The Atlanta Falcons have spent much of the past two weeks going from campus to campus across the country looking at several of the better prospects in the 2015 NFL Draft.
This sort of travel is business as usual as the Falcons often spend the two weeks prior to the actual draft doing their final checks on many of the top-level prospects.
This isn’t necessarily because the Falcons are finalizing their draft board, as that process should have occurred weeks, if not months prior. As former scout and current NFL draft analyst Bucky Brooks noted on a recent episode of the Ross Tucker Football podcast.
Tucker asked Brooks about the recent shift in some rankings on Mike Mayock’s top five positional board and Brooks responded:
“In the NFL world it doesn’t happen like that. There are seminal moments where grades or rankings can be tweaked but it’s not by happenstance. It’s just not a random occurrence. The way it goes in the fall, you do all the tape work, you do all the school visits and you send your grades in. That sets the initial board. Then you have the all-star games and Combine, which can cause some reshuffling a little bit from similarly graded players. And once you go to the pro day circuit, you’re looking to confirm things but it really doesn’t affect the grades. If you ask most executives or GMs that come onto your show when their draft boards are set, most would tell you that it’s set prior to the Combine. And it takes something seismic to really shift the board. Either character issues, medical issues, something like that. You’ll have arguments and discussions about how you want the final order to be but you don’t see the tidal wave movements as you get close to the draft.”
The Falcons have conducted private workouts of several potential first-round picks since the beginning of April including: Clemson edge-rusher Vic Beasley, Kentucky edge-rusher Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Florida edge-rusher Dante Fowler, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Owa Odighizuwa, Missouri edge-rusher Shane Ray, Utah defensive back Eric Rowe, Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters and USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams.
Falcons Are Conducting Final Checks on Draft Board
Most of those players could be potential candidates with the Falcons top selection: the eighth overall pick. It’s probable that Beasley, Dupree, Fowler, Ray, Peters and Williams make up a good deal of the top 10 players on the Falcons overall draft board.
The rest probably aren’t in the mix for the team’s top selection, but could be if the team opts to trade down into the middle or latter portion of the first round. However, more likely thry are players the Falcons might be hoping fall to their 42nd overall selection in round two.
The Falcons have visits this upcoming week with Miami of Ohio defensive back Quinten Rollins, Kentucky edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith and Indiana running back Tevin Coleman. Both Rollins and Coleman are likely to be second-day draft picks, while Smith may have to wait until the third day of the draft when rounds four through seven are selected to discover which team selects him.
In all likelihood the Falcons probably aren’t shifting their draft board to any significant degree. They are just doing their final checks on players, likely looking to confirm where each has been placed on their draft board for the past two or so months.
In the cases of players like Ray and Rollins, the Falcons are likely wanting to get another look at them medically since both were limited throughout the early portion of this offseason due to injuries.
Falcons Top Selection in 2015 Remains Mystery
I’ve been asked dozens of times over the past few months which player the Falcons will ultimately select. The reality is that I don’t really have a clue.
It almost goes without saying that the Falcons will choose a pass-rusher with their first selection. Andrew Parsons of Football Savages noted in a recent episode of the FalcFans podcast that it was a 95 percent chance that the team would use their top pick on that position. However, I’d probably go even further and say that it’s a 99 percent chance.
It’s a dire need that the Falcons have largely ignored over the past seven drafts. Given that reality, there would be an outright mutiny among the fan base if the Falcons used their first selection on anything other than an edge-rusher. A player like Leonard Williams might be the lone exception, given that he’s widely considered the best player in this draft class and the Falcons certainly have some looming issues at defensive tackle.
It’s unlikely that the Falcons’ final draft board will place Williams atop it, given that need is incorporated into the board. Instead, the No. 1 player on the Falcons board is likely to be whoever they deem to be the top pass-rusher in this year’s class. But Williams is likely to be highly placed regardless, and should the top edge-rushers be gone, then the Falcons might opt to pull the trigger on Williams instead of looking to trade back.
Recent Years Throw Curveballs Early in Draft
At this point, even the Falcons probably don’t know who they are going to select, because it really depends on how the first seven selections go.
And there almost always is a curveball that occurs in those initial selections. Last year, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection of quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall selection. Most projections expected edge-rusher Khalil Mack to be Jacksonville’s pick.
That was the first domino that fell. Afterwards, the Buffalo Bills moved up to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall selection, leaving Mack as the Oakland Raiders’ pick at five. That left Jake Matthews for the Falcons with the sixth overall pick.
Not only did the Bortles pick make that possible, but also when the St. Louis Rams opted for the upside of Greg Robinson with the second overall pick over the more polished and proven Matthews. While most expected the Rams to select Robinson, there was still reason to believe that Matthews could’ve been their selection, given the connection of his father, Bruce, to Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher.
Even after the Falcons selected Matthews with the sixth pick, many were surprised to see the Cleveland Browns take cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall selection, the pick they acquired from the Bills, given how many were expecting them to take a quarterback like Johnny Manziel. The Browns did eventually select Manziel, but it came 14 picks later after another trade.
While the Falcons were picking at the end of the first round in 2013, there were certainly still some surprises that impacted how the first eight players went off the board that year.
Once again the first big surprise came with the third overall pick, when the Miami Dolphins swapped picks with the Raiders in moving up from the 12th overall selection. Most assumed the Dolphins were moving up to get a left tackle in Lane Johnson after tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel went off the board with the first two picks. But instead, the Dolphins ignored their pressing need at that position and instead selected edge-rusher Dion Jordan. Johnson was selected next by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Many mocks at the time had been projecting the Raiders to take defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd with the third overall selection. But Floyd would eventually fall to the 23rd overall selection.
Many suspected Jordan to be the Browns’ primary target with the sixth overall pick but with him off the board, they wound up selecting another edge-rusher in Barkevious Mingo.
Then another surprise occurred at the eighth overall selection when the St. Louis Rams traded with the Bills for wide receiver Tavon Austin.
That’s typically how the draft goes at the top. One teams makes an unexpected pick, which causes subsequent dominos to fall. This year’s draft won’t be any different.
Where Mariota Goes Could Impact Falcons Selection
The biggest domino that could impact how the top the draft goes is likely going to be Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota is expected to be one of the first eight selections in the draft, but exactly where and by whom he is selected could have a significant impact on subsequent picks, especially pass-rushers.
The Tennessee Titans (No. 2 overall) and New York Jets (No. 6) are the two teams most likely to select Mariota if one assumes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are locked into quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall selection.
But there have been persistent rumors that a team like the Rams (No. 10), Browns (No. 12), San Diego Chargers (No. 17) and Eagles (No. 20) might be in the market to move up for Mariota.
Of those four, the Browns probably are the likeliest candidate. They currently hold the 12th and 19th overall selections in the first round, which based off the traditional trade value chart, could potentially get them as high as the fourth overall pick in a trade. If they throw in additional picks, that could potentially entice a team picking as high as the Titans to move back.
If the Browns move up, it’s very likely to occur within the first five selections. Their most likely trade partner may be the team that is most willing to give them a discount, possibly limiting the trade to just the pair of first round picks. I’m certain that the Browns would love to be able to move up to get Mariota without having to forfeit their No. 1 pick in 2016 if that is possible.
If the Browns move up as far as the No. 2 pick to get Mariota, that’d be the first domino. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the Titans keep their pick and select Williams, as the majority of mock drafts are projecting.
Then the first domino may be the Jaguars pick at No. 3. Most expect the Jaguars to take a pass-rusher, but who remains to be seen. Most have the Jaguars taking Fowler with that selection. But they could throw the first wrinkle into the draft by taking any one of the other top pass-rushers.
In fact, it’s very likely that the pass-rusher that the Jaguars select will also be the player that is the No. 1 prospect on the Falcons’ board. Like Atlanta, Jacksonville is coached by a former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator in Gus Bradley and run a practically identical defensive scheme. Their GM in David Caldwell spent five years in the Falcons’ front office from 2008 to 2012, thus their evaluation process likely follows a similar template. All said it means that the Falcons and Jaguars are two teams that are likely going to prioritize the exact same things in a pass-rushing prospect.
The Raiders pick next and are another team that could take a pass-rusher. Most mocks expect the Raiders to take the top wide receiver on the draft board, but their recent signing of Michael Crabtree could mean the Raiders are willing to wait until the second round to take a receiver in a deep class.
Given that Ken Norton Jr., another former Seahawks assistant, is taking over as their defensive coordinator, it becomes likely that whichever pass-rusher the Raiders prefer at the top of the draft will also be very high on the Falcons’ board given the similarities in scheme.
Should the Raiders take a pass-rusher, the Falcons are going to be hoping that a team like the Browns now makes a trade with Washington for the fifth overall selection. The Redskins are another team that could use an edge-rusher given the loss of Brian Orakpo in free agency. Their general manager, Scot McCloughan, also spent time in Seattle. Meaning that he’ll likely be using the same system for player selection that Quinn might be pushing the Falcons to use.
Should the Redskins stay put at five, this is potentially a situation where the top three edge-rushers on the Falcons’ draft board could be selected consecutively with the third, fourth and fifth picks given the potential similarities between them and the teams selecting there.
Even if the Browns trade up for Mariota with the Redskins, the Falcons could still face a problem if the Jets take a pass-rusher with the sixth overall pick. With Mariota off the board, the Jets may not have any other choice.
The hope for the Falcons is that new head coach Todd Bowles looks to go in a different direction. Last year as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, he tended to rely on outstanding play of his secondary to try and create pressure with exotic and frequent blitzes. The Jets invested heavily in their secondary this offseason, suggesting a similar approach. But one wonders if Bowles’ designs were out of necessity given the fact that the Cardinals lacked a premium edge-rusher due to the season-ending injury to John Abraham. Perhaps if Bowles has the opportunity to acquire such a pass-rusher in New York, he might jump at the opportunity.
Of the teams picking immediately ahead of the Falcons, the Chicago Bears at pick No. 7 are probably the least likely to take an edge-rusher. They spent a good amount on Pernell McPhee this offseason, a year after spending quite a bit on Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. It would seem unlikely, given other their other needs that the Bears would add another edge-rusher with their top pick.
But all that said, it does appear to be plausible that four edge-rushers could be selected in the first seven picks should the draft go a certain way. I would argue that it’s probably more likely that only three players are selected, but there’s also the possibility that the Jaguars are the only team that decides to take an edge-rusher within the first seven selections given other needs for the other teams.
That’s just the typical unpredictability of the draft. We know that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is not afraid to move up or down in the draft, and it’s certainly possible that the Falcons do so again this year.
A trade up seems most likely only if there is an early run on edge-rushers and the Falcons want to be assured they get their player. A trade down might be a bit more likely if the Falcons miss out on said run.
And it will only get harder to try and decipher how the board ultimately stacks given the sheer amount of smokescreens and misinformation that is “leaked” annually at this point in the process.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the draft is how unpredictable it is. The most accurate mock drafts will correctly match no more than 25 percent of players to the right team in the first round. That’s a 75 percent miss rate. Weather forecasts are generally more accurate than that.
Most of the “hits” come early in the draft, but things become a lot harder to predict once the first few dominos begin to fall. The permutations are nearlu endless to how the draft could go. At the top of the draft, there is a bit more certainty than there is as we get into the latter part of the first round.
I’ve outlined just one above, and it’s certainly by no means what I’d claim to be the likeliest scenario. Because there simply isn’t one when it comes to the draft. And that’s what will make Thursday night 10 days from now so exciting.