You can definitely feel and sense the tension hovering above the Atlanta Falcons as the offseason gets underway. NFL free agency is less than two months away and the NFL Draft is around the corner from there. For a team that is on the verge of either teetering and falling down to mediocrity or grasping that now fading championship opportunity, this offseason will make or break the Falcos and their current state.
This team was mainly built in the 7-round selection process that is the NFL Draft. Senior Bowl is behind us and the Combine is peeking over the horizon. Let’s take a dive into my latest mock draft as I attempt to project what may occur for the Falcons.
Round 1, 16th Overall - A.J. Epenesa, DE , Iowa
It’s no secret that the Falcons are in desperate need of pass rushing reinforcements after an underwhelming 2019 season. As a unit, the Falcons defense ranked 23rd in quarterback hurries, 31st in total sacks, 31st in total defensive pressures. When you add the factor that three of their top six edge rushers are set to hit free agency, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Falcons will look to bolster this position.
So it would make perfect sense to add the second best pass rusher in the entire draft in Epenesa if available. The Iowa product is a consensus top-20 prospect, according to most draft prognosticators. At 6’6” and around 280 pounds, Epenesa is not a speed rusher by any means.
What he brings to the table is a polished set of tools after tallying 22 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. Epenesa is NFL-ready and should prove to be a consistent asset when it comes to simply getting after the quarterback.
Round 2, 47th Overall - Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Based on the number of selections that the Falcons have this year and the number of holes on the roster, the team may have the luxury of selecting BPA (best player available) a time or two.
It still makes me shake my head a bit that the Falcons gained a second round pick from the New England Patriots in a mid-season trade of Mohamed Sanu. This particular pick belongs to the Falcons originally. With a little flexibility in the second round, the Falcons grab an underrated corner in Hall, who was the #1 rated corner in the country by PFF coming into the 2019 season.
An ugly ankle injury during the season ended Hall’s 2019 campaign. Otherwise, Hall would be likely been a top-25 pick at worst. Head coach Dan Quinn loves corners with length, size, and the ability to be slotted in different ways. Hall checks those boxes and has the ability to be a future #1 corner for the Falcons. Corner is not a great need with veteran Desmond Trufant set to return from injury in 2020. But the future trio of Hall, Isaiah Oliver, and Kendall Sheffield is damn near hard to ignore. Consider the secondary improved with Hall in a Falcons uniform.
Round 2, 55th Overall - Cesar Ruiz, iOL, Michigan
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next starting center for the Falcons for the next eight to ten years.
A possible release of starting center Alex Mack may be in the works this offseason. The veteran will enter his last year of his 5-year deal in Atlanta and will only cost $2.5 million in dead cap if release. It would not hurt if the Falcons starting that process a little and snag his heir apparent.
Ruiz has 36 career games for the Wolverines with 31 of them coming in starts. This past season in Michigan, Ruiz allowed just eight total pressures in 447 snaps. Ruiz is about as sound as a center prospect can be and will prove to be a seamless transition for the Falcons as they look to possibly close the chapter on Mack.
Round 2, 59th Overall (Falcons trade 2020 3rd round/78th overall, 2021 3rd rounder to Seattle for 2020 2nd round/59th overall) - Joshua Uche, LB, Michigan
TRADE ALERT!!!!!!! We all know that general manager Thomas Dimitroff can’t contain himself when it comes to making a move in the draft. I fully expect the Falcons to be a little aggressive within the first three rounds and aim for a player that they truly covet. This time, it is a versatile linebacker in Uche that can likely fill a void in case the Falcons decide to move on from free agent veteran De’Vondre Campbell in the offseason.
Uche raised some eyebrows during Senior Bowl week after showing off his pass rushing potential as an undersized edge while also displaying what he can do in coverage. Uche should not be considered a full-time edge rusher and has shown enough to be a future starter in the Falcons nickel looks. Uche athleticism in space was often overlooked but he can be a nice chess piece alongside linebacker Deion Jones. The Falcons have a little wiggle room to make a move such as this and I for one wouldn’t mind this move at all.
Round 4, 109th Overall - Lamical Perine, RB , Florida
I have truly been back and forth over the past few weeks regarding what the Falcons will do at the running back position. Current starter Devonta Freeman has a potential out this offseason and the team will likely endure a nasty taste in their mouth with dead cap spending by his potential release.
But, as stated once before, the team will have some tough cuts this offseason and this could be one of them. While I think the front office likes their stable of running backs in Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison, none of them are solid starting options going forward.
Perine, however, can be. With his capability of picking up tough yards in between the tackles and running through contact, Perine can allow the Falcons to pound the rock at a cheaper price tag. Perine does not have blazing speed but to be honest, neither did Freeman. The Falcons don’t necessarily need a home run hitter at running back. They just need to improve in run blocking and find a more reliable option for the future. Enter Perine.
Round 5, 139th Overall - Antoine Brooks Jr., S , Maryland
Another early season injury to strong safety Keanu Neal ended his season prematurely. While his presence on the field is important for the Falcons defensive success, his future/health is a question mark at this point. He will likely be welcomed back with open arms in 2020 but it would be wise for the team to invest in an insurance policy.
Brooks lacks superb athleticism, but slap on the tape and Brooks is quite often near the football and showing how physical he is as a tackler. Brooks saw playing time in various roles from strong safety to nickel linebacker. His best attribute is, get this, tackling. All the while posting a career-high in tackles this past season (87) with 18 tackles for loss the past two seasons. At worst, Brooks can be a spark plug on special teams.
Round 7, 205th Overall - John Hightower, WR, Boise State
Atlanta has a true, genuine infatuation with competition across the board for the most part. So for the last pick, I add just that in a 6’2” deep threat. Hightower was a big play threat for the Broncos during the last two seasons as he averaged 16.3 and 18.5 yards per catch, respectively. As a matter of fact, he was 25th in FBS in yards per catch.
Everyone is pretty aware of how dynamic Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are. Up-and-coming Russell Gage has elbowed his way into the team’s long term plans as well. Beyond that, the wide receiving group as a whole leaves much to be desired. Hightower can come in and attempt to change that with his deep threat and ability to be a big play with the ball in his hands.