The 2014 NFL Draft has come and gone, leaving behind headlines big and small in it’s wake. For the Atlanta Falcons, the draft answered many burning questions, but it also left some unanswered. When grading a draft pick, two major things must be considered: the selected player’s draft value, and whether or not the player chosen fills a need. Let’s take a look at how the Falcons did in this year’s draft.
Round 1, 6th overall: Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M
This was a homerun pick. The Falcons had a huge need at tackle and needed someone talented, reliable, and durable to protect Matt Ryan after getting sacked a career-high 44 times in 2013. Matthews joins the Falcons as a NFL-ready player and will start the season as the primary right tackle. The Falcons got excellent value when they drafted Matthews, considering they were contemplating trading up to the #3 overall spot to secure him. Overall, this was arguably the safest pick in the draft, and the Falcons instantly got better as a team with the selection of Matthews.
Round 2, 37th overall: Ra’Shede Hageman, Defensive Tackle/End, Minnesota
If the Matthews’ pick was a homerun, consider this pick a triple. Getting Hageman in the second round was great value for the team. Hageman was widely considered a first round talent, but inconsistencies in his play may have caused him to slide on draft day. Hageman wreaks havoc on opposing offenses playing the 3-technique (defensive tackle) in a 4-3 formation and the 5-technique (defensive end) in a 3-4 alignment. In order for Hageman to succeed in the NFL, he’ll need a fatherlike figure coach to motivate him and hold him accountable, and Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox is that man. Cox and Hageman built a relationship at the Senior Bowl and will look to build on that bond to help Hageman reach his limitless potential.
Round 3, 68th overall: Dezmen Southward, FS/CB, Wisconsin
You could almost hear the collective "who?" cries across the fan base when the Falcons made this pick. Dezmen Southward may not have a big name, but he has all the tools to play the big game. Southward didn’t participate in the NFL combine due to being flagged for spine and wrist injuries - which have since been cleared - but got scout’s attention with his very impressive pro day. Southward ran a blazing 4.31-second unofficial 40-yard dash, and nearly jumped out of the building with a 42-inch vertical jump. Southward’s value comes into question considering FSU’s Terrence Brooks was still on the board, a player many deemed to be more NFL-ready than Southward. Southward is relatively new to the position, but with the impressive coaching of Mike Nolan, he could turn out to be a solid starter sooner rather than later.
Round 4, 103rd overall: Devonta Freeman, Running Back, Florida State
At first glance, Freeman looks like a JacQuizz Rodgers clone. But when further evaluating Freeman, it’s easier to see his potential as a feature back. Freeman is a complete player despite his height of 5’8’’. He runs with power between the tackles, can catch as a receiver out of the backfield with his soft hands, and comes into the league as a developed pass protector, which is of huge value to NFL teams. Freeman draws comparisons to San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Round 4, 139th overall: Prince Shembo, Outside Linebacker, Notre Dame
The Falcons waited entirely too long to find their edge rusher, but they finally landed one in Prince Shembo. Shembo is a strong tackler, a solid run defender, and adds toughness to a team severely lacking it in 2013. Shembo doesn't have the athleticism or potential of top-tier prospects Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr, but Shembo could end up with a nice career in Atlanta if he can get consistent pressure on the quarterback in their 3-4 defensive looks.
Round 5, 147th overall: Ricardo Allen, Cornerback, Purdue
Ricardo Allen is a smaller cornerback designed to cover the slot. A ballhawk by nature, Allen holds the Purdue school record for interceptions returned for a touchdown with four. With 13 career interceptions, Allen earned his reputation as a playmaker, although his gambles get him into trouble at times when quarterbacks look him off. Allen will compete for the starting nickel corner spot with Robert McClain, Javier Arenas, and Josh Wilson.
Round 5, 168th overall: Marquis Spruill, Inside Linebacker, Syracuse
The Falcons traded a sixth and seventh round pick to land Marquis Spruill, a move that surprised quite a few fans. Spruill was one of the top rated special teams players rated by Thomas Dimitroff and his staff, but giving up two picks to secure a special teamer is a tough pill to swallow. Ideally, Spruill will provide high-level blocking for new return man Devin Hester, while making impact tackles down the field on both kickoffs and punts. On defense, Spruill projects best as an inside linebacker with the instincts and tackling ability to develop into a solid reserve.
Round 7, 253rd overall: Yawin Smallwood, Outside Linebacker, Connecticut
Yawin Smallwood - projected as a 4th rounder - was a great value pick at this point by the Falcons. Smallwood, the new owner of the best name on the team, was a do-it-all player for the Huskies in 2013; racking up 118 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, nine pass breakups, an interception returned for a touchdown, and two forced fumbles. Smallwood’s draft stock may have slipped because of a poor 40-yard dash time of 5.01 seconds; an attempt in which he pulled his hamstring. A team captain for UConn, Smallwood provides more toughness and leadership to a team that can’t get enough of it.
Round 7, 255th overall: Tyler Starr, Outside Linebacker, South Dakota
Another linebacker for the Falcons? I know what you’re thinking, but with the Falcons set to feature many more 3-4 looks on defense, the team needs to acquire as many pieces as they can to make it work. Tyler Starr is raw, but he has the athleticism and instincts to potentially develop into a productive rush linebacker for the Falcons down the road.
The Falcons filled their needs of offensive tackle, safety, and linebacker depth, but ultimately the inability to land a truly impact edge rusher hinders their grade, and it could end up hurting their chances of winning in 2014.