The NFL’s new league year begins at 4 p.m. on March 9th, the time when teams are free to sign free agents and address holes on their rosters.
While it’s entirely likely that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff add a few veteran pieces, the common belief is that they will focus primarily on building through the draft. Since Quinn’s arrival, Atlanta has been lights out in his aspect. Like, Steph Curry pulling up and draining a shot from just past half court lights out.
Dimitroff has said that Quinn’s ability to identify and communicate the individual skillsets he requires for this team has been extremely helpful. Through their first two drafts, they’ve had a smart approach, even if it may seem unconventional at the time.
Looking ahead to the 2017 NFL Draft, we decided to revisit the Falcons’ past two drafts to see if we can gain any insight as to how they will approach it this year.
Let’s start with the 2015 draft.
1. Pass rusher
4. Running back
Rd. 1 (No. 8 overall) Vic Beasley, DE
Rd. 2 (No. 42) Jalen Collins, CB
Rd. 3 (No. 73) Tevin Coleman, RB
Rd. 4 (No. 107) Justin Hardy, WR
Rd. 5 (No. 137) Grady Jarrett, DT
Rd. 7 (No. 225) Jake Rodgers
Rd. 7 (No. 249) Akeem King
Immediately after the draft, it appeared that the Falcons did very well in the first five rounds. Now two years removed, those picks, with the possible exception of Hardy, were part of the foundation of Atlanta’s Super Bowl run.
Beasley was an obvious pick for the Falcons at the time. Considered by some to be the best pure pass rusher in the draft, Beasley had everything Quinn was looking for to play the LEO in his scheme. The first round is crucial for every team, and Atlanta has done a good job of matching talent, fit and need over the past two years.
Although safety was considered the biggest need in the secondary, the 2015 draft was light on top-end talent at the position. Quinn went with Collins in the second round, presumably to begin the transition to a bigger, more physical group of cornerbacks. It was a risky pick given Collins’ history, and for a while it looked like it might not work out, but the cornerback came on strong at the end of his second season.
Coleman was a steal in the third round, even if that didn’t appear to be the case at the time. The Indiana product had a breakout junior season and ran for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. Anytime a team can get a 2,000-yard back in the third round, that’s pretty good value.
While Hardy hasn’t yet become the player the Falcons intended, he was thought to be a nice pickup in the fourth round. A true slot receiver with tremendous hands, Hardy addressed a need and still has room to grow in the future.
The real gem of this draft came in the fifth round when Atlanta selected Jarrett. The son of Falcons’ legend Jessie Tuggle, Jarrett inexplicably fell in the draft and gave Quinn an interior defensive lineman who could generate pressure. After a three-sack performance in the Super Bowl, Jarrett appears to have a bright future ahead.
Now, onto the 2016 NFL Draft.
3. Defensive end
5. Tight end
Rd. 1 (No. 17) Keanu Neal, S
Rd. 2 (No. 52) Deion Jones, LB
Rd. 3 (No. 81) Austin Hooper, TE
Rd. 4 (No. 115) De’Vondre Campbell, LB
Rd. 6 (No. 195) Wes Schweitzer, OL
Rd. 7 (No. 238) Devin Fuller, WR
Many expected the Falcons to select either a linebacker or another edge rusher with their first pick in last year’s draft, but Quinn and Dimitroff surprised many by making Neal the newest member of the team. This is another example of Quinn knowing the type of player he wanted for his scheme and getting him.
Atlanta added to its linebacker corps in the second and fourth rounds by picking Jones and Campbell, respectively. Draft experts and evaluators were quick to point out the flaws with each player, but they had size and speed, which is what ultimately mattered to the Falcons. Both linebackers played early and often in their rookie seasons, and they appear to have a bright future ahead.
Hooper became the second tight end off the board when he was taken in the third round. Another area of need for the Falcons, Hooper was a player who could stretch the field as a receiver and could step into the rotation early.
So, what lessons can we learn from Quinn and Dimitroff’s first two drafts together?
For starters, it looks as though the Falcons are more concerned with their evaluation of a player and how he fits into their scheme than the general consensus. Players like Collins, Neal, Jones and Campbell might have been lower on some team’s boards, but they have become young starters in Atlanta.
Quinn and Dimitroff have also generally addressed the team’s biggest needs through the draft, although they’ve shown a willingness to place value over immediate need. Neal was a surprise pick, but there weren’t many sure-fire pass rushers in last year’s draft. Instead of taking a pass rusher just to address that need, the Falcons pivoted to where they could find an impact player to fill a hole on the roster.
Looking ahead to this year’s draft, Atlanta’s biggest needs appear to be along the offensive and defensive lines, at safety and at tight end.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the Falcons will likely fill those holes on the roster with players who they are familiar with and can fit in their scheme design. There may be some surprise picks along the way, but that hasn’t been a bad thing since Quinn’s arrival.