1. Jake Matthews, OT Texas A&M
2. Ra’Shede Hageman, DT Minnesota
3. Dezmen Southward, S Wisconsin
4. Davonta Freeman, RB Florida State
4. Prince Shembo, OLB Notre Dame
5. Ricardo Allen, CB Purdue
5. Marcus Spruill, OLB Syracuse
7. Yawin Smallwood, ILB Connecticut
7. Tyler Starr, OLB South Dakota
The Atlanta Falcons went into the 2014 NFL Draft with a number of needs after sacrificing depth chasing after elite talent. The result is their lines crumbled and their lack of a pass rush proved crippling this past season under the weight of substantial injuries. Additionally, the Falcons opted to switch to a 3-4 defense, which had an impact on their approach to free agency as well as the draft. The Falcons had somewhat of a confusing draft after making a couple of nice picks and while they appear to have stabilized some questionable areas, even if with all of the talent they have, the holes they have could make it difficult for them to compete in the division.
Reportedly, the Falcons were attempting to trade up with the Houston Texans for Jadeveon Clowney. After that fell through, they turned their attention to trying to move up for Khalil Mack. This proved to be a boon for the Cleveland Browns, getting a nice package when Buffalo paid up more to get up to fourth pick, but for Sammy Watkins. Oakland took Mack, so the Falcons despite their efforts, were unable to land either franchise pass rusher.
As a result, they turned their attention to the other major area of concern; the offensive line. Sam Baker has been mediocre and they had an opportunity to substantially improve the position and protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, so they took Jake Matthews.
Matthews was one of the three elite prospects in this draft in my view. The Falcons tried to get both of the other two and while that was disappointing for their interests, getting Matthews without giving up additional assets was a nice consolation prize. Matthews, much like Joe Thomas in 2007 became relatively boring at the time of the draft. It was accepted that both players would be good, but the question was could they be elite? Thomas was and Matthews looks like he should be.
Matthews’ size is not particularly imposing, but he is strong at the point of attack and has tremendous feet. He was able to demonstrate his overall athleticism when the Texas A&M offense had him wrap (going from left tackle and pulling to lead block on the outside of the right tackle). Not everyone could do it, but Matthews was that type of player. He also beings a nastiness to the running game, which is something the Falcons have desperately needed. And on top of everything else, he does have the Matthews bloodlines and avoided injuries.
The second round pick the Falcons made was a surprise, but I really liked the pick. The Falcons selected Ra’Shede Hageman, the defensive lineman from Minnesota. The Falcons had Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters in house and they added Paul Solai to be the man in the middle and Tyson Jackson, who has extensive experience as a 5-technique defensive end.
Hageman has the ability to play inside, but he is ideally suited to play on the outside at end. His physical talent is off the charts and while he has issues to be worked out, they are nothing that cannot be addressed and he can become a dominant force off the edge in a similar vein as Richard Seymour.
Hageman has horrific instincts when it comes to playing against the run and would constantly take himself out of his gap in an effort to make big plays, which would do more harm than good. He needs to buy in to a defensive scheme and stay in his gap, accepting the idea that while he can make his own plays, he is more important when it comes to demanding blockers and allowing teammates to get the tackle.
On the other hand, Hageman has shown he can help as a pass rusher. He has the raw quickness and strength to get to the passer, but needs to be more consistent with technique and leverage. With all of the negative and rawness that comes with Hageman, what makes me high on him is his ability to bend. For all of the issues that have to be addressed, Hageman is able to bend and get under the opponents pads at 6’6” and win with power.
The Falcons had access to Hageman at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in coaching him, so they have some insight in how coachable he is. If he can buy in and adapt to what they want to do and take his ability to play low and build on that, he can develop into a monster of a player for them, wherever they decide to put him. Personally, I would put him on the edge, but he could also help in nickel from the inside.
In the third round, the Falcons went with another player they saw in Mobile up close by taking Dez Southward. While it made sense that they took a player they may have liked in their time with him, this was still a surprising move that they took Southward this early. This felt like a pretty substantial reach.
Having said that, Southward has impressive athleticism and size for the position. He has shown that when he is focused and plugged in, he has been able to be effective. The problem with Southward is that he is still raw. Despite being a coach’s son, he is still relatively new to the game of football and still learning how to be a safety.
Southward has experience deep as a safety and playing in the slot as a corner. Overall, he is more suited to play deep but he might be able to help the Falcons more quickly if they want to use a big nickel look with him inside. The Falcons let Thomas DeCoud go this offseason and signed Dwight Lowery before the draft, so Southward has time to develop and learn. In the meantime, he can help them on special teams, which he has been effective in doing. The hope for the Falcons is that Southward develops faster than many experts predicted to warrant the selection in the third round.
They followed that up with a pick that was a good value in Devonta Freeman, the running back from Florida State. Had the Falcons taken Freeman in the third and Southward in the fourth, it would have looked far better, so those two picks even themselves out.
The Falcons have struggled to run the football in recent years and Steven Jackson did not do much of anything last year. Between improvements to the offensive line and perhaps picking Freeman, the Falcons may get a badly needed boost in that department.
Freeman is a tremendous athlete who has the agility, strength and pad level to be a good back. He also seems to have a good feel for how to attack opponents. The question with Freeman comes down to how well he really sees the hole as it opens up as it was never truly clear just how well he did that in Tallahassee. If it turns out he has good vision for the position, there were some who championed Freeman as their top back in the draft. Based on everything else he brought to the table, there is an argument for it, but the vision question is one I was not sure enough of to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Freeman is talented enough and the Falcons depth chart at running back is weak enough where if Freeman can come in and hit the ground running, he could end up being their top back sooner than later. This could be a chance for this draft to really boost the Falcons in year one if Freeman can play up to that potential.
The other fourth round pick they had was as confusing a pick as there was in the entire draft. The Falcons selected Prince Shembo from Notre Dame. For me, Shembo was not drafable and his best chance to succeed was going to a team where he could play strong side linebacker. Fortunately, the Falcons do appear to have Shembo slated to play the strong inside linebacker position. Nevertheless, there were substantially better options available at that spot in the draft for that exact position. Avery Williamson, to me, would have been a substantially better pick.
Shembo is not afraid to take on blocks and do the dirty work, but his range, overall athleticism and ability to help in coverage were all pretty ordinary. He also seemed to benefit quite a bit from the play of others around him in that defense and was not even the best linebacker on that team. Like with Southward, the Falcons may be onto something I am simply not seeing, but I was stunned by this move. It was made that much more confusing by a pick they would make later.
A few picks later, the Falcons selected Ricardo Allen from Purdue. I thought this was an interesting pick, but I liked the fit. The Falcons have worked to get a bunch of talented man cover corners. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford were both great fits for this movement last season in the draft and now they are projected to start. Allen fits the same type of mold.
The issue with Allen is his height, but that lack of height just means that Allen would slide inside to nickel or dime competing with and possibly complement to Robert McClain. In the end, the Falcons could have a dime set up with four pretty talented and athletic man corners that can allow them to be aggressive up front.
The Falcons took a coverage linebacker in Marcus Spruill later in round five. Spruill is undersized and quick, making him suited to play potentially in nickel situations as well as on special teams. He played as a weak side backer for Syracuse but would kick inside for the Falcons while still fulfilling much of the same role he had in college. Special teams may be the key for him to make the final 53 and he could end up starting his career on the practice squad.
The Falcons picked up Yawin Smallwood in round 7. This is the pick that made the Shembo pick that much more confusing. Smallwood was a fantastic run defender in college. His decision to declare early was confusing, given that he had to improve as a coverage linebacker. As good as Smallwood was playing the run, he struggled with range and helping in coverage. Had he stayed, it might have allowed him to address those issues and go much higher in the draft.
To me, Smallwood was a better prospect than Shembo. If nothing else, Smallwood was impressive at doing one thing. Even if he does nothing else but gives them a two-down run defender, that would be a great value for the Falcons. He still has the potential to get better but that is going to be what allows him to succeed early.
With the last pick of their draft, the Falcons took an athletic pass rusher in Tyler Starr from South Dakota. Starr is a triangle numbers prospect that has great physical tools, but has to show he can develop and pick up the NFL game. Athletically, he has the tools to play in the NFL, but he is a project.
The Starr pick was a perfectly fine one, but it does highlight the huge issue the Falcons initially tried to address in the first round and then proceeded not to address until round seven; pass rushers. The Falcons did not have any pass rushers last year and the move to the 3-4 made them even more problematic. They signed Osi Umenyiora, but he is 32 and it remains to see how much he can do.
The Falcons improved the offensive line with Matthews, improved the defensive line with Hageman and then attacked the middle of their defense. They really did nothing to improve the pass rushing situation. And while they did improve their offensive line significantly with Matthews, he was the only player they took there.
On the whole, the Falcons made some good picks and addressed some issues, but some of their picks left me confused as to their aim from this draft. It is not difficult to project the needs they are going to have in next year’s draft already and for a team that wants to think of themselves as a contender, that could be a big problem. And in an incredibly competitive division like the NFC South, any missed opportunity is magnified. If Freeman can be a big time player for them, this draft will look significantly better, especially early on, which could change the scope of this year’s season.
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