The 2017 NFL Draft has come and gone, giving each of the 32 teams across the league an opportunity to bolster their rosters for the future.
Atlanta Falcons fans know full well the importance of the draft. Under Dan Quinn, the organization has fared better than most in this regard, but that does not guarantee success in the future. Defense has been Quinn’s calling card, and he has put together a promising young group in Atlanta that perfectly fits his mantra of “fast and physical.”
In the draft, the Falcons once again added to their defense.
With their first-round pick, the team selected UCLA pass rusher Takk “Fine Me Later” McKinley, who has not only become the greatest hype man in Atlanta but is also leading in the runoff for Georgia’s 6th congressional district (probably).
In the third round, the Falcons snagged Duke Riley, another LSU linebacker with blazing speed and tenacious physicality. In the span of two years, Atlanta’s linebacker corps went from a slow liability to young and exciting very quickly. Plus, “Duke and Debo” sounds like the title of either a western or a buddy cop movie.
Atlanta picked up several more interesting pieces in the later rounds. On offense, the Falcons added guard Sean Harlow, running back Brian Hill and tight end Eric Saubert. In the fifth round, they nabbed playmaking cornerback Damontae Kazee, who could provide some exciting moments in the years to come.
With a talented roster in place, however, this draft wasn’t so much about what Atlanta did as much as it was about what the rest of the division did.
Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay all gained some very interesting new players, which could make them much more dangerous next fall.
Let’s start with the Panthers, who added a pair of dynamic weapons to their offense. Christian McCaffery, a versatile running back who is lethal as a slot receiver and return man, will give Cam Newton a new option in the passing game. Newton is much more of a downfield passer than a west-coast, precision quarterback, so watching how he and McCaffery connect will be interesting.
In the second round, Carolina picked another swiss army knife. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel is extremely versatile and one of the fastest players in this draft. He’s someone who can also operate out of the slot and bring the speed element that Ted Ginn has possessed in recent years. Whereas McCaffery is thought of as a running back who can double as a slot receiver, the opposite is true with Samuel.
The Panthers addressed the line of scrimmage with their next two picks, adding Taylor Moton to the offensive line and Daeshon Hall to the defensive line. Moton probably won’t start right away, but he adds solid depth and is versatile enough to play a few positions. Carolina has a decent defensive line rotation, but Hall is a young pass rusher with nice upside.
What Carolina did best in this draft was add speed and versatility to its offense. Imagine the Panthers rolling out these weapons on any given play: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, Jonathan Stewart and McCaffery. That gives them a lot of dangerous options on paper.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans managed to get a cornerback with a lot of upside but a couple of potential issues in the first round. Marshon Lattimore is one of the best defensive backs in this class when healthy, but he’s yet to prove he can stay on the field for a significant amount of time. If Lattimore’s hamstring plagues him, this could be a bad pick in hindsight. If he stays healthy, Lattimore could haunt Matt Ryan for foreseeable future.
At the end of the first round, the Saints picked up offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. It’s no secret New Orleans wanted linebacker Reuben Foster with this pick, but he was selected one spot earlier. Ramczyk is a talented player, however, and he will have a future on this offensive line.
The Saints added a couple more defenders in this draft, which was clearly a priority. Safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammed will all wear the Black and Gold.
Williams is great at forcing turnovers and is a nice center-field safety, but he enters a crowded position group. Hendrickson could be a player to watch in New Orleans. Although he was a third-round selection, he had 29.5 sacks in his career at Florida Atlantic and was the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
One of the most baffling picks of the draft was New Orleans’ selection of running back Alvin Kamara. With Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson in the fold, it’s hard to see how Kamara gets on the field outside of obvious passing downs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay might be the team that made the biggest strides this offseason. After signing DeSean Jackson to operate across from Mike Evans, the Bucs continued to upgrade their offense in the draft.
Tight end O.J. Howard gives Tampa Bay a great pass-catching option out of the tight end position and a good blocker in the run game. The trio of Evans, Jackson and Howard is enough to push any defense to its breaking point.
Later in the draft, the Bucs selected receiver Chris Godwin. In three seasons at Penn State, Godwin gained nearly 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s a productive receiver who always seems to step up in big games.
On defense, Tampa Bay drafted safety Justin Evans and linebacker Kendall Beckwith from Texas A&M and LSU, respectively. Evans is a player who possesses great range and can create turnovers, but he sometimes gets a bit too aggressive for his own good. Beckwith doesn’t possess the same level of speed that Jones or Riley do, but he was a downhill thumper at LSU, which is what Mike Smith likes in a linebacker.
As of now, Carolina and Tampa Bay appear to be the biggest threats to Atlanta next season. Both teams worked hard to add versatility and speed on offense – especially the Bucs – but they may be a step behind.
While Atlanta may not have had the best draft among the teams in the division, it didn’t need to. The Falcons didn’t have as many holes to fill and has young talent on the roster that allowed for picks meant to occupy certain roles on this team.
With the speed that the Falcons have added to their linebacker corps, they should be able to match up with the division’s new running backs and slot receivers. Atlanta’s secondary is both talented and deep, and the pass rush isn’t the massive liability it once was.
If the Falcons’ offense can produce at even 75 percent of last season’s level, the continued improvement on defense should be enough to win the division for the second year in a row.