The Atlanta Falcons were ravenous for a pass rusher. It was a poorly-kept secret that the team was negotiating to move up for Jadeveon Clowney after improving the front seven but not obtaining a pass rusher in free agency, and there were a few hours where I allowed myself to believe it would get done.
Instead, the Falcons had a quiet if excellent first round, considering they only had one pick. Jake Matthews was my choice if the team stayed at #6 and there's a real chance he'll be a stellar left tackle for this team for a decade-plus, which is a fantastic use of a first round pick. Suddenly, the offensive line woes that plagued the team in 2013 are feeling like a sour memory and nothing more.
In other words, this was a successful first round for Atlanta. Yet the Falcons still have an urgent need for at least one more quality pass rusher, a need they would have liked to address last night.
The story of how the Falcons wound up with Jake Matthews and only Jake Matthews is never going to be fully known by those outside of Flowery Branch, but based on what I heard about the first round and our excellent beat writers Vaughn McClure and D. Orlando Ledbetter have told us, we can piece it together. Join me for a tale of intrigue and maybe a little bit of sorrow.
The Falcons wanted Clowney
This is not in question. The Falcons negotiated with the Texans until the point where it became clear that they could not or would not meet the Texans' price, and that the Texans were willing to take Clowney at #1. Then they abandoned these efforts and turned their attention to the next scenario, which we'll get to in a second.
What happened? The price drop many were forecasting and/or hoping for never materialized, or at least not enough for the Falcons to pull the trigger. Those who were dubious of the Falcons being able to meet the Texans' demands were correct, and obviously I held out hope a little too long.
The Falcons tried to get Khalil Mack
The contingency was Mack. The Falcons likely had a sense that the Jaguars were not going for Mack at #3, so they turned their attention to a deal with the Cleveland Browns. Whether they knew the Raiders were targeting Mack at #5 or just were worried the Raiders would trade down with a team in hot pursuit of the Buffalo linebacker is an open question, but this was Dimitroff's backup plan. Considering Mack's obvious talent, it was a solid plan.
We’ve talked about #Falcons possibly trading for No. 1. Appears more likely they trade for No. 4 with #Browns if Khalil Mack is available— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 8, 2014
This, too, fell through. The Bills made the Browns a killer offer—#9, a 2015 1st and a 2015 4th—to go up and get Sammy Watkins. The Raiders coveted Mack and made him the pick, leaving the Falcons at #6 without either of their top pass rushing targets available.
That made Matthews the obvious choice, since he was likely the top player left on the team's draft board and a potentially tremendous upgrade at tackle. The Falcons made Matthews the pick and started burning up the phones to try to get back into the first round.
The Falcons went hard for Ryan Shazier
The next man up on the team's board was reportedly Shazier, the unbelievably athletic Ohio State linebacker.
#Falcons were trying to trade back into the first round for either Ryan Shazier or Dee Ford. Tomorrow, plenty of DEs and SS— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@AJCFalcons) May 9, 2014
In this case, I have to believe Shazier simply went earlier than the team anticipated. The Steelers made him the #15 overall pick because they love athletic linebackers. What we don't know and may never know is how high the Falcons were trying to move up to get him, but obviously they learned pretty quickly their efforts were for naught.
That's three straight pass rushers the team wasn't able to move up and get, which had to have been frustrating for the man many call Trader Thomas. Thankfully for the Falcons, a player they coveted was still on the board. As D-Led mentioned in the Tweet above, that player was Dee Ford.
The Falcons attempted to get Dee Ford
Fans are definitely split on Ford, and I have my concerns about how he got his college production, as well as his injury issues. It's clear that the front office would have been enormously satisfied with a first round that featured Matthews and Ford, however.
Again, it's not clear how high the Falcons attempted to move up, but credible reports had them negotiating for the #22 pick with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ford would have been the pick had that worked out, but the Eagles found the Browns' #26 pick and third round pick more attractive than Atlanta's likely #37 and 3rd round pick offer and pulled the trigger. The Browns stopped Manziel's draft day slide and the Chiefs made Ford their selection just one pick later.
The Falcons may have tried to go up one last time
I can't give you guys a definitive source on this, but I have strong reason to believe the Falcons were still trying to get up into the late 20's and even 30's to ensure they go their player. Knowing that, I wouldn't rule out a trade up from #37 today.
It's clear that free safety was not and is not the priority. Whether the Falcons plan to start Lowery or have their eyes on a developmental player a little later is up for debate, but the repeated efforts to get a pass rusher suggest that's next up on the team's draft board, and the team clearly views safety as the secondary priority.
``We are a needs-based team,'' Dimitroff tells @790TheZone. He said they could go defense or offense in 2nd round.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) May 9, 2014
The good news is that there are some legitimately high-upside players likely to be available at #37, so no matter what the Falcons say publicly about their willingness to look at offense and defense, I expect them to pounce on a pass rusher in the second round, potentially Demarcus Lawrence.
I saw a lot of fans angry and disappointed that the Falcons didn't jump up to snatch another player—an understandable if slightly puzzling reaction—but it always takes two to tango. It's tough to blame the front office for not being able to execute a trade up when we so often blast them for giving up too much in said trades. It's clear the Falcons wanted to move back into the first round or even get an impact pass rusher at the top of the round, but they didn't want to overpay and couldn't find the right partners. That happens, even for a front office notorious for being able to find a way to make a move on draft day.
Ultimately, they walked away from the first round with a great tackle and nine more picks to utilize to address other needs, some of which could be used to get the Falcons a second second round pick, if they can find a partner. They won't plug every hole with impact players, of course, but if they can sew up 2-3 more they'll be in good shape.
In other words, don't panic yet, and don't accuse the front office of sitting on its hands when it's obvious they were doing anything but warming up their digits. There's a time to worry about this team's weaknesses, but that time isn't coming until after we see what the rest of 2014 NFL Draft brings for these Falcons.
Chime in down in the comments.