With 2019 becoming a lost season and the Falcons already at 7 losses heading into Week 10, it’s officially time to fire up the draft takes. Today I’ll be taking a look at a topic that I’ve been asked frequently over the past few weeks: with Devonta Freeman struggling and his future uncertain due to his salary, would Atlanta consider adding a RB high in the 2020 NFL Draft?
First off, let me make it clear that “high” does not mean “top-5” or even first round. By high, I mean in the first two days of the draft (Rounds 1-3). Generally, I’m against taking RBs in this range unless: 1) the need is significant, 2) the value is excellent, and 3) you have the picks to spare on a “luxury” position. Let’s break down these three factors to determine if 2020 presents a good opportunity for the Falcons to add a top-tier RB via the draft.
Is the need for a RB significant?
This one is a bit complicated. First off, we need to make a decision: will Devonta Freeman be back with the team in 2020, or not? If he’s back, then the Falcons won’t be going after a RB early in the draft. But there are a lot of reasons why Freeman isn’t likely to be back.
His play has fallen off a cliff in 2019—although it’s entirely possible this is due, at least in part, to Koetter’s awful rushing scheme and the injury-ridden offensive line. The big one is his price tag: Freeman is due to count an incredible $9.5M against the cap in 2020. That puts him in league with the NFL’s most elite RBs in terms of price.
The Falcons can save $6.5M (with $3M in dead cap) by making Freeman a post-June 1st cut next season. Although I’m a big fan of Freeman and will always appreciate his run of greatness with this team, I think the calculus—along with the fact that a new coaching staff/GM will have no loyalty to him—has shifted in favor of moving on in 2020.
If Freeman is gone, the Falcons will have only two RBs under contract next season: Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison. While Ito has certainly looked like a capable player, his concussion history has to raise some alarms for him personally and professionally. We’ve seen no snaps from Ollison in the 2019 regular season, as Quinn and company have relegated him to the bench.
A new coaching staff is likely to look at the RB situation and determine that there’s room to add a top-tier RB to take over the starting role. I think, if the team were to move on from Freeman in 2020, that the need is significant.
Is the value excellent at RB?
This is one question that won’t really be answerable until draft day. But based on projections, it looks like 2020’s RB class could be very good—especially compared to 2019’s rather average class.
There were only 7 RBs taken in the first 3 rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. Of those, 5 were taken in Round 3. For comparison’s sake, The Draft Network currently has 11 RBs in the top-100 of their prospect rankings for 2020. That includes a whopping 8 in the top-75, and 3 in the top-25.
All of those 11 in the top-100 have starting ability in the NFL. But in my eyes, there are three truly elite talents at RB in the 2020 class: Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. In my limited, live viewing of these players I’d have them all listed as first rounders: The Draft Network ranks them as #17, #20, and #21 overall, respectively.
However, RB is a strange position in the NFL. With so many teams finding success on Day 3 and UDFA runners, along with the abundance of talent at the position throughout the NFL, teams simply don’t use premium picks on the position very often. That can be especially true when teams perceive an abundance of talent in the draft class itself. With three “first-round talents”, teams may feel like they can wait until Day 2 to draft one as all three are unlikely to get picked in the first round.
This is unlike 2019’s class, where Josh Jacobs was considered “the guy” at RB. Oakland pounced on him with their second first round pick, as they likely couldn’t risk waiting any longer on him and there weren’t any other players of his caliber in the class.
If the Falcons do want to draft one of the top-3 guys, the sweet spot is likely to be their second round pick. Although one of Swift, Etienne, and Taylor is likely to go towards the back of the first round, I’d wager that at least one of the others will still be around in the top-5 picks of the second round. In this case, the value would be excellent.
However, it’s entirely possible the Falcons elect to go in a different direction with that high second round pick. For instance, if a CB, EDGE, or C/G falls that the team has a first-round grade on. All of these positions are more valuable than RB, and should take precedence if available. In that case, Atlanta should shift their attention to their other second round pick or their early third rounder.
The players available at this point all still have high-level starting ability, even if they aren’t quite as elite as the top-3. Players like Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, and Florida State’s Cam Akers could all be in play towards the end of the second/beginning of the third. Particularly with the third round pick, the value would be excellent.
Do the Falcons have the pick to spare at a “luxury” position?
This one probably comes down to personal preference. We do know that the Falcons are likely to have 4 picks in the top-100. The team certainly has a variety of needs that could be addressed with those picks: EDGE, C/G, CB, S, LB. Some of those are higher priority than others. For instance, I would make adding an top-tier EDGE, a quality C/G, and a starting CB my primary goals heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. LB and S are needs, certainly, but the Falcons could likely get by with adding depth at each position—particularly if Neal is healthy.
Based on the additional second round pick the Falcons acquired—and especially if they manage to add more this offseason—I believe the answer is yes: the Falcons have the pick to spare at a “luxury” position. It will come down to the players available at each pick, but the sweet spot for adding a RB is likely to either be early in the second round or early in the third round.
As much as I like the top-3 RBs in this class, the best move is likely for the Falcons to go after one of the next best options—Dobbins, Hubbard, or Akers—with their third round pick. High in the second round, the value at other positions of need is probably going to be better. If one of the top C/G prospects—names like Tyler Biadasz or Creed Humphrey—or CBs—Kristian Fulton, Bryce Hall, Paulson Adebo, Trevon Diggs—is available, it’d be a no-brainer to go after them instead.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons adding a RB early in the 2020 NFL Draft? Do you see it as a significant need, or a luxury the team can’t afford? Which of the RB prospects are your most interested in?