. The early bet is that Alford will probably slide inside, but Trufant has performed well there in the past and ultimately competition will bear things out. In the end, Quinn will deploy his top three corners in the way that best maximizes their skill level.
Should Collins live up to his potential as one of the premier corners of the 2015 draft class, it could give the team one of the best trios of corners in the league. Coupled with a strong pass rush headlined by Beasley and others, you can start to see how the potentially massive Falcons defensive turnaround may come to fruition in a few years.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that Quinn and the Falcons ignored the offense in the 2015 draft. Quinn has made it known that he wants the Falcons offense to be balanced and explosive, and he may have found the embodiment of that desire with the team’s third-round selection: Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
Coleman Brings Balance and Explosion to Falcons Offense
By upgrading the running back position, the Falcons will attempt to be more balanced than they have been the past two years. Despite declarations to the contrary, the Falcons’ selection of Coleman indicates that the team did not see Devonta Freeman as the sort of running back capable of carrying the load. In fact, the Falcons thought so highly of Coleman that they nearly drafted him with their second-round pick.
Dimitroff: Coleman was on our radar in the second round and we felt fortunate he was there in the third. #RiseUp
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) May 2, 2015
There’s also no denying that Coleman will help the team become more explosive, as over half of his 2,036 rushing yards in 2014 came on long runs. The Falcons may have hinted at their preference after showing interest in free-agent running back Justin Forsett this past offseason, and no back in the NFL last year was more successful in breaking long runs than him.
This is potentially one area where Quinn is breaking from the Seahawks model, who have featured a more grinding style under running back Marshawn Lynch the past several years. However, an offensive philosophy that features explosive plays makes perfect sense, especially in light of the team’s recent defensive struggles. Should the team find itself trailing late in games, an offense that can generate big plays might find greater success in those situations than the previous regime’s teams.
Under Smith/Ryan #Falcons are 5-31 when entering 4th qtr down 4 or more pts. No Julio + slow start = wrap
— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) December 14, 2014
While the team’s fourth-round pick, wide receiver Justin Hardy, doesn’t necessarily help provide a more balanced or explosive offense, he remains an upgrade nonetheless. Hardy is a hard-worker that plays a lot bigger than his size merits due to his strong hands and ability to go get the football. This addition may prove one of the better examples of the change that Quinn and Co. are bringing to Atlanta.
Hardy’s Ball Skills Will Make Matt Ryan Better
Over the past three years of reviewing the All-22 film of Falcon games, I’ve noticed how important trust is between Matt Ryan and his receivers. This became stark towards the end of the 2013 season when Ryan’s rapport with Harry Douglas showed no improvement upon the healthy return of Roddy White to the lineup.
One of the biggest criticisms of Douglas is his inability to win in traffic by attacking the football. Thusly, he presented a much smaller target and window for Ryan to throw to, which often led to an increased rate of turnovers.
Over the past three seasons, Ryan attempted a total of 1,517 passes to non-running backs. A total of 43 of those passes were intercepted, giving him an interception rate of 2.8 percent.
In that span, 263 of those passes were attempted to Douglas, with 14 of them being picked off. That works out to be an interception rate of 5.3 percent. Removing Douglas from the equation, Ryan’s interception rate to all other non-running back receivers was 2.3 percent.
Basically that means that any pass attempted to Douglas over the past three years was twice as likely to get picked off than it was thrown to any other receiver. One would think that given how much the Smith regime preached about ball security, that figure might have been noticed.
Hardy can potentially be considered an “anti-Douglas” in that while he may not have the explosive speed that Douglas possessed, he does potentially give the Falcons a more reliable set of hands over the middle. And truth be told, Douglas at this point in this career wasn’t quite as explosive as he once was, so not much will be lost there.
While the addition of Hardy probably nixes my dreams that the Falcons will move White to the slot permanently, it still remains an upgrade at that position. It also indicates that perhaps Quinn’s staff is better at identifying strengths and weaknesses within their own roster than the previous one.
It’s easy to look at Ryan’s immense production and success and not look for improvement there, yet the addition of Hardy at least signals that very possibility. Having Hardy’s trustworthy hands over the middle could have realistically mean Ryan throws three or so less interceptions per year, which could mean the difference between one or two wins. That sort of impact is well worth the investment of a fourth-round pick.
As for seventh-round offensive tackle Jake Rodgers, there’s no groundbreaking revelation about Quinn’s vision to read into his selection. The team needed depth at the position and he was available to fulfill that need.
Despite my frequent criticism of Dimitroff, the Falcons cupboard of talent wasn’t completely barren upon Quinn’s arrival this past February. Players like Ryan, Jones, Trufant, Hageman and Jake Matthews are players already in their primes or approaching them that could be the foundation of a new successful era within Falcons history.
Perhaps by the time the team’s new stadium opens in 2017, we’ll look back at this 2015 class in conjunction with other pieces added in 2013 and 2014 as laying the building blocks for what might become one of the better team’s in the league once again.
One draft isn’t going to suddenly erase many years of subpar drafting but it certainly can help get the ball rolling. If players like Beasley and Collins develop into top-level starters, while Coleman, Hardy and Jarrett go beyond being role players but critical components to newfound success, then it’s safe to say that the Falcons’ 2015 draft class could have them on the verge of “rising up.”