What if Falcons Focused on Offense in 2014 Draft?
I should have prefaced that question by stating this is more of a thought exercise than any sort of formal proposal.
But one reason why the Falcons might decide to focus on offense because relative to the defense, it seems a lot closer to being elite.
The Falcons defense needs help at all three levels. While the pass rush is the most glaring issue on that side of the ball, the team also needs to shore up depth at several positions including linebacker and safety. And it’s not as if one pass-rusher is going fix the area, as any top-level pass rush has multiple playmakers that can consistently get pressure on the quarterback.
On offense the Falcons already made a big improvement to their offensive line by signing guard Jon Asamoah in free agency. They also added speedster Devin Hester to help at wide receiver and on special teams. But they could use more help.
The Falcons are in the market for a young running back to groom as Steven Jackson’s eventual replacement. They also need another player to push second-year tight end Levine Toilolo at that position. The team can also upgrade their offensive tackle position over current incumbents Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, and Mike Johnson, none of whom have proven to be reliable options as of yet.
Atlanta could decide to look at an offensive tackle with their first-round pick, waiting to see if Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews drops to sixth overall. That would also allow the team to keep additional premium draft picks rather than part ways with them via trade.
Either tackle prospect would represent a major upgrade at the position. Robinson has the potential to be one of the top run-blockers in the NFL, personally reminding me of Jason Peters. Like Peters did once upon a time, Robinson enters the NFL a little rawer than most tackles taken that high in the draft, but his upside is tremendous if he develops.
Matthews is the much more proven and polished player. He’s the son of a Hall of Famer, and would be the sort of prototypical left tackle that the Falcons haven’t had on their roster since Bob Whitfield left the team over a decade ago.
Both players could slide in immediately and solidify the right tackle position where Holmes and Johnson are expected to compete. And if either show enough as rookies, they can be expected to kick over the left side in 2015 or later. This is the same path Whitfield took when he came into the league, playing opposite all-time Falcon great Mike Kenn, before sliding over to the left side in his fourth season. More than likely, Matthews and Robinson would be expected to make that transition sooner, since Baker’s contract could become prohibitive by 2016 at the latest.
Either would represent a second major addition to the offensive line and show a firmer commitment to protecting their $104 million investment in quarterback Matt Ryan. It could have subsequent waves to the unit. It would allow Holmes at least another year to develop before he is thrust back into the starting lineup, something he struggled with this year after Johnson went down with an injury in training camp. Johnson could also slide back to guard, where he was originally slated to play when the Falcons drafted him in 2010. He could be groomed to replace Justin Blalock, who also has a large contract that could become costly a year or two down the line. With Asamoah at right guard and center Joe Hawley, the shockwaves of just one addition could potentially solidify all five spots on the line.
In the second round, rather than the team devoting a pick to a pass-rusher or safety as many would project, they could go back to the well on offense. That pick could be the running back or tight end, essentially taking the best player available at either position with the 37th overall selection.
Since no running backs are projected to be first-round picks, the Falcons could essentially select the top runner on their draft board at that point. Ideally, it would be a player that they envision to be the heir apparent to Jackson with a year to learn the ropes before taking the top spot in 2015. Jackson saw similar treatment in St. Louis, playing behind eventual Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for a year before taking over the starting position.
The running back of the Falcons choice could be essentially the player that the team believes most resembles Jackson as a player. Ideally, it will be a back with the power and durability to be a 20-carry back, something missing since the heyday of Michael Turner. But unlike Turner, he should also be able to contribute in the passing game much like Jackson currently does, since the Falcons offense will still largely revolve around their highly paid quarterback.
Carlos Hyde, from Ohio State, is a player that is among the higher-rated backs in this class and has a good combination of size and quickness to make you believe he could be that sort of workhorse.
Tre Mason doesn’t have ideal size but he got a large dose of carries down the stretch for Auburn, so a high workload isn’t foreign to him. He’s a more explosive runner than Hyde and could help bring a big play element to the Falcons offense missing since Turner deserved the nickname “Burner.”Or the Falcons could potentially take one of the top tight end prospects at that point in the draft. Consensus top prospect Eric Ebron will be long gone by the time the second round rolls around, but the next two guys in Jace Amaro or Austin Seferian-Jenkins could still be available.
Amaro was essentially used as a slot receiver at Texas Tech, where he was highly productive. It would be a significant transition for him to line up as a traditional tight end with his hand in the dirt, which is primarily how the Falcons have used their tight ends under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
That potentially makes Seferian-Jenkins a better fit since he’s got the experience of playing as an inline blocker, but also has excellent size and hands to create matchup problems for defenses. Plus the Falcons red-zone woes would potentially be eradicated as they could feature the 6’6″ Seferian-Jenkins opposite the 6’8″ Toilolo.
Whichever position the team does not address in the second round could be taken in the third round. There, the team could look at a running back like Terrance West out of Towson or a tight end like Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas. The Falcons could also decide to stop neglecting their defense by selecting the best remaining edge-rusher with Stanford’s Trent Murphy and Louisville’s Marcus Smith being prime candidates. Then they could go back to addressing the offense with one of their fourth-round picks.
That pick could be used to shore up depth at wide receiver, which was sorely lacking a year ago when Julio Jones and Roddy White both missed significant time. Given the depth of the 2014 receiver class, the team could essentially be getting a third or fourth-round talent even if they waited until the fifth round.
Such a selection might marginalize current Falcons backups like Darius Johnson and Drew Davis, but it could give the team a better long-term option at the position. White, Hester and Harry Douglas will each be 30 years old or older by the end of September. Thus the team needs to start grooming a long-term option that can be put opposite Jones. Johnson and Davis potentially provide quality depth, but neither have shown any inclination that they are capable of being future starters.
The Falcons could slot their draft addition to essentially “redshirt” his first year as the fifth or sixth wideout on the depth chart. There would be no better veterans to observe during that initial season than Jones and White. Then in 2015, he could potentially push Douglas or Hester out the door and move into the No. 3 mix if he’s ready.
Thereafter the Falcons can devote the rest of their draft to shoring up the defense, with the plan that in 2015 they go in the opposite direction with a defense-heavy draft class.
Using four of their first five or six picks on a tackle, running back, tight end and wide receiver would really go a long way to providing Ryan with a strong supporting cast. The tackle would be a starter from day one, but the latter three would initially be expected to add depth. But in 2015 and beyond, all could carve out significant roles and possibly be fixtures of the Falcons offense for several years to come.
The reality may be that the Falcons defense requires multiple draft classes to really get to a level where it can be considered a strength. They certainly aren’t going to be competing on a level with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks or Carolina Panthers on that side of the ball after only one draft.
The Falcons over the past few seasons have been heavily reliant on their offense to get the job done and these moves potentially give it the pieces to remain doing so. In the future, the team can still rely on the offense to carry the bulk of the load as it works to improve a lackluster defense.
By improving the offensive line and drafting a running back, you also strengthen the ground game. The Falcons success back in 2010 was largely contingent on their ability to run the ball, control the clock and mask the fact that the defense struggled to get stops. These moves could return the Falcons offense back to the balanced state of affairs that has been sorely missing since then. Imagining a Falcons offense that possesses the potent weapons in the passing game like Jones, but also is able to run the ball effectively has yet to be truly seen in six seasons under head coach Mike Smith.
By solidifying the offense, you also take pressure off the defense by being in a position to play the lead. That allows defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to be a bit more aggressive with his calls on that side of the ball. The Falcons can get back to the opportunistic, turnover-heavy ways that they’ve been in recent years the few times when their defense has managed to be effective.
The Falcons tend to draft based off needs, and this sort of offensive-minded strategy certainly ignores a number of them on defense. Therefore this scenario where the Falcons devote the bulk of their early picks to offensive players seems like a far-fetched possibility when May’s draft arrives.
But this is a Falcon team that at least for the foreseeable future may only go as far as their offense is able to carry them, and thus it wouldn’t be the craziest idea to think this strategy is worthwhile.