With the 2016 NFL draft approaching, most teams are starting to set their outline of what positions they are going to target. Only teams that are either well-built and already well-stocked, such as New England or suffering from poor off-seasons and poor rosters, such as San Francisco, can truly use a best player available mentality. Atlanta doesn't fall into either category, which is why they need to look towards addressing certain holes.
The five biggest needs listed are mostly defensive ones. While these are listed in order of importance, the front office will have to judge what player has the best long-term upside and can excel at a position that the Falcons need elevated.
Selecting a linebacker with noticeable limitations over a well-rounded defensive lineman to fill a massive need isn't the proper way to build a Super Bowl caliber team. This list will explain each positional need, along with the current situation surrounding it.
Instead of separating middle and weak-side, both spots need to be equally upgraded. On the weak-side, Phillip Wheeler and Sean Weatherspoon are the only realistic starting candidates. These are two players who are currently on one-year deals, and neither have been starters since 2013. Wheeler excels at blitzing, while Weatherspoon was once a complete three-down linebacker before injuries derailed his promising career.
At middle linebacker, Paul Worrilow has proven to be a below average starter in two-and-half seasons. His inability to shed blocks and make open field tackles leaves him as a major liability. Dan Quinn knows he needs to re-shape his entire linebackers corps, but also knows he can't do it all in one offseason.
No team allowed more receptions to running backs than the Falcons last season, and tight ends have fared well against this defense. In my last piece, several playoff teams with above average linebacker duos were mentioned. If Quinn's defense is going to take the next step, they need linebackers to handle coverage responsibilities, make open field tackles, and shed blocks more effectively.
Despite suffering from several injury-plagued seasons, William Moore left an enormous hole in the secondary when he was released. The veteran leader was a true enforcer that made a plethora of game-changing plays in his career, and now the Falcons must search for his replacement. A durable, physical presence that can excel in the Cover 3 scheme is desperately needed.
Selecting a safety in the second round just makes sense. There should be an abundance of projected second round safeties available, and with no real first round prospects, the timing could be perfect to find Ricardo Allen's new partner in crime.
Although most teams would like their second round pick to start immediately, strong safety is one of the more complex positions to play in the NFL. Atlanta hasn't rushed their second round picks into the starting lineup either, as Robert Alford and Ra'Shede Hageman were eased into playing more prominent roles. Jalen Collins endured an extensive learning curve as well in his first year. Regardless of how the new strong safety develops, he will eventually need to play in 2016. Kemal Ishmael's lack of range and tendency to miss tackles (seven in 2015) hasn't given me a ton of confidence that he can be a long-term starter in the league.
It can be argued that adding another pass rusher could make a bigger difference than strong safety. That being said, Atlanta's current roster features a solid trio of defensive ends. At strong safety, they don't have one player that inspires confidence or offers potential long-term upside. This leaves defensive end as their third biggest need, although most people would embrace the idea of drafting Shaq Lawson if he's available. The Falcoholic's own Charles McDonald wrote a very informative piece about Clemson's finest.
Derrick Shelby will bring much needed balance and versatility. With Adrian Clayborn primarily lining up as a defensive end and Vic Beasley expected to take significant steps in his development, they certainly aren't desperate as they were last season. Another piece is still definitely needed, especially after producing a league-low 19 sacks.
It remains to be seen, whether Clayborn plays more in their base or nickel package. Everyone knows that Vic Beasley will continue to be utilized in the nickel set, while Shelby should replace Tyson Jackson within their base scheme. A defensive end will need to line up opposite Beasley or Shelby. Last year, the Falcons lacked depth on the outside. They have the potential to use four pass-rushers that can generate pressure. Not depending on limited players such as Kroy Biermann and O'Brien Schofield on a full-time basis should spark improvement.
Despite the possibility of re-signing Chris Chester in May, this is still a position that could use a quality prospect. Mike Person will move back to playing guard, which was his natural position before the failed experiment at center, but he has just 158 regular season snaps at the position and shouldn't be pointed on as a starter.
An open training camp battle will likely take place this summer. Chester, Person, and the drafted guard should have opportunities with the first team. Forcing a ten-year veteran to compete for a starting job may seem harsh, but when a player is nearing retirement and coming off rotator cuff surgery, they need to still prove their value as a capable starter. Chester shouldn't expect to be the default starter either.
Adding talented prospects at guard is the final step towards solidifying their line. Andy Levitre is nothing more than a stopgap option. They don't want to face the dilemma of needing to draft or sign two guards next offseason. That would be similar to their current linebacker conundrum. Drafting a guard in the third or fourth round would be an ideal decision. Atlanta's offensive line is on the cusp of becoming one of the most formidable units in the league.
It came down to defensive tackle and tight end. Although the tight end class isn't very promising, this has to be viewed as a bigger need. Jonathan Babineaux, Ra'Shede Hageman, and Grady Jarrett form a solid interior trio. Shelby could slide into the interior within their nickel package, while Tyson Jackson is currently 340 pounds and could be an option at the nose, according to Jay Glazer. It wouldn't hurt to draft a tackle, especially if the player has tremendous upside. This list prioritizes on needs, which is why tight end gets the final nod here.
There are only two tight ends on the roster with NFL experience. Jacob Tamme is a steady dependable veteran, while Levine Toilolo is strictly viewed as a blocker in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Despite their red zone failures, Shanahan failed to incorporate the six-foot-seven tight end into his weekly gameplan. During his entire career, Ryan has always benefitted from throwing to a reliable tight end. Tamme is a serviceable player that should be the fourth receiving option in a successful offense. That wasn't the case last year and doesn't appear to be the case going into the draft.
A tight end that can make catches in traffic is desperately needed. Atlanta's red zone problems cost them several games last year, and blocking will be a priority as well, especially within Shanahan's offense. Tamme was dreadful as a blocker last season. Toilolo wasn't anything special either. It's difficult to find a complete tight end in the later rounds. If they could find someone with size and decent speed, that could benefit the offense greatly.