The Atlanta Falcons had Super Bowl aspirations going into last season but fell well short with a 4-12 record.
The primary issues? Injuries, and toughness at the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense
Quarterback Matt Ryan was hit a league-high – and career-high – 203 times last season. He was sacked 44 times – again, a career-high, and tied for third in the league.
The Falcons’ front office made it clear what the plans were for both the offseason and the draft: Protect the $100 million quarterback, and get tougher on both sides of the ball.
In free agency, Atlanta’s top signings were guard Jon Asamoah (6’4”, 305), defensive end Tyson Jackson (6’4”, 296), and nose tackle Paul Soliai (6’4”, 340).
The getting “bigger and tougher” theme continued in last week’s draft.
Though there were several reports citing the Falcons’ heavy interest in South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and their willingness to trade up to nab him, the Houston Texans ended up taking him with the number one pick.
With their selection at number six, Atlanta selected tackle Jake Matthews (6’5”, 308) of Texas A&M.
Matthews was considered one of the draft’s safest picks. Greg Robinson, the tackle who was selected second overall by the St. Louis Rams, has a bit more upside but Matthews is already a sound technician. He’ll immediately step in as Atlanta’s starting right tackle and eventually take over the left tackle job.
With their second round pick (37th overall), the Falcons selected defensive tackle/end Ra’Shede Hageman (6’6”, 310) of Minnesota. Hageman’s a massive player with huge upside. He’s also had a little bit of legal trouble – something the front office usually strays away from.
Hageman’s the ultimate boom or bust prospect: He has imposing size and pure strength, but will need a bit of coaching to shore up his technique as well as motivation to play a full game.
The Falcons’ third-round pick (68th overall) was seemingly out of left field: Wisconsin free safety Dezmond Southward (6’0”, 210). Southward didn’t participate in the NFL combine due to injuries, and he never visited with the Falcons. However, despite the fact he did not participate in the combine, Southward never missed a game at Wisconsin.
Like Hageman, Southward has high upside due to his physical tools: He has 4.3 speed with the size and strength to boot. Atlanta needed a starting free safety after releasing Thomas DeCoud, but I’m not sure Atlanta will give the job to Southward in his first year.
Many are calling Atlanta’s first fourth round selection (103rd overall) the steal of the draft: running back Devonta Freeman (5’8”, 206) from Florida State. Freeman is a shifty runner with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s also been heralded for his pass protection. He should come in and immediately take some carries from Jacquizz Rodgers.
The Falcons selected an edge rusher with their second fourth-round pick (139th overall): linebacker Prince Shembo (6’1”, 253) who should be able to contribute on passing situations.
Shembo was another uncharacteristic front office selection: He was investigated for sexual assault allegations by a Saint Mary’s College freshman back in 2010. Shembo’s name was ultimately cleared, but the accuser later committed suicide. Notre Dame received scrutiny for seemingly covering up the incident.
Atlanta added secondary depth with its first fifth-round selection (147th overall): Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen (5’9”, 187). Allen is a bit undersized but proved to be a playmaker during his collegiate career, totaling 13 interceptions and returning four for touchdowns.
The Falcons’ remaining three picks were all linebackers: Syracuse‘s Marquis Spruill taken 168th overall (6’1”, 231); Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood taken 253rd overall (6’2”, 246); and South Dakota’s Tyler Starr taken 255th overall (6’4”, 250).
With Atlanta needing competition and more linebackers for their 3-4 looks, the last picks aren’t surprising.
Grading drafts before the players step onto the field and contribute seems a little backwards. With that said, I’ll grade based upon what the Falcons’ needs were heading into the draft and how they addressed those needs.
Atlanta’s 2014 draft grade: B-
The Falcons were unable to address their edge rusher need and instead are relying on the sheer amount of girth at the line of scrimmage to free up other players to make plays.
The two players that can make or break Atlanta’s draft are Hageman and Southward because of the sheer potential (either boom or bust) of both players.