Draft season is finally here. Following a rather subdued free agency period, the Falcons are preparing to regain their status as a top contender through the draft. A repeat of the 2016 draft would be the dream scenario for Dan Quinn. For all the disappointment from last season, the rookie class looked extremely impressive as an overall group. The front office is putting together quite a resume of pinpointing which players could be difference makers in the middle-to-later rounds.
Unlike past years, the pressure has intensified going into the draft. They desperately need to land immediate contributors to improve in the trenches. Whoever is selected will be expected to play significant snaps immediately. Multiple rookies could end up being difference makers based on the lack of depth across the defensive line. The same may apply to other positions outside of the defensive line. Here are the Falcons’ top five needs going into the draft.
A strong case can be made for edge rusher as the Falcons’ biggest positional need. The lack of consistency off the edge is concerning. Based on Takk McKinley’s upside and Quinn’s insistence on trying to salvage Vic Beasley’s career, it’s clear who the main edge rushing threats are going into the season. That can (and should) change by signing a veteran or drafting a prospect. Nevertheless, defensive tackle gets the slight nod because of the lack of depth and talent. Grady Jarrett is a certified star. There is no denying what he offers as a disruptive force. It’s hard to be overly optimistic about the rest of the group.
As well as Jack Crawford played last season, he is entering the final year of his contract. The coaching staff may also use him more as an edge defender in base this season. With Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby gone, Quinn will need reinforcements to set the edge on running downs. Deadrin Senat showed promise early in the season before hitting the proverbial rookie wall. His lack of push as a pass rusher may make him best suited for strictly a run-stuffing role. There isn’t a specific defensive tackle that should be targeted. The front office should consider drafting multiple defensive tackles to continue strengthening a problematic area. Selecting Ed Oliver and an intriguing prospect in the later rounds could do wonders for a defensive line in dire need of talent.
It’s no secret what the main emphasis will be during the draft. Improving in the trenches must be the biggest priority for the Falcons. While selecting a capable right tackle to compete with Ty Sambrailo is certainly an option, an edge rusher must be drafted within the first three rounds. It’s a position filled with question marks. McKinley has clear pass rushing ability, but there are concerns about his inability to evolve. The questions about Beasley are evident. Quinn hasn’t been shy about wanting to push him more than ever this offseason.
The coaching staff can’t possibly depend on both young edge rushers without capable backup plans following last season’s debacle. Reinforcements are needed in order to generate pressure with a four-man rush. Everyone knows Quinn prefers to rely on rushing four rather than dialing up exotic blitzes. For an effective four-man rush to exist in Atlanta, more talent is needed up front. Unless a veteran edge rusher is signed, the Falcons need to add a highly regarded prospect to push both former first-round picks. It would be a bonus if the player can shift inside similar to how McKinley was used last season.
Despite being re-signed to a surprisingly long-term deal, Sambrailo can’t be considered as a definitive long-term solution. His six starts in two seasons were largely underwhelming. Between not being able to stay in front of edge rushers to missing second-level blocks, there isn’t much evidence to feel confident about Sambrailo as the default starter. He will likely get the first crack to replace Ryan Schraeder. To not bring in a potential replacement for a player who has struggled for the majority of his career would be nonsensical.
It will be fascinating to see how the front office evaluates offensive linemen going forward. Signing James Carpenter and Jamon Brown represented a philosophy change. While Dirk Koetter still plans on using zone-blocking concepts, the message is clear about getting bigger up front. The days of focusing on smaller, more technical offensive linemen appear to be over. Drafting a right tackle in the 320 to 330-pound range would solidify their intentions on building a more power-based line. Whoever the tackle may be, he could find himself starting by October.
Not signing a veteran slot corner was one of the few surprises in an otherwise quiet free agency period for the Falcons. Most expected them to add a veteran to provide depth at a position filled with question marks. It’s understandable why Robert Alford and Brian Poole are no longer on the team. Both players allowed far too many big plays to go along with not being ideal corners for Quinn’s scheme. For all their struggles last season, they played an extraordinary amount of snaps over the past three seasons. Replacing them won’t be as easy as some suspect.
Isaiah Oliver has the skill set to succeed, but he didn’t exactly look comfortable in man coverage on limited snaps. How Damontae Kazee shifts back into playing corner will be something to monitor. For all his success as a playmaker, he spent the last two seasons acclimating to playing free safety. Will that affect him when reverting into a slot corner? There is no telling how he will fare in man coverage against shifty slot receivers. That is why the Falcons should look to add another cornerback in case things begin to crumble. There are no guarantees with Oliver or Kazee. Another option would bring much-needed depth back to a position that was once the strongest position on the roster.
For as talented as the linebacker group looks on paper, things could quickly change in one season. Deion Jones will receive a lofty contract extension at some point in the next year. The rise of Foye Oluokun was one of the few highlights in an otherwise abysmal year for the Falcons’ defense. De’Vondre Campbell continues to be a steady contributor. To have three talented linebackers on paper looks great, but there are reasons to be concerned.
Campbell will be a free agent next year. Based on his credentials and the front office’s major priorities, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign elsewhere. Oluokun’s willingness to take on blocks and be a physical presence deserves to be valued. His lack of awareness and range may limit him into being a more rotational piece rather than a legitimate starting weak side linebacker. Duke Riley is essentially competing for a roster spot at this point. That leaves the linebacker group as a potential concern going into 2020. Good teams know how to stay prepared ahead of time in case a key player can’t be re-signed. With Quinn being known for taking linebackers in the later rounds, he could choose to do so once again.