At the start of the 2013 season, no one would have thought that the Atlanta Falcons would end up owning a Top 10 pick this year, but that would indeed be the case.
Even after making and exiting the playoffs early in 2012, many had the Falcons pegged to return to the playoffs last year and possibly make it to the NFC Championship game. Unfortunately, they seemed to stumble over themselves right out of the gate and were never able to recover to salvage their season, ending it at a very disappointing 4-12 record.
With all of that now in the past, Matt Ryan and the rest of the team are eyeing 2014 with big expectations. Now that several key players back from injury and healthy, like wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, Atlanta will be back in contention for one of the top playoff spots in the NFC.
Not only are some of their best players off of injury, but they have also done a good job of fixing some of the holes and weaker spots on the roster, both through the draft and in free agency.
Defense is a bit of a concern, though, as both the pass rush and the secondary are in need of some upgrades. Their leader at linebacker, Sean Witherspoon, has been lost to injury and there is not much talent behind him to make up for the loss of his production.
Luckily, last year’s first round pick, cornerback Desmond Trufant, has already turned into quite the pro and has the talent and prowess to turn himself into one of the top defensive backs in the league, giving Atlanta a ton of promise moving forward. If the Falcons are to have any hope of contending for both a playoff spot and a shot at the Super Bowl, they will need several members of their defensive unit to step up and make a big difference.
Entire Draft Class: Jake Matthews, offensive tackle; Ra’Shede Hageman, defensive tackle; Dezmen Southward, free safety; Devonta Freeman, running back; Prince Shembo, outside linebacker; Ricardo Allen, cornerback; Marquis Spruill, inside linebacker; Yawin Smallwood, outside linebacker; Tyler Starr, outside linebacker.
Best Immediate Impact Rookie: Jake Matthews, offensive tackle; 6′ 5″, 608 lbs.
My top ranked tackle for the 2014 draft, Jake Matthews falling to the Falcons at sixth overall was a dream scenario. Going into the draft, the hopes for the Falcons were to either grab defensive end and generational talent, Jadeveon Clowney, to help bolster their pass rush or get a premiere left tackle in Matthews to protect franchise quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside.
To their delight, the Falcons were able to select Matthews with their first round pick and shore up the left side of their offensive line. The starting gig was instantly handed over to the former Texas A&M Aggie when he was picked, but the duties that come along with it will be challenging.
As for the rest of the class, there will be a lot of competition in their way before they can see the field regularly.
Second round pick, defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, is the closest to contending with Matthews for both playing time and the type of impact he can leave on the field, but inconsistency has been a big problem for him throughout his collegiate career and he will need to learn to play with more of that. He has also been dealing with some injuries in OTAs that have slowed his progress, so that is another hamper to his playing time in his first year.
Though I am a bit skeptical on the rest of the Falcons draft class, there is some good potential with them. Defense was a point of emphasis for Atlanta as they used seven out of their nine total draft picks to help strengthen the overall talent and depth on that side of the ball.
Four of those seven were used to address the linebackers group, especially on the outside ‘backer position. And even with the potential that they all bring, it is really a toss up on who will earn their chance to crack the rotation for the regular season and, in the end, I would not be surprised if none of them saw much time on the field outside of special teams for their first season.
With the last two rookies to be mentioned, both Southward and Freeman are sitting behind seasoned veterans who are still producing enough to keep their current starting spot. Of the two, Freeman is a guy who could push for some carries here and there after time.
Focusing back on Matthews, the need for a book end left tackle was big. The Falcons couldn’t keep Matt Ryan off of his back and even when they did manage to keep him upright, he was usually running for his life.
Looking at it now, Atlanta walked away with a bit of a steal. Even though there was a debate over whether Robinson or Matthews was the top tackle prospect heading into the 2014 NFL Draft, I had the latter player as my number one and still believe he will turn out to be the better pro. Both his technique and his pass blocking skills are very well developed and the maturity that he displays on and off the field are exactly what teams look for in any young player.
Throw in his excellent balance and footwork and he looks that much more impressive. Power may not be something that Matthews is especially known for, but he has more than enough of it and he knows exactly how to use it with the way he plays with leverage and aggressiveness.
His NFL bloodlines help out his efforts a bit, as well.
All in all, Jake Matthews is who Atlanta wanted and needed. A return to the playoffs is now that much more attainable with him in the starting front line.
Building a roster starts with the draft and with what the Falcons have managed to do with their draft picks over the past five years has really set them up as one of the better teams on paper. Now that they have both a healthy team and several new additions at key spots, like Matthews at left tackle, don’t be surprised to see a big year from Atlanta.