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2017 NFL Draft: Should the Falcons prioritize immediate or long-term needs in this class?

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The Falcons have an opportunity to solve a few needs. Should they focus on 2017 & 2018, or look further ahead?

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When the Atlanta Falcons draft at the end of this month, they’ll be looking to add talent that can help shore up some of their most glaring needs, few as they are. One of the big questions animating that process is whether the Falcons will focus primarily on the needs that are right in front of them, or the needs to come.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ve divided the team’s most pressing immediate needs (2017 & 2018) and longer-term needs (2018 and beyond) for our discussion here today. Read on.

Short-term needs

There’s not point in pretending that the biggest needs on this football team are right guard, pass rusher, safety, and perhaps linebacker. The Falcons have a hole at right guard they’ll hope to plug with Wes Schweitzer or Hugh Thornton if they don’t make a significant draft investment, which is a scenario that could work out but seems unlikely to work out extremely well.

With regards to pass rushers, the Falcons have a deep, capable rotation to go with Vic Beasley, but not one of the guys on that defensive line (or in that corps of linebackers) is capable of generating pressure at an elite or even above average level besides Beasley himself. They need another guy.

Safety is a spot where the team is sorely lacking depth after committing Kemal Ishmael to linebacker. Right now, it’s basically Sharrod Neasman, who is a promising young player but not a proven one by any stretch of the imagination. If you can get a player who will eventually push Ricardo Allen for a starting job, that’s a bonus.

Finally, there’s linebacker, where the team still needs more depth and perhaps a player with enough talent to get on the field as a starter when the team trots out three at the same time.

All of those needs crop up again and again in mock drafts, and it’s for the obvious reason that this is a deep, talented team with only a few needs to address before they can and should be considered a Super Bowl contender again next season. If they did nothing more than address 2 or 3 of these needs, they’d be in great shape.

But what about those needs that loom large in the future?

Long-term needs

Those of us confused by the team’s numerous visits and check-ins with running backs have likely not thought through the team’s future at the position. Let’s do so now.

Devonta Freeman wants to be paid as one of the top running backs in the NFL should be, which is completely justified by his performance. He’s a complete back with a track record of success, he’s still young, and he deserves every dollar he’s going to get. It’s worth noting that top five running back money in 2017 starts at about $6 million per year (Jonathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray) and goes all the way up to Le’Veon Bell, who is bringing in over $12 million with a franchise tag this year. Freeman is going to want, I’d wager conservatively, at least $7 million per. We should know relatively soon what that contract looks like, given that the Falcons keep saying they’ll be giving him a new one.

If Freeman is expensive, it could impact what they do at left tackle. Jake Matthews will be up for an extension after the 2018 season if the team picks up his fifth year option, and big money contracts going elsewhere figure to make that tight unless the Falcons shake loose some cap space elsewhere.

It’s not a binary choice between Freeman and Matthews, but the contract situation of one may very well impact the contract situation of the other. That means that the Falcons likely have to start thinking about the future of running back, left tackle, or both.

At running back, a new contract for Freeman likely means Coleman hits free agency following the 2018 season. That gives the team two more seasons with the best one-two punch in football, but means they’ll be shopping for a new, dynamic complement to Freeman after that. At tackle, getting a young swing tackle with starter’s upside becomes essential at some point in the next draft class or two if you think there’s even a chance you’ll wind up letting Matthews walk.

As Allen outlined yesterday, defensive tackle also figures to be a need after this season. You could point to wide receiver (Taylor Gabriel’s up after this year), defensive end (Adrian Clayborn and Courtney Upshaw could be gone), and even kicker (Bryant’s contract is up after this season), though you’d never carry two of that last one on the roster.

My guess is the Falcons have been thinking through these scenarios--they’d be fools not to—and will wind up snagging a swing tackle and/or a late round running back with real upside among their six picks. They may even take a defensive tackle who can play next to Grady Jarrett over the long haul, or a young receiver who can replace one of the potential cuts or defections coming up. If this team wants the window to stay open as long as possible—and they do—they’d be wise to not limit themselves to this year’s fixes.

I’ll turn it over to you. Should the Falcons spend more draft capital on the needs right in front of their faces, or take a longer view?