The Atlanta Falcons were able to snag the highly coveted pass-rusher in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft when they took hometown kid, Vic Beasley out of Clemson. The Falcons are expected to plug Beasley into the “LEO” defensive end position, where he will line up on the weak side and play the exact same role that Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril played under new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn with the Seattle Seahawks.
In three seasons in that role from 2010 through 2012, Clemons tallied 33.5 sacks. Over the past two seasons in that same role, Avril has produced a combined 13 sacks. The Falcons hope that they can get comparable production from Beasley moving forward.
Now that the Falcons’ massive need for a “lead dog” in terms of their pass rush is filled, the team is likely to turn its attention to other areas of need on the second day of the draft when rounds two and three are selected. Starting caliber players can still be had, and the Falcons would be smart to try and find someone.
Here are the potential positions and candidates the Falcons could target in the second and third rounds:
The Falcons might opt to “double dip” for pass-rushers. While a player like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory is supremely talented and remains on the board, he doesn’t have a great fit in Atlanta with Beasley already manning the LEO spot regardless of the off-field concerns. The Falcons might instead prefer someone like Mississippi State’s Preston Smith or UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa, both of whom could play the strong-side end spot and potentially kick inside to tackle in sub-packages.
It’s not a strong draft class at this point. Alabama’s Landon Collins is widely considered the top safety in the class, but is a natural strong safety and the Falcons already have William Moore and Kemal Ishmael at that spot. Fresno State’s Derron Smith was highly productive as a sophomore and junior (13 combined interceptions) but saw his production dip as a senior (one interception). He lacks ideal size (5’10” 200 pounds) and speed (4.61-second 40 time at his pro day), but has the ball skills and instincts to fit as a single-high centerfielder in Quinn’s defense.
Utah’s Eric Rowe and Miami of Ohio’s Quentin Rollins are two potential cornerback converts. However, Rowe possesses ideal measurables for a cornerback in Quinn’s press-heavy scheme. Rollins less so, and despite limited experience showed good instincts and potential in run support in his lone season of college football. There’s reason to buy into his upside if he moves to safety.
Virginia’s Anthony Harris might be another candidate, but concerns about his shoulder might push him until later in the draft. He led the nation with eight interceptions in 2013.
Oregon’s Jake Fisher is one of the premier athletes along the offensive line in this class. He played mostly left and right tackle in college, but like his former teammate in Kyle Long could potentially make a smooth transition inside at the next level. Oregon runs a zone-blocking scheme which should make his learning curve low.
Ali Marpet (Hobart) is even more athletic than Fisher, and showed well at the Senior Bowl after making the leap from Division III. We already know that Dan Quinn tends to covet the guys that shine in all-star games versus “workout warriors” at the Combine. The only real knock on Marpet has less to do with him, but the general trend of small school blockers getting off to slow starts in the NFL due to the jump in competition. Recent examples include Amini Silatolu, Will Rackley, Terron Armstead, Jared Veldheer and Vlad Ducasse. But in Marpet’s favor are players like Jahri Evans and Michael Roos, and so it’ll be an indicator of whether the Falcons believe Marpet is the exception rather than the rule.
Colorado State’s Ty Sambrailo lacks the athleticism that Fisher and Marpet possess, but has versatility, starting at four of the five line positions over his college career. He spent most of his time as a left tackle, but should make a smooth transition to a zone-blocking guard in some eyes.
Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings is also a potential candidate, but there are concerns about a foot injury that might limit him early on.
A player that has likely always been on the Falcons’ radar is UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, having been coached by current Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich for the past three years. While the Falcons don’t have a pressing need at linebacker given the free-agent additions of Justin Durant and Brooks Reed, a player like Kendricks represents a clear upgrade over incumbent Paul Worrilow, who may be better suited for a reserve role.
The Falcons also showed moderate interest in Denzel Perryman (Miami FL) and Paul Dawson (TCU), although there are concerns whether either can be every-down players at middle linebacker due to limited speed and range.
The Falcons showed interest in Jay Ajayi (Boise State), Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Tevin Coleman (Indiana), David Johnson (Northern Iowa) and Duke Johnson (Miami FL).
Ajayi brings much-needed size and physicality to the position but there are major concerns about the long-term durability of a surgically-repaired right knee. Running backs tend to have a short shelf life, and if the Falcons think Ajayi’s will be even shorter, that’ll push down his value even further.
The others bring a lot of speed to the table and add a big-play element to the offense that was arguably already there with Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith already there. Both Abdullah and Duke Johnson have ball security concerns, while Coleman is coming off a foot injury that could limit his usage later this summer. The only major knock on David Johnson is that he’s not as physical a runner as his size (6’1″ 224 pounds) merits and some believe his receiving skills might make him a better option at wide receiver than a natural running back.
Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon may be the cleanest of the second-tier running backs, but the Falcons didn’t show much interest in him. The team might be smart to wait until round three or four to see who is still available rather than reaching in the second round.
It’s not a pressing need since the team could survive with their current five-man unit: Julio Jones, Roddy White, Devin Hester, Leonard Hankerson and Eric Weems. But White, Hester and Weems will all be on the wrong side of 30 when the season begins, so adding some youth makes sense.
But there aren’t many second-day candidates that the Falcons showed interest in. Auburn’s Sammie Coates is extremely talented, but is raw and might take multiple years to develop if he does at all. The Falcons could potentially find a more immediate impact player at another position on the second day of draft.
Michigan’s Devin Funchess is a “tweener,” too small for tight end and too slow for wide receiver. If the Falcons draft him this early, they’ll need a clear plan to develop him. They’ll have to decide whether he’s a big slot receiver in the mold of Marques Colston or a “move” tight end a la Jermichael Finley. Such confusion might not be worth a gamble this early.
Minnesota’s Maxx Williams and Miami’s Clive Walford are the top “true” tight ends in this class. However, both have reportedly turned off a few teams with attitudes that appeared more as arrogant than confident in interviews. However, such reports can be dubious as teams try to bad-mouth prospects so that they fall. Given a weak tight end crop, one can see the motive for why some teams might try to get Williams and Walford to fall.
The Falcons could certainly use an upgrade at tight end and Williams and Walford are two of the only prospects that could potentially offer it. That might compel them to take the best value even though it’s not a glaring need given that they already have options between Jacob Tamme, Tony Moeaki and Levine Toilolo.
The Falcons need to add a nickel cornerback is certainly considered a priority, but they may opt to follow the Seattle Seahawks’ model and wait to address this positin. The aforementioned Rowe and Rollins would both be upgrades. Their remaining other targets this offseason were projected as third-day selections.
My Draft Board: Top 20 Remaining
The following isn’t meant to be a definitive ranking, but more general clumping of many of the aforementioned players in different tiers based off my own opinions, and not what I think Falcons will do:
1a. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon
1b. Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
1c. Preston Smith, DE, Mississippi State
I really can’t pick one of these three as the top player, as I think I’d be equally happy with all three. One
4. Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota
The attitude issues concern me somewhat, but he’s only tight end that is a clear-cut starter from day one in Atlanta.
5. Derron Smith, FS, Fresno State
6. Quentin Rollins, CB/FS, Miami (OH)
I like Smith a lot, but he’s gone under radar this entire offseason, which makes me believe he could be had in the third round. Rollins is a bit more of a project, but possesses upside and tools to develop.
7. Ali Marpet, OG, Hobart
There’s really nothing bad to say about Marpet, just that small-school linemen typically struggle. So it really comes down to how you value immediate impact versus long-term upside.
8. T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh
9. Owa Odighizuwa, DE, UCLA
10. Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
All three have injury concerns that make me question if they are ready to impact quickly and/or can stick long-term. That downgrades them, even though talent wise they are on par with the top-tier guys.
10. Eric Rowe, CB/FS, Utah
11. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
12. Devin Funchess, WR/TE, Michigan
13. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
These guys should be considered athletic upside picks. Rowe is a bit overrated in my eyes, at least as far as his prospects as a safety go, but his ability to lock down the nickel spot from day one is valuable. Coates and Gregory are arguably two of the most physically gifted players left in the draft, but are more long-term guys with too many red flags. If they fell to the third round, you would feel a lot better about drafting them.
14. David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa
15. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
16. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (FL)
17. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
I like all four of these backs, but I don’t think they bring significant enough value to covet any one. Honestly, I’d probably wait until the fourth round to see if any are still there before pulling the trigger on them.
18. Paul Dawson, MLB, Texas Christian
19. Denzel Perryman, MLB, Miami (FL)
20. Clive Walford, TE, Miami (FL)
Dawson is a player I like, but there are simply too many red flags to take him this early. All three would be players I’d probably wait until the fourth round to draft, if at all.