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Discussing the Falcons draft strategy and evaluation with Pro Football Focus

Thoughts and clues about where the Falcons are headed, plus the value of PFF more broadly.

Houston Texans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We continue our discussion with Pro Football Focus’ Garrett Mehal, as he joins me to examine the Falcons’ draft strategy, needs, and the value of the PFF platform. He is the man behind the PFF Falcons Twitter account.

Analyzing the first round options and evaluation principles

As the coaching staff tries to salvage the career of one first round pick, they may be welcoming another first round pick to the defensive line. Numerous mock drafts have the Falcons selecting Ed Oliver. The standout defensive tackle is being hailed as a potential top ten pick. It’s no secret that the Falcons desperately need to add another defensive tackle to the fray. Pairing Oliver with Jarrett is something that will have coaches, analysts, and fans salivating. If Oliver isn’t selected before the 14th pick, there shouldn’t be any hesitation from Quinn and Dimitroff.

“Oliver can do it all,” Mehal stated. “He’s been really solid in run defense. We know how good he is as a pass rusher. What makes him more impressive is he doing as a nose tackle, which means he is fighting through constant double teams. Some will question his productivity because he didn’t play in one of the top conferences. I think the fact that he is taking on so many double teams and still being productive from the nose tackle position shows how good he is. Deadrin Senat played pretty well in his rookie season, but I don’t think the Falcons should think twice about Oliver if he’s available. He is a potential top ten pick for a reason. His upside is sky high.”

With all the draft buzz surrounding Oliver, there is a very good chance he will get selected before the Falcons are on the clock. Winning the final three games of the season may prove to be costly in missing out on such a highly regarded talent. They can still easily draft a future star in their position. It’s clear the focus will be on addressing needs on both lines. Mehal knows the pressure is on them to draft an edge rusher and defensive tackle in the early rounds. There is another position that he believes should be considered as big as a necessity.

“There are plenty of options if Oliver isn’t there,” Mehal said. “Right tackle is something that must be addressed early in the draft. They could definitely use an edge rusher as well. From looking at PFF’s draft board, Oliver is ranked as the eleventh best prospect. Andre Dillard is ranked thirteenth, while Jawaan Taylor is ranked fifteenth. Those are two players that should receive major consideration.”

“I don’t think they can go into the season with Ty Sambrailo as the definitive starter. He’s been in the league for four years and has played about 1000 snaps. That’s about a season’s worth of snaps. Although he was good in pass protection at the end of last season, he has graded out as a below average tackle out of those 1000 snaps. He struggled in pass protection during his time in Denver. That’s probably a big reason why they gave up on him.”

“Brian Burns and Cody Ford are other prospects to keep in mind. Burns is ranked fourteenth, while Ford is listed at 22. There isn’t a drastic difference between any of these players. It’s all about who fits into what the coaching staff wants on both lines. Any of these four players would be worth selecting in the first round.”

It’s clear which positions need to be targeted during the early rounds of the draft. For all their issues in the trenches, the front office knows they will need to shore up other positions on the roster. The lack of depth is evident when assessing certain positions. That is a result of not re-signing most of their free agents and opting to release several veterans. One position stands out in particular as a potential problematic area.

“One position I am curious about is slot corner,” Mehal said. “Quinn hasn’t mentioned it in recent interviews and press conferences. Replacing what Brian Poole did on the field isn’t going to be easy. Nobody on the roster really has experience playing in the slot. I’m not sure what they are planning to do at that spot. Damontae Kazee is the biggest playmaker in the secondary, but you can’t totally bank on him being successful covering slot wide receivers. Playing slot corner is wildly different than handling the responsibilities of a deep free safety in Quinn’s Cover 3 defense.”

When the draft comes around, there are countless scouting reports and career projections being published on Pro Football Focus. Some evaluations are going to be spot on. Some evaluations are going to be wrong. It’s a never-ending cycle. During the 2016 draft, PFF was very critical of the Falcons’ draft class.

They didn’t consider Keanu Neal to be worthy of a first-round pick, while Deion Jones was an extremely flawed inside linebacker from their standpoint. For both players to be immediate difference makers on a Super Bowl team ten months later was something nobody could have anticipated. Their success justified how Quinn and Dimitroff evaluate prospects.

It also raised some questions about how PFF grades prospects. Were they putting too much stock into college tape and not giving enough attention to their athletic traits? It’s something PFF has looked into during their grading process of every prospect over the past two years.

“I know our analytics team is doing all they can to look at the combine numbers to see what is most predictive of success at the next level,” Mehal said. “They are putting together their big board of first round graded players. These are players with high level of production on the field with good measurables to back up their capabilities. The players with good measurables, but haven’t quite been as productive on the field are graded in the second to third round range.”

“We recognize they have the potential to improve based on their athleticism. There is still plenty of risk because they haven’t produced at a consistent level in college. We have to take that into consideration when you try to gauge how these prospects are going to acclimate to the professional level. We can’t give first round grades purely based on size, speed, and other impressive traits. We need some evidence on the field that shows their worthy of a first round grade.”

Jones is definitely one of PFF’s biggest misevaluations. He was someone that we saw as a highly flawed player on the field at LSU. Despite his athleticism and range, he never played at a consistently high level in college. Some players just develop differently and peak at certain times. It’s interesting how the Falcons took another LSU linebacker in Duke Riley the following year. We were slightly higher on Riley; yet he hasn’t performed anywhere near to level of Jones. There will always be misevaluations. Hopefully, we can avoid being completely off on players as good as Jones.”

The value of Pro Football Focus’ platform

Pro Football Focus is always refining their services, and that’s a major reason why all 32 NFL teams use their database as a resource. Their draft guide and their premium stats service strive to give consumers more information about players and teams than is otherwise available.

“The draft guide is getting better every year,” Mehal said. “Almost every draft eligible player has been given an entire page this year. Remember, we didn’t start doing PFF College until 2014. This is the year where we have players’ full college careers in our database. We can look at their overall grades from every season. There are advanced statistics for every position as well. It’s something PFF has really taken the time to invest in. It’s getting better every year, but I believe now is the time where we are realizing the full benefits of it. To have four years of data on so many prospects gives us what we need to put together informative scouting reports and other draft related content.”

“The new premium stats version is a lot more intuitive and easier to use compared to the first version. You can use the search tool by player, team, and position to get the information you want. You can get grades from every game and season for any player. There are so many cool stats you can find on a particular player. It’s something football nerds absolutely love because there is always something new you can learn from using it.”

As draft night slowly approaches, PFF is getting everything finalized for what will be a three-day marathon. Between collaborating with Sports Illustrated and other notable websites, they are constantly finding new ways to produce live content during the draft. A more digital approach is being taken this year. While not all of their plans can be announced yet, you can expect an endless amount of content from their YouTube channel.

“We’ll be doing a lot with our YouTube channel on draft night,” Mehal promised. “Our podcasts are currently being recorded live on YouTube. You can find specific team videos there. There are college videos with different prospects. The YouTube channel is something I would recommend to everyone. There is so much happening on there right now. We like to use charts, stats, and other graphics in our videos to make it more creative. This gives everyone an idea of what kind of data we are using and what we our basing our opinions on.”