The Falcons are always willing to tell you they have a plan, because the Falcons always have a plan. The question is whether that plan works or not, and for a distressingly long time, the plan has not been working.
All the damage done by a cascading series of failures from 2018 and 2019—plus a liberal dose of bad luck, both injury-related and otherwise—has not been undone. In an unexpectedly methodical offseason that has featured plenty of what this front office might call hard choices, however, they’ve begun to shape a Falcons roster that looks less rickety than it did before. That’s particularly true on defense.
There’s much work left to be done, even so, but the Falcons six man draft class largely hit their biggest defensive needs. Let’s take a closer look at who Atlanta got.
Round 1: CB A.J. Terrell, Clemson
If Terrell didn’t get roasted, at least on paper, against LSU he might not have made it to #16 in the first place. He’s a very good athlete, has the requisite length for a Dan Quinn cornerback, and is a heady, aggressive player. That one effort on the biggest stage possible will haunt every bad game he has in the pros, but it shouldn’t be viewed as the summation of his career.
It’s not hard to understand, a couple of days later, why the Falcons wanted Terrell in the first place. Terrell can be an effective press cornerback in the pros given his willingness to mix it up, overall physicality, and quality recovery ability, and 2018 2nd round pick Isaiah Oliver was also lauded for his press ability coming out of Colorado. The Falcons may well try to buy their pass rush more time in part by playing more bump and run, and it’s something Terrell is well-suited for.
The question, as always, is how good he’ll be in this critical year for the current regime, and whether can step into the #1 role right away. If he can start and play at a pretty high level, the Falcons probably won’t suffer massively from the loss of Desmond Trufant, but this is still a pick that will probably pay off more over the long haul than year one.
Round 2: DT Marlon Davidson, Auburn
Davidson is not only the player I like best in this draft class, but the most likely to have a major impact right out of the gate. The powerful Auburn product played both defensive end and defensive tackle in college—and amusingly and surprisingly effectively, some linebacker—but will likely stick inside in the pros.
The Falcons have talked for years about getting more pass rush from the interior, and with John Cominsky in-house and developing and now the addition of Davidson, they may actually get it. Davidson is a solid run defender with room to grow, but he comes to the NFL with the kind of powerful hands and overall pass rushing toolkit to be at least a moderately effective presence right out of the gate. With Tyeler Davison and maybe Deadrin Senat available to help Jarrett on early downs, Davidson can settle in and hopefully form one of the league’s more formidable tandems with Jarrett. If he does—and I’m bullish on that—it has the potential to make this defense a lot tougher to work against.
Round 3: G/C Matt Hennessy, Temple
Hennessy is a pick for the future in many ways. One of college football’s best centers, he’ll be asked to step in for Alex Mack whenever the veteran moves on from Atlanta, which is likely to be 2021. The Falcons made this pick knowing full well that they needed their center of the future, and they think Hennessy’s quick feet and technique can make him a good one.
For 2020, though, it sounds like he’ll compete at left guard. I’m iffier on that working out for Atlanta, since Hennessy is a center first and foremost, but he’s certainly talented enough to win that job and do at least a solid job there this year. Given that the Falcons had a jumble of mid-to-low tier options there before drafting him, getting Hennessy involved gives them depth at worst and probably allows them to move on from James Carpenter or Jamon Brown, possibly recouping a late round selection in 2021 by doing so.
Make no mistake, though, the real payoff for this pick will come down the road.
Round 4: LB Mykal Walker, Fresno State
Walker’s clearly supposed to follow in De’Vondre Campbell’s footsteps as a fourth round linebacker-turned-early starter. Walker’s biggest advantages are his instincts and overall athleticism, both of which are said to be quite good, and he offers some positional versatility as a guy who spent as much time with his hand in the dirt as he did at linebacker.
Some overall stiffness to his game shouldn’t detract from the fact that he did just about everything well at Fresno State and is working with one of the best linebacker coaches in the business. Like most (all?) fourth rounders Walker has kinks in his game to work out and a lot to learn, but the Falcons will lean on him early and hopefully that’ll translate into rapid improvement. He’s a very intriguing, productive player, however.
Round 4: S Jayllin Hawkins, California
The first pick I didn’t really have a strong opinion on due to an almost total lack of knowledge about the player. Having spent some of the afternoon and evening reading up and taking a closer look, it looks like Hawkins is hyper-aggressive, physical, and something of a ballhawk, all welcome traits for this Falcons secondary. He lacks elite speed and coverage ability, however, and with the safety position fairly stacked for this year with Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee, and even Chris Cooper hanging around, I wouldn’t expect him to step into anything like a starting role unless something goes terribly wrong with the rest of the roster.
Still, he’s at least an interesting pick, and it’s worth reminding everyone again that Allen, Kazee, Neal, and Cooper are all free agents in 2021, with not all of them likely to return. If Hawkins can do work in the looks he does get this year as a safety and special teamer, he might be able to carve out a larger role next year.
Round 7: P Sterling Hofrichter
The pick I liked the least, without any slight to Hofrichter. There were interesting players available with this selection and I’m almost never in favor of drafting a punter, no matter how well it worked out for Atlanta with Matt Bosher back in 2011. The Falcons have Ryan Allen under contract, remember, and he’s a fine option even if he doesn’t have the strongest leg, especially because Younghoe Koo showed last year he can handle kickoffs.
Scratch under the surface a little bit and this pick makes more sense, even if I’m not saying I love it. Hofrichter achieves great hangtime, is as aggressive in coverage as Matt Bosher once was (if not quite as terrifying), and is quite capable of handling kickoffs and long field goals. Given that Koo was excellent last year but the Falcons don’t appear to trust him at long range, Hoftrichter is likely to mix in as an option on truly long kicks, and certainly looks like a quality punter.
Again, though, I would have preferred the Falcons not use a pick on a punter. I’m a stickler for that.
Overall, this class set out to do an obvious thing: Add talent to a defense that wasn’t very good last year and was depleted by the losses of Desmond Trufant, De’Vondre Campbell, and others. Terrell, Davidson, and Walker should all start, potentially giving the Falcons upgrades on all three levels, while Hawkins figures to be a reserve and special teamer. On the offensive side of the ball, they just added Hennessy, but if he steps into the starting left guard job and fares well, Atlanta’s line should be quite good if all are healthy. Hofrichter is probably a net upgrade on the punter carousel from last year, even in his rookie season.
This draft class was not as splashy as you’d expect for a regime supposedly in danger of losing their jobs if this season goes awry, but I liked it because the picks were sensible, the upside for the first four selections is quite high, and they only threw us one true curveball, and that was in the 7th round. The big question from here is how the Falcons will use the money coming to them in June to further upgrade the roster, which still needs another pass rusher and more depth almost across the board. If Terrell and Davidson are as good as the Falcons think they are, we might finally get some traction on improving that defense.
What I found most interesting was the forward-looking focus of the class. Rather than aiming for a couple of big additions from trades up, Atlanta is adding players who largely will be more impactful in 2021 than 2020, the obvious exceptions being Davidson and Terrell. Hennessy could be the starting center next year, Walker figures to be better with a year under his belt, and Hawkins is going to step into a considerable vacuum if the Falcons let their free agent safeties walk, which means this class was not just about 2020. Maybe it’s a little sad that I worried so much that the team’s focus would only be on this year, but I’m relieved it wasn’t.
How are you feeling about the draft today?