I've been noticing an undercurrent among some Falcon fans these last couple of weeks, a subtle shift in the way the draft is being viewed. With Dunta Robinson on board and a young defense that is virtually guaranteed to have more success than its injury-riddled 2009 counterpart, there seems to be increasing sentiment that the Falcons don't need to draft on that side of the ball with their first round pick.
The primary beneficiary of this change in philosophy from these fans, who I've seen everywhere from the ESPN boards to here at The Falcoholic, has been Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. A big, physical receiver who knows how to block, the athletic Thomas is in many ways a perfect fit for the system the Falcons run, and he might be an effective long-term replacement for Michael Jenkins. As he's considered one of the better receiver prospects in this April's draft, one might reason, he could be a quality pick at #19.
Of course, I'm here to argue against that.
I've got a couple of good reasons for that. The first? The Falcons still need defense more than a receiver, or at least an offensive lineman. The second? Thomas is not quite a slam dunk.
Let's tackle my first point. Whatever your feelings on the improvements to the secondary, it's hard to deny that the Falcons need some kind of defensive aid. Our traditionally vaunted linebacking corps is built on the backs of one star (Curtis Lofton), one slightly above average speedster (Stephen Nicholas), and one rapidly aging veteran (Mike Peterson). Our defensive line looks pretty good on paper, but the Falcons will be relying heavily on Peria Jerry, who is still recovering from the injury that cost him almost the entire 2009 season and has left him a giant question mark. That, in turn, could affect the value of everyone on the line, from the slightly slower John Abraham to the USS Babineaux. And let's not forget that even with Dunta Robinson's addition—which is no slam dunk in and of itself—the secondary is not one of the league's top units by any stretch of the imagination.
Even if you're willing to overlook those weaknesses and express confidence in significant improvement in 2010, Thomas still doesn't top the list of the needs for this team. As FrankyWren has pointed out, barring new contracts with Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, we're going to have two starting offensive linemen hitting free agency next season. That's not even accounting for Todd McClure, who despite our wishful thinking isn't likely to keep playing for several more seasons. There's a need to infuse this line with more young talent, and considering how critical a good offensive line is to everything the Falcons really want to do as a team, this has to be a top priority.
The problem with selecting Thomas, or Dez Bryant, or any of the other top receivers in a deep class that's weaker than normal near the top, is that it addresses a position of relative strength. Matt Ryan can only throw so many passes, and while adding someone as productive in college as Thomas makes a ton of sense out of context, it's worth noting that this was a team that had very little trouble passing the ball last season. Adding one more target, even a good one, makes a minimal difference in 2010.
And they need a difference. Thomas is extremely raw as a route runner and is coming off a major foot injury, not attributes you associate with an immediate impact player at the NFL level. Now in the third year of a major rebuilding effort, the Falcons have shown flashes of excellent in the last two seasons and now must translate that into lasting success. Does Thomas do more for that than a polished player at a position of need like outside linebacker, defensive end or even right tackle? I'd argue that it doesn't, and frankly I think the quickest way to reach enduring success is by putting together a team that has no weaknesses, not one that has extreme strength at a small handful of positions. Some of the most successful teams of the last decade have borne out that approach.
But maybe you disagree. Feel free to do so.