With the draft quickly approaching, it’s time to prepare for the Falcons’ next potential masterpiece. The revamped front office has done an exceptional job in building a championship-caliber roster through the draft. Finding the right players to meet their athletic and performance standards helped shape what appears to be a contender for years to come. Regardless of their placement in the draft, it hasn’t stopped them from selecting All-Pro caliber talent and late-round gems.
For all of their success, there are some noticeable trends within their draft process. Dan Quinn doesn’t shy away from talking about his philosophy. It’s been a dramatic rise heading into the team’s fourth season with DQ, Scott Pioli, and Thomas Dimitroff working together. Here are five things to be prepared for on Thursday.
You probably won’t predict the first-round pick correctly
When it comes to following their standards and pinpointing a prospect in the first round, the Falcons are as disciplined as it gets. They are known for targeting a player and drafting him at all costs. Other than selecting Vic Beasley, draft analysts have been left puzzled by their recent first round selections. Many viewed Keanu Neal as a second-round talent at best. It didn’t take long for Neal to prove critics wrong with his immediate high-level performances. Takkarist McKinley can be viewed in a similar light based on his rawness and lack of refinement as a pass rusher. Trading up for him in the first round wasn’t met with great praise. Yet what was viewed as an overly aggressive move already looks brilliant a year later.
The front office deserves credit as well. Although they value the insight of certain draft analysts, it doesn’t affect their assessment of a player. Neal and McKinley weren’t regarded as can’t miss prospects. Both players had clear flaws that lowered their stock on numerous networks and websites. That didn’t matter to Quinn, who will be relying on both players for years to come. Neal has developed into one of the league’s top enforcers in a matter of two seasons, while there aren’t many young edge rushers with a higher upside than McKinley.
Both players are prime examples of not panicking over an unexpected pick. Not selecting Myles Jack or Shaq Lawson left fans disappointed. Unlike Neal, neither player can be ranked in the upper echelon at their respective position. Time will tell with Forrest Lamp, who was the consensus popular pick at this time last year. Although the guard position can’t be viewed as a strength, McKinley’s strong rookie season provides great optimism about the defensive line’s future. It should also make the loss of Adrian Clayborn bearable.
There is a clear vision in Atlanta. If they don’t choose a defensive tackle in the first round, it shouldn’t be viewed as an outrageous decision. Quinn’s track record speaks for itself on player development and first round success.
The familiar LSU connection
It’s a bizarre tradition with mixed success so far. Despite showing promise in his second season, Jalen Collins has essentially ended his career with multiple failed drug tests. The organization was left with no other choice than to give up on him. The talent was clearly there from a limited sample size. Collins stepped up in replacing Desmond Trufant during the 2016 season. Before falling apart in the Super Bowl, he played well during the Falcons’ memorable six game winning streak.
Deion Jones has proven to be a total revelation. Similar to Neal, his remarkable improvement played an integral role in the Falcons’ transformation into a top ten defense. The jury is still out on Duke Riley following an injury-plagued difficult first season. Will the Falcons’ second overall pick come from LSU for the fourth consecutive year? It’s a possibility with Donte Jackson and Arden Key as realistic options. They haven’t shied away from drafting cornerbacks in the past. Everyone knows how much Quinn loves adding talent on the defensive line as well. Don’t rule out either player from being the latest piece to the Falcons’ emerging group. The actual reasoning behind Quinn’s connection to LSU remains unclear.
Another offensive lineman from a small school
After drafting a defensive player from LSU in the second or third round, the Falcons will usually follow up by drafting a lesser-known offensive lineman. It has transpired in every draft under Quinn. Although they haven’t found a true gem, this is a wise approach based on the quality of offensive line play across the league. Front offices need to take as many chances as possible on offensive lineman. With numerous teams struggling to put together a serviceable offensive line, it’s considered an achievement if a team selects a potential starter in the later rounds. As poorly as Wes Schweitzer played last season, he still has value as an experienced NFL starter.
The trend started in 2015 with Jake Rodgers. It continued with Schweitzer in 2016, which gave them some security behind an aging Chris Chester. They took another offensive lineman in Sean Harlow to provide competition at right guard. None of these players came from major schools or were expected to start in their rookie season. Allowing them a year to learn is crucial for their development. With Andy Levitre likely playing his final season in Atlanta, another developmental guard should be added. To find another unforeseen stout offensive lineman like Ryan Schraeder will always be one of their main objectives. Expect them to take another offensive guard from a small school on day three.
Drafting a running back will cause a stir
Whenever a running back is linked with the Falcons, it creates instant discussion. Drafting Tevin Coleman in 2015 raised questions about Devonta Freeman’s future role. Those concerns were erased five games into the season. Freeman and Coleman turned into the most lethal running back duo in the league. Unfortunately, most exciting things usually come to a frustrating end. Speculation started last year when Brian Hill was selected in the fifth round. It came at a time when tension was rising about Freeman’s contract. Both parties eventually came to terms in August on a lucrative, well-deserved deal for the reliable back.
The celebration for Freeman’s payday quickly switched to questions about Coleman’s future. Can they afford two outstanding running backs? It seems unlikely at this stage, especially given Coleman’s capabilities in a featured role. There aren’t many weapons quite like the dynamic fourth-year player. Coaches will be clamoring to have Coleman at their disposal. With the coaching staff quickly giving up on Hill, they are bound to draft another running back. Successful teams know how to handle potential losses ahead of time. It would be a major surprise if the Falcons don’t select a running back at some point in the later rounds.
A wide receiver capable of returning kicks
By losing Taylor Gabriel and Andre Roberts, the Falcons are in search of a multidimensional weapon. Who is going to replace Gabriel as a vertical threat that can blow past secondaries? Who can provide some consistency and stability in the return game? Both areas are clearly lacking on the roster. Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis will receive opportunities this summer to prove themselves as capable options. It seems unlikely that either undrafted free agent will develop into a reliable playmaker or returner. The lack of depth makes wide receiver a bigger priority than most positions.
When previously drafting a wide receiver, there were immediate questions about the possibility of returning kicks. Justin Hardy received some opportunities in 2015 during the preseason. Based on Devin Fuller’s background, it appeared they found an upgrade and long-term replacement for Eric Weems. Neither player ended up being a full-time returner, which leaves them on the search. The ideal scenario would be drafting a wide receiver that can stretch the field and prove to be a threat in the return game. Another slot, possession-based receiver isn’t necessary with Hardy and Mohamed Sanu as dependable weapons. The Falcons will look to take another receiver that can excel in multiple areas. For the offense’s sake, this player will need to offer more than Hardy as a receiver and manage to stay healthy.