For the Atlanta Falcons, this year’s draft class was dominated by defense, drafting seven defensive players out of its nine picks. In addition to drafting the biggest needs of the team, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff ‘s biggest goal- to get bigger and stronger on the defensive side of the ball- was accomplished as well.
Although the Falcons may not have had the best draft, they drafted players that will definitely make a direct impact on the team in regard to improving the defense.
OT Jake Mathews, Round 1, 6th pick
DE Ra’Shede Hageman, Round 2, 5th pick, 37th pick overall
S Dezmen Southward, Round 3, 4th pick, 68th pick overall
RB Devonta Freeman, Round 4, 3rd pick, 103rd pick overall
LB Prince Shembo, Round 4, 39th pick, 139th pick overall
CB Ricardo Allen, Round 5, 7th pick, 147th pick overall
LB Marquis Spruill, Round 5, 28th pick, 168th pick overall
LB Yawin Smallwood, Round 7, 38th pick, 253rd pick overall
LB Tyler Starr, Round 7, 40th pick, 255th pick overall
Defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman was a great pick for Atlanta. Although drafted in the second round, he is truly talented and was slated to be picked in the late first round. Hageman fits right into the new 3-4 defensive scheme the Falcons plan to use next year and has great potential. He has the opportunity to become a dominant pass rusher for the Falcons in the upcoming year.
With the release of FS Thomas DeCoud, drafting safety Dezmen Southward adds speed and more youth to an already young secondary. Southward started playing football during his senior year of high school but his pro day set him apart. He was the highest drafted safety in the University of Wisconsin’s history and has potential to do very well in the NFL.
Nevertheless, he will still have to compete with free agent players such as Dwight Lowery, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas during training camp, as well as safety William Moore and second-year cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
True enough, cornerback Ricardo Allen lacks size and will be challenged against physical wide receivers in the league. However, he can make plays with pure athleticism and has good movement skills. The Falcons desperately need players to make plays on the defensive side of the ball. Thus, he may be challenged physically and beat by some receivers of this caliber, but if he can make big plays when needed, he will definitely help them in a tremendous way.
Along with the secondary, linebackers present a critical part in a 3-4 defense. Currently, besides Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon, drafting four young linebackers with great talent is key to improving on the defensive side of the ball, especially in run defense.
Linebacker Prince Shembo plays right into Falcons’ bigger and stronger aspect on defense. He is strong, physical and has the ability to play special teams, stuff tight ends and reach the point of attack quickly, something the Falcons lacked last year.
As for Marquis Spruill, he lacks size but he has the ability to get to the point of attack as well, tackles well, is a balanced player and closes well with speed. He too brings speed and quickness to the team. Strength, size and speed are critical keys for Atlanta in regard to rebuilding its defense.
Linebackers Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr both have much to contribute to the team. Both have good size and have the potential to be highly productive for the Falcons. Smallwood has great acceleration and is great in getting depth in zone drops when reading defenses. Critics say he lacks the ability to play downhill but he still has potential to help Atlanta in terms of improving the defense overall. Starr has great athletic ability and will go face-to-face with tight ends in coverage. With tight ends like Jimmy Graham playing more of a pivotal part in offenses within the NFL, finding linebackers who can defend tight ends will be crucial as they continue to impact the offensive game as we know it.
Offensively, drafting former Florida State running back Devonta Freeman was an excellent choice. With a similar running style to Frank Gore and with current running back Steven Jackson getting older, Freeman adds quickness, toughness, strength and power despite being undersized at 206 pounds. If he puts on more weight, continues to get stronger as a runner, he will eventually become an offensive threat. On a bigger scale, with a stronger running game, it will allow Matt Ryan to spread the ball around the field to different receivers.
Of course you cannot forget first round draft pick Jake Matthews. With great hands, balance and an outstanding run blocker, he will not only keep defenders away from Matt Ryan, he has the ability to drive defenders away from the ball and ultimately create running lanes for Steven Jackson and rookie Devonta Freeman. Therefore, creating a more balanced attack on offense.
After finishing 27th overall on defense, allowing 443 total yards per game to opposing offenses during last season, it was imperative for the Falcons to improve defensively. The Falcons finished (31st) in rush defense and (21st) in pass defense last season, giving up nearly 2,200 yards on the ground and approximately 136 every game.
With the 3-4 defensive scheme and highly talented players drafted, the defense should improve with young, fresh talent on the field. Although they are young, playing alongside experienced linebackers such as Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon, free agents like Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, the young players will continue grow and hone their skills at their position.