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2017 NFL Draft: The positions where the Falcons will focus their efforts

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Our best guess here in mid-March.

NFL: 2016 NFL Draft Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

With the Falcons’ signing of Dontari Poe earlier this week, Atlanta’s essentially out of the free agent game. Their focus, and ours, will be on the 2017 NFL Draft.

While this team can afford to go with a position-agnostic best player available more than in years past, it’s still fairly certain they’re going to try to attack certain positions in this class, and that’s because they still have positional weaknesses. The addition of Dontari Poe cleans things up a bit,

Here’s a position-by-position look at where I expect the Falcons to look in the draft. Please feel free to disagree aggressively and strenuously.

Round 1: Guard/pass Rusher

The Falcons have an immediate hole at right guard and a long-term hole at both guard spots, given that they’re likely to cut ties with Andy Levitre next season due to his cap impact. While Wes Schweitzer legitimately has some upside and could push for a starting gig, the Falcons still badly need to draft a long-term answer at the position.

The problem is that there are probably only 3-5 starting-caliber guards in this draft class, and if you want the best of the best, you’ve got to go with Forrest Lamp, Dan Feeney, or Dorian Johnson early. I expect the Falcons to snag Lamp if here’s there, and Feeney if Lamp is gone.

Round 2: Pass rusher/guard

If the Falcons don’t go for an edge rusher in the first round, they’ll likely go for it in the second. I’m assuming guard comes in the first round, but that’s not a lock.

Look at Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers, who the team had a private workout with earlier this week, or Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon, who the team has a workout scheduled with. Both players have length and athleticism in spades, and would step right into a rotation for a team that needs pass rushers badly.

The biggest question for me is whether the Falcons will flip-flop my expectations for the first two rounds, choosing Dorian Johnson or another guard in the second and elevating an unexpected pass rusher to the first round. It’s certainly something to watch for.

Round 3: Safety

This is the first time I’m straying from conventional wisdom a bit. There’s no real reason to expect the Falcons to sink a third round pick into safety, not with Keanu Neal in town, Ricardo Allen doing good work and still on a cheap deal, and Kemal Ishmael returning for the 2017 season. And yet I think they will.

There are multiple reasons for that. Sharrod Neasman has some promise but is an undrafted free agent, Kemal Ishmael is on a one year deal, and Allen will be a restricted free agent teams may want to try to poach in 2018. There’s not a ton of talent likely to be available here, but I could see the Falcons keying in on a safety like Florida’s Marcus Mayes or Miami’s Rayshawn Jenkins to add depth and push for a starting role down the line.

Round 4: Defensive tackle

The Falcons might still bring a fourth, budget tackle on board in free agency, but I’m willing to bet they’ll wind up investing a pick on the third day on the position. There should be plenty of guys available in this range who could join the rotation and be useful, and with Ra’Shede Hageman potentially leaving next year (and Dontari Poe on a one year deal), the need for a player to develop is pretty acute.

Round 5: Tight end

Michael Roberts is my pick here, as maybe the best blocking tight end in the class, but the Falcons could go in any number of directions.

It’s possible Atlanta will roll ahead with Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, Josh Perkins and D.J. Tialavea at the position, but with Perkins and Tialavea both with very little playing time under their belts, the Falcons could very well sink a pick on the third day.

Round 7: Running back

The Falcons sniffed around Rex Burkhead, took a look at a couple of Senior Bowl running backs, and have looming contract extensions for Devonta Freeman (who is a free agent after this season) and Tevin Coleman (who is a free agent after 2018). Given that Thomas Dimitroff has stated a preference for not using high-level draft assets or big contracts to land running backs at this point, a seventh rounder looms as a genuine possibility.