Today is the official start of the 2019 NFL Draft. It’s an exciting time for fans, analysts, and just about anyone who cares about NFL football. The careers of head coaches, general managers, and the 254 rookies who will be drafted are all hanging in the balance. As fun as the draft is, it’s important to remember that a ridiculous amount of work has gone into the process thus far—and the livelihoods of hundreds or even thousands of people are quite literally on the line.
Throughout the tenure of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, there have been significant ups-and-downs. A disappointing 8-8 season in 2015 was followed by a phenomenal and historic outing in 2016 which almost culminated in the ultimate victory for the franchise. It wasn’t mean to be, however, and the Falcons failed in spectacular fashion. Atlanta followed that up with a good-but-not-great 10-6 record in 2017 which saw them come perilously close to defeating the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles, but falling short yet again.
2018 was a very strange year for Quinn and Dimitroff. As disappointing as the 7-9 record was, it’s difficult to really evaluate the roster and staff when two of the Falcons’ top-3 defensive starters and both starting safeties were on IR before Week 3. Still, Atlanta made the decision to move on from defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel—with Dan Quinn taking control of the defense—and major changes were made throughout the coaching staff. The Falcons brought back offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to take the place of Steve Sarkisian and hired Bob Sutton to take over the new role of game management coach.
It remains to be seen if these changes will bear fruit for Atlanta in 2019. Free agency didn’t bring any major signings, but did reinforce a commitment to getting bigger and stronger in the trenches with the additions of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown on the offensive line, and Adrian Clayborn and Tyeler Davison on the defensive line. The Falcons also made the controversial decision to bring back EDGE Vic Beasley on his fifth-year option, which carries a hefty $12.8M price tag.
The next step in the process in the 2019 NFL Draft. Atlanta has nine picks, including seven in the first five rounds. The roster, as a whole, is still in pretty good shape. Offensively, the Falcons have a top-5 QB, the best WR in the NFL, and a skill position group brimming with weapons. Defensively, there’s a young core of players including LB Deion Jones, DT Grady Jarrett, and SS Keanu Neal that all rank among the best in the league at their respective positions. Atlanta is a few pieces away from claiming one of the strongest rosters in the NFL, and a young team that previously had very little postseason experience has now been battle-hardened by a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons are at a crossroads. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones remain in their respective primes, but they won’t be there for much longer. The defense is tantalizingly close to being a genuinely good unit, but injuries hamstrung them in 2018. 2020 brings a very difficult offseason that will force the Falcons to make decisions on paying players like Deion Jones, Austin Hooper, De’Vondre Campbell, and others. The time to make another Super Bowl run is now, but they won’t get there without another impact draft class in 2019.
What propelled the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016 was, in part, an incredible rookie haul. If Quinn and Dimitroff want to return to the promised land, they’ll need to nail the 2019 class in similar fashion.
For the most part, Quinn and Dimitroff have been very successful in the draft throughout their partnership. The 2016 class is their crowning achievement, but thus far the two have enjoyed an above-average hit rate through all rounds since 2015. The biggest black mark from fans might be Vic Beasley. He’s been maligned recently for failing to develop, but it’s hard to fault the team after he showed his potential in a league-leading 15.5-sack season.
However, the cardinal sin of the Quinn/Dimitroff pairing, in my opinion, has been a lack of emphasis on the trenches. It’s true that in 2/4 classes they’ve taken a first round EDGE, but trench picks elsewhere in the early rounds have been almost non-existent. Of 11 picks in the first three rounds, just three have gone to the trenches: EDGE Vic Beasley (1), EDGE Takkarist McKinley (1), and DT Deadrin Senat (3). Notably, none have gone towards the offensive line. However, six have gone towards skill positions: CB Jalen Collins (2), RB Tevin Coleman (3), S Keanu Neal (1), TE Austin Hooper (3), WR Calvin Ridley (1), and CB Isaiah Oliver (2). The other two picks were LBs (Deion Jones and Duke Riley).
When you look at the construction of the Falcons roster, it’s pretty clear how much value the Falcons place on each position in the draft. Atlanta managed to find a star in DT Grady Jarrett in the fifth round, but otherwise they’ve totally neglected the defensive line on draft day: just four of 25 draft picks since 2015 have gone to that unit. It’s even worse for the offensive line, where Atlanta has only drafted three players since 2015—and none higher than the fourth round. For reference, the Falcons have drafted four WRs in that same window.
Instead, the Falcons have relied upon cheap veterans and holdovers from previous coaching staffs to keep the lines afloat. Atlanta benefited greatly from the play of G Chris Chester and EDGE Adrian Clayborn in 2016. The offensive line was held together by first-round LT Jake Matthews (from 2014) and UDFA-turned-starter RT Ryan Schraeder. However, we saw what the team looked like when that strategy fell apart in 2018. Schraeder fell off a cliff, and series of injuries laid bare the sad state of depth on the offensive line.
To Quinn and Dimitroff’s credit, they appear to be ready to rectify that mistake in 2019. The Falcons have done extensive work on DL and OL prospects in this class. While fans know my propensity for trading up to select DT Ed Oliver, Atlanta is favored to select an OT if they remain at 14. There’s been an emphasis, from Arthur Blank down to the staff, on getting bigger, stronger, and more effective on both lines.
That’s why this draft is such a turning point for the Falcons. Quinn and Dimitroff can atone for their past mistakes by selecting impact players on the lines early in this draft. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Falcons add three trench picks from Rounds 1-3 (or perhaps even more if they trade for additional Day 1 or 2 picks). A draft that added significant talent to the trenches on both sides of the ball would go a long way to making Atlanta’s roster one of the most formidable in the league.
Or, the Falcons could falter, and instead target yet another skill position player early in the draft. The buzz for selecting a CB at 14—while I believe and hope is just a smokescreen—does fit Quinn and Dimitroff’s MO. It’s less about Greedy Williams, Byron Murphy, or Deandre Baker being bad value or poor talent, and more about their selection proving that Atlanta has learned nothing from the failures of 2017 and 2018.
Of course, a draft is more than just it’s first round pick. Quinn and Dimitroff will need to nail multiple picks in this class—and find early contributors throughout—in order to vault the Falcons back into contention in 2019.
Can they do it? Absolutely. We’ve seen it before, and this pairing clearly has an eye for evaluating talent. But the difference—the turning point—will be whether they can move past their own shortcomings and tendencies, and adapt to what is best for the team.