I know this post is a bit delayed, but it has given me the chance to really let the picks sink in. Instead of just a gut and immediate reaction to the Atlanta Falcons selections, I have had time to really digest their strategy.
1ST PICK: KEANU NEAL
With the Falcons first pick in the 2016 draft, and 17th overall, they selected hard-hitting former Florida Gator safety Keanu Neal. Now many pundits, myself included, expected that the Falcons would draft a pass-rusher with their first selection, especially when players like Shaq Lawson, Darron Lee and Robert Nkemdiche were all still available. Yes, there were injury concerns with Lawson and character issues with Nkemdiche, but when they selected Neal, seemingly everyone was surprised. Now, the Falcons have been adamant that Neal was there man from get-go, and at the time, I almost would have rather they drafted either of the two already injured linebackers (Miles Jack and Jaylon Smith) than to take a safety. The Falcons can say all they want that sacks are an overrated statistic, and that QB hurries are just as good; but, I don’t buy that for a second. A QB hurry is effective in that it could cause the QB to turn the ball over or throw it away and they lose a down, but, with a sack, they also lose a down and yardage. Seems like simple math to me.
So enough with that little rant. Safety was definitely a big need for the Falcons (defense as a whole really, but I digress). The Falcons let go a long-time Falcon in hard-hitting strong safety William Moore in the off-season, and the other starting safety for the 2015 season, Ricardo Allen, who looks like he will continue to battle Robenson Therezie for the other starting safety position, regardless does not appear to really be a legitimate long-term solution, so the Falcons really needed one of their safeties to be a dominant force. I think Neal can and will be that guy.
All of this being said, after having lots of time to digest this, I like this pick. A lot. Neal certainly looks like he could be the next great safety in the NFL as long as he works on a few things. He is known for his ability to obliterate plays in front of him and to always be in the right place at the right time, while his biggest weakness is missing tackles. Unfortunately, this does seem a lot like the last strong safety the Falcons had in the aforementioned Moore, but the Falcons could not continue to wait for Moore to learn and adapt. Neal is young and with no reason to think that he can’t continue to develop and get better.
My Grade: A
2ND PICK: DEION JONES
With the Falcons’ second pick, and 52nd overall, they selected former speedy LSU outside linebacker Deion Jones. Jones has phenomenal speed for his position, he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the combine, and fills a position of need. The Falcons have still not decided whether or not they are going to be bring O’Brien Schofield back, who started 11 games last season, and while they brought in Courtney Upshaw and brought back former Falcon Sean Weatherspoon, those two really aren’t considered to be long-term solid solutions. And Paul Worrilow is a really good tackler, but he is not really considered to be a great linebacker. The other starting linebacker, if he can stay healthy, is Brooks Reed. Nobody doubts that Reed is a great linebacker, but he is the definition of injury-prone.
Jones only started for one year in college, which is a bit of a concern, but he did start for LSU. You can debate with me all you want, but the SEC is easily the toughest conference in college football with the closest to NFL competition that you can get without being in the NFL, in my opinion. And that is certainly beneficial to any player. This pick really did not surprise because Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn is always preaching about he wants lots of speed on defense, and Jones is clearly that. I believe he still has some more work to do, and I think a lot of that will just come with experience.
My Grade: B
3RD PICK: AUSTIN HOOPER
With the Falcons’ third selection, and 81st overall, they chose 2015 Mackey Award finalist (best college tight end) Austin Hooper. Tight End is yet another need that the Falcons needed to fill (you might be noticing a theme here), and so they added another Stanford Cardinal tight end (to go along with Levine Toilolo). I like this selection because Jacob Tamme (the current starter at the position) is getting up in age, and personally, I think he is a pretty solid number 2 at this point in his career. I think Hooper will begin the season as the number 2 and eventually will end up becoming the starter as the season goes on, as he was a reliable target in college (over two years of playing-time (he red-shirted his first year at Stanford) he caught 74 passes for 837 yards and eight TD’s) and I am tired of waiting on Toilolo to learn how to catch. Toilolo is a massive target and a real good blocker, but the team needs more receiving threats.
My Grade: A-
4TH PICK: DE’VONDRE CAMPBELL
With their fourth pick, and 115th overall, the Falcons selected another speedy outside linebacker, and former Ra’Shede Hageman teammate at the University of Minnesota, in De’Vondre Campbell (who, like I said, would fill a position of need). Campbell has a couple qualities that Quinn definitely likes and seeks in his players: speed and versatility. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash and played some at inside linebacker as well while in college. Quinn has spent a lot of time over the 1+ year(s) that he has been the head man in Atlanta so far on making sure players can play multiple positions, and Campbell already having some experience doing that certainly bodes well for him. The big weakness that that scouts point out in Campbell’s game is a lack of instincts, which at the linebacker position, you typically have to react and make a decision a bit quicker than other positions, so that could potentially be an issue and is presumably something that the coaches will spend a lot of time working with him on during the off-season.
My Grade: B-
5TH PICK: WES SCHWEITZER
With the Falcons’ fifth selection, and 195th overall, the Falcons picked offensive guard Wes Schweitzer out of San Jose State (what do you know, yet another position of great need). First off, the Falcons only had this pick because of the trade they made with the Houston Texans in the second round when the Falcons traded back two spots and were able to gain another draft pick (this one). The Falcons’ offensive line play has been shaky at best over the past couple of years, and while they picked up Alex Mack in the off-season (in my opinion one of the best, if not THE best, addition of any team in the off-season) they still needed more help on the O-line. The two tackle positions seem to be pretty well taken care of with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, but the two guards struggled. Andy Levitre is paid like he should be a good guard, but he struggled quite a bit, and having Mack at center could potentially make Levitre better, but it’s always good to have a back-up plan, i.e. Schweitzer. Mike Person was the center for last season and will presumably be Mack’s backup for this season and then at the other guard position the team is using Chris Chester, who also struggled a bit last year. I do really think that Mack will immediately make the rest of the O-line better, but with the injuries and struggles the Falcons have suffered through on the line over the past couple of years, quality depth (which is pretty much what the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft are for…other than kickers and punters of course) is an important thing for team to draft here.
My Grade: B-
6TH (AND FINAL) PICK: DEVIN FULLER
With their last pick of the 2016 draft, the Falcons chose lightning-fast receiver Devin Fuller out of UCLA. The former Bruin will be another needed addition to the receiving corps, and possibly the replacement for Devin Hester as Fuller was the return-man for UCLA while he was there. Hester is still on the team, but has still not finished recovering from his foot injury that sidelined him for nearly the whole season last year. Hester is also getting up there in age; he is 33 and will be 34 before the season ends. Fuller ran a remarkable 4.39 40 at his pro day, giving Quinn yet another super-fast player. Fuller has a pretty legitimate shot at making the team considering his possible prowess in the return game and his size, but it seems as if he needs to work on his hustle (seems odd to say about someone with his speed, but scouts say that he does not show that speed on the field), so we will have to wait and see what happens with him.
My Grade: C+
Overall, I feel like the Falcons did a pretty good job in what was Quinn’s first full off-season to scout college players, and after his full season of being able to scout his own team and see what really needs fixing. All of this being said, it kinda seems ridiculous to grade a draft of players before they have even played a preseason game, let alone a game that matters. But, everyone else is doing it, so why not?