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In-depth analysis of the Falcons 2017 draft class

After some time to process the picks, here are some detailed thoughts on the six Falcons rookies and their potential fits in Atlanta.

NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over a week since the Atlanta Falcons made their final selections during the 2017 NFL Draft. Since then, we’ve seen ridiculous way-too-early draft grades, a million articles claiming that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a dangerous, up-and-coming team (which we’ve seen before each of the past three seasons), and a lot of speculation about how the Falcons’ rookies fit into the team’s plans in 2017 and beyond.

Well, prepare for more rampant speculation and analysis, because that’s what I’ve got for you today. I’ll be breaking down each of the Falcons’ six selections and talking a little about what I think of the pick, what I’ve observed from the players on tape, how they might factor into Atlanta’s position groups, and what their long-term prospects might be.

I’ll also be including a video of each player (so you can do your own #analysis) and their athletic profile, so you can be fully informed about each rookie’s skillset and ability. Naturally, we expect to hear more after rookie minicamp, which starts at the end of this week. Until then, speculation and film study are all we’ve got, so let’s dive right in.

Round 1, Pick 26: EDGE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA

Takkarist McKinley was not really on my radar for the Falcons, namely because he visited the team early in the draft process (which I missed) and due to his below-average 3-cone time. Historically, Dimitroff has valued the 3-cone drill above all others. However, we’re beginning to see through his partnership with Dan Quinn that the Falcons are now more flexible with athletic testing. They don’t require a player to have a tremendous 3-cone—they only need a player to have an elite athletic trait. That could be the broad jump, 40-yard dash, short shuttle, or any other drill.

McKinley’s elite athletic trait is clearly his burst, which is apparent from watching even a few minutes of his tape. His 4.59-forty and 1.61-split were among the best at the Combine, and his broad jump tested in the 85th percentile. The other traits that stand out are his physicality and his non-stop motor. McKinley is a fiery competitor and fierce hitter—traits that Quinn absolutely covets in his players. If you’d like a more in-depth report on McKinley, you can check out Eric Robinson’s scouting report here.

I see McKinley as playing the LEO position in Quinn’s defense. His exceptional athletic ability will be put to use there, as he can rush the passer, spy the QB, and stop the run effectively. He may not immediately replace Brooks Reed in the line-up, but sooner or later I believe McKinley will be starting opposite Vic Beasley, particularly on passing downs.

The only thing that gave me pause about this pick was the trade-up. If McKinley turns into an 8-10 sack a year player, nobody will care about the 3rd and 7th round picks we gave up. But if Forrest Lamp turns into an All-Pro guard (and we could’ve had him at 31 without giving up picks), the argument could be made that the trade wasn’t the wisest move. However, I’m happy with the pick of McKinley, and I can understand why they valued a potentially top-tier pass rusher over a top-tier guard.

Somehow, McKinley has become a “polarizing” player for some because of his emotional outburst on stage. Yes, he said a curse-word on TV. If that bothers you significantly, football might not be the sport for you. Also, TV-watching might not be the best activity for you to engage in. His impassioned speech actually made me like him that much more—McKinley clearly has something to play for and something to inspire him. I’m confident that he’s going to work hard to be the best player he can be, and that’s all you can ask from any rookie.

Round 3, Pick 75: LB Duke Riley, LSU

Duke Riley’s selection was one that few saw coming. Sure, we all knew that the Falcons could stand to add more LB depth in the draft, but most were confident that Atlanta already had two capable starters in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. But Quinn, being the defensive mastermind that he is, decided that two quality starters weren’t enough. Enter the athletic and productive Duke Riley out of LSU.

Riley actually resembles Deion Jones in many ways. He’s a speedy, slightly-undersized LB that didn’t really see meaningful snaps until his senior year. Once he got on the field, he made a name for himself by showing solid instincts, good physicality, and the athletic ability that coaches covet. He’s quick enough to cover RBs out of the backfield and rangy enough to make tackles from sideline-to-sideline.

A player of his stature makes the most sense playing the WILL, or weakside LB (WLB), in the Falcons’ defense. At LSU, he often played inside, and was forced to take on blocks from offensive linemen constantly. He won’t be asked to do that in Atlanta. Instead, he’ll be asked fly around the field and make tackles, while being dependable enough to cover a RB. If Riley can be a similar player to Deion Jones, he’ll be a huge asset for a defense that’s already loaded with speed.

All-in-all, I like the pick. It isn’t where I would’ve focused resources in the third round, but with the top guards going before the Falcons were on the clock (Dan Feeney was selected only a few spots earlier), he’s a good value. His versatility and athleticism should serve Atlanta well in 2017 and beyond—and having three good, starting-caliber LBs is never a bad thing.

Round 4, Pick 136: G Sean Harlow, Oregon St.

Perhaps the most head-scratching pick for me, at least initially, Sean Harlow was a player that I hadn’t watched at all heading into the draft, mainly because he was listed as a tackle. There were, in my opinion, better and more NFL-ready linemen still on the board. But when you consider Harlow as a guard, his clear flaws are much less of a problem, and his athletic ability becomes more impressive.

When you turn on the tape of Sean Harlow, one thing immediately stands out: his nastiness. He’s a physical mauler at the point of attack who loves blocking and pancaking defenders. Harlow plays to the whistle on every snap, and has enough quickness to succeed in the zone blocking scheme. His main areas of weakness are his short arms and small hands—hence the switch to guard—and his pass protection, which is below average to put it mildly.

Harlow is a player that will need some seasoning to adjust to the NFL game. I wouldn’t expect him to seriously contend for the RG vacancy this offseason, namely because the Falcons expect competency from their offensive line in pass protection. However, Harlow has the attitude and athleticism that simply can’t be taught. If he’s willing to work hard, and perhaps spend his rookie season as an interior back-up, Harlow could compete for a starting role in 2018 and beyond.

Because of Andy Levitre’s contract situation in 2018 (his salary jumps up to something like $8M), Harlow may have been drafted as a potential LG replacement. That could mean a similar rookie season to last year’s sixth-round selection Wes Schweitzer, who is the presumed favorite to win the RG battle after spending nearly all of 2016 on the inactive list.

Round 5, Pick 149: DB Damontae Kazee, San Diego St.

The more I watch of Damontae Kazee, the more I love the pick. Kazee is my favorite selection of this draft class, and I believe the Falcons may have gotten a legitimate steal in the versatile DB from SDSU early in the fifth round. The guy is, quite simply, a playmaker and a physical hitter in the secondary. Do yourself a favor and watch the video above for a quick introduction to Kazee’s game.

His spider-graph is perhaps the least impressive of all the players the Falcons drafted. It’s true that Kazee is a bit on the small side (5’10, 184), and that he didn’t run a blazing 40-yard dash (4.54). That led to teams pigeon-holing him as a slot CB and shoving him down their draft board. But covering the slot effectively is just one of Kazee’s many abilities.

Kazee’s greatest attributes are his instincts and ball skills. He’s got excellent football IQ and a quick processing speed, diagnosing plays and throws almost instantly. That’s why he appears to be a faster player on tape: he’s a step ahead of everyone else because he knows what’s coming. For a safety—where Quinn has said he will compete as well as CB—instincts are everything. You can’t make a play if you aren’t around the ball, and Kazee always seems to be around the ball.

He actually reminds me quite a bit of Ricardo Allen—an undersized slot CB with great ball skills that is making the transition to FS at the NFL-level. The difference is that Kazee is a bigger and much more physical player. He wants to blow up opposing players and his tackling is one of his stronger attributes. In the video above, you see Kazee tackle an opposing QB on a scramble by pushing his own blocker into him. Impressive stuff.

Kazee’s short-term outlook is likely to be as a primary back-up at FS and a depth player at slot CB. He’s also likely to be a contributor on special teams. His physicality and slightly better size make him a more desirable FS than Allen, at least athletically, and Kazee may eventually see starter’s snaps there in 2017 and beyond. For what it’s worth, I think Kazee may be one of the most impactful rookies in this class—he’s a good player, and I think he’ll force his way onto the field early.

Round 5, Pick 156: RB Brian Hill, Wyoming

Let’s get this out of the way early: I don’t believe Brian Hill was drafted to replace Freeman or Coleman. He’s simply not that type of player. I do believe that Hill was brought in to provide an upgrade over Terron Ward at RB3, and to provide a different skillset to the Falcons’ RB corps.

Hill is, as I’ve said, a different kind of RB. He’s a large (6’1, 219), physical runner that brings an element of power to Atlanta’s run game that was somewhat lacking in 2016. Hill also has enough wiggle and speed to find success in the zone blocking scheme, and adequate vision to take advantage of the creases the Falcons will create. While he’s not an exceptional receiver, he’s tremendous in pass protection, which could help him earn snaps early in his career.

In a stacked RB class, some players were likely to fall through the cracks, and I think Hill was one of them. He was incredibly productive at Wyoming, rushing for 1860 yards and 22 TDs in his senior year. Hill is a workhorse and a grinder: someone the Falcons can pound the rock with in the fourth quarter to close out games. That was something Atlanta lacked in 2016 when they kept only Freeman and Coleman active.

Sure, both are capable of closing out games, but is it worth risking your top backs to injury by running them 10-15 times at the end of a game? With Hill available, that is no longer a concern. With his plus blocking ability and size, he could also be an early factor on special teams. Hill was a savvy pick in the 5th round, and could end up being a great value if he steps into a more prominent role down the road.

Round 5, Pick 174: TE Eric Saubert, Drake

The most “controversial” pick by far was the selection of Eric Saubert out of Drake. There seem to be sections of the fanbase that don’t believe TE was a need, and others that simply think Saubert wasn’t good because he had issues with drops in college. Those are valid concerns. But, I believe TE was a need with Tamme leaving, and it seems clear to me that Sarkisian values having plenty of options at the position in his system.

Saubert was an under-the-radar player because of where he went to school, but don’t let that fool you: he was an extremely productive and athletic TE. In fact, he was the focal point of Drake’s offense, and Saubert downright abused the players that had the unfortunate task of covering him. Everyone talks about his drops, but how about discussing this: 56 catches for 776 yards and 10 TDs his senior year. He also had 7 TDs the previous year to go along with 55 catches for 580 yards.

He did all that by being a good athlete that routinely made circus catches. I’ll say this: Saubert made one great catch for every drop, which makes me think his problem is correctable. At 6’5, 253, Saubert has the frame to become a capable blocker at the next level as well. He’s not quite there yet, and will likely never be a full-time in-line TE, but he’s got the competitive fire and “want-to” that you can’t teach.

At this point, Saubert is clearly a developmental prospect at TE. It’s easy to see why the Falcons took a chance on him—ideal frame, good athletic traits, and potential to become a fearsome red-zone weapon. With Austin Hooper on the roster, Saubert is not going to be forced into a TE1 role any time soon. He’s likely to start his career as the TE3 behind Toilolo, and should be able to contribute on special teams early.

That may work in his favor, however, as Saubert isn’t likely to see the best defenders of the opposing team. He’s got the size and athletic ability to beat LBs and smaller DBs: he just needs to put it all together. If he does—and I think he can—he’ll end up being a steal this late in the draft.

So there it is, my exhaustive thoughts on the Falcons’ 2017 draft class. Overall, I am very hopeful that this class produces some quality pieces for Dan Quinn moving forward. However, I believe that the impact of this class will be felt more in 2018 than 2017. McKinley, Kazee, and Riley could get on the field early, but even then they’re more likely to be rotational players.

In 2018, we could see the true value of this class shine through: an upper-tier pass rusher, an athletic starting WILL, a potential starter at LG/RG, a versatile FS/CB hybrid, a physical closer at RB3, and a potential red-zone weapon and TE2. Ultimately, it’s unlikely that all six of these players will pan out. But, if three or four could reach their out. This roster is already nasty, and could get a whole lot nastier.

What are your thoughts on the Falcons 2017 draft class? Who are your favorite and least favorite picks? Any players you believe might be more impactful in 2018 than 2017?