Coming into the 2014 NFL draft the Atlanta Falcons had many positions that needed to be addressed such as offensive and defensive line, safety, tight end as well as depth at the corner and running back positions. Much of the talk pre-draft was whether the Falcons would trade up in the first round to get Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack but with the price of a trade up way too high this scenario never played out. The Falcons general manager admitted that a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who held the third pick was the most likely to take place but the Jags did not want to trade down once the draft had begun as they were concerned about losing the quarterback they wanted in Blake Bortals.
Once Dimitroff knew he could not trade up to the one spot, again because the cost was too high (three first round picks) the focus was on drafting a tackle, either Jake Matthews or Taylor Lewan. When the Jags selected a quarterback Dimitroff new that he could get one of those two tackles so no trade was needed at this point. With the selection of Matthews the Falcons took the best player available and also the player who could help their team the most. Atlanta’s offensive line was abysmal last year as Matt Ryan was the third most sacked QB in the league. This pick can be best described as low risk high reward and is hard if not impossible to fault despite the need for a dominant defensive end.
So no trade in the first round for the Falcons but Dimitroff did try hard to trade back into the mid to late first round, ‘somewhere around the mid twenties’ as he put it to get a defensive player believed to be defensive end Dee Ford. Dimitroff was unable to find a team here that was willing to trade and then Ford was off the board, picked at 23 by the Chiefs. Other players of interest here would have been safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21st to the Packers) and linebacker Marcus Smith (25th to the Eagles).
Atlanta’s next pick came at the top of the second round and with the 37th overall pick and defensive end expected to be the target. One possible target, DeMarcus Lawrence had been taken three picks earlier by the Cowboys but Kony Ealy was available. The Falcons end up taking defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman who the Falcons had coached and seen first-hand at the senior bowl. The philosophy here according to Dimitroff was to build inside out, meaning get strong push up the middle with one or more of your big tackles being able to take on a double team and have your outside rushers clean up. This approach was put forward by defensive co-ordinator Mike Nolan who is probably fed up with his schemes being thrown out of the window because the Falcons can’t control the line of scrimmage in the first place.
With the philosophy in mind it is the right pick but if Atlanta still can generate a pass rush of any note inside or out then it will have to go down as the wrong pick, this will be highlighted even more if Ealy has success getting to the quarterback with division rival Carolina, especially if the success comes against the Falcons.
If the first two picks were pre-determined position wise then so was the third, a safety. In some ways the Falcons need for a safety no later than the third round restricted their ability to trade up as they could not afford to give up this pick. The three best safeties were long gone at this point and by picking Dezmen Southward Atlanta got the best available safety at the time of this pick and even if they picked a safety in the second round this would have still been the pick.
Atlanta had two picks in the fourth round and selected running back Devonta Freeman followed by outside linebacker Prince Shembo. Picking Freeman was something as a surprise but with not much to choose from between the running backs available in the fourth round Freeman looks a solid pick up and should compete with Jacquizz Rodgers for the second spot behind Stephen Jackson. Despite Freeman’s small size he is not just a change of pace back. The only other option for something different here would have been De’Anthony Thomas who was later drafted by the Chiefs.
Mike Mayock on Freeman”This kid, for his size, is very physical. There is not much tread on his tires. This kid has always split the duties in the backfield. He’s fresh and can catch the football.”
Prince Shembo was the first of four linebackers chosen by the Falcons in this draft, why do they need so many linebackers? Well, switching to a 3-4 defense the Falcons will be substituting linebackers in and out a lot, they also had a slew of injuries at this position last year and did not want to go through the same scenario of having to bring in free agents half way into the season. Shembo is a pass rushing linebacker who could come in on third down or obvious passing situations although he is not good in coverage. An excellent special team’s player.
As for the three other linebackers, Marquis Spruill could compete for minutes but should at least play special teams to begin with but Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr will be fighting to make the team starting with special teams. Ricardo Allen will add depth at the corner position.
Overall draft grade C
Without drafting a natural edge pass rusher such as Ford or Ealy I cannot grade this draft any higher than a C although the Matthews pick alone is an A and second round pick Hageman will help on the defensive line, only time will tell what sort of a pick Southward will be as it could go either way. Freeman looks like a nice pick up but Shembo is something of a gamble. If the Falcons had been able to trade up to get Dee Ford or Ha Ha Clinton Dix this would have risen the grade to a B, adding Ealy would have made it a C+.