After weeks or predicting, analyzing and theorizing the Falcons draft class is finally complete. The Falcons entered the draft with 10 picks and a roster with some sizable holes. In the end the Falcons made 9 selections, 7 being on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons made some really good picks in my opinion and also made a couple of questionable ones. Here is a run through of the Falcons picks with my thoughts and grades on each player.
Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M
When Matthews fell to the Falcons at 6 overall Thomas Dimitroff and his staff must have been resisting the urge to high five. It appears as though Matthews was the player the Falcons were hoping would fall all along and these no doubt that the Falcons get a very good, solid player in Matthews. I imagine most will give the selection of Matthews by the Falcons a very good grade as not only is he a good player but he fills a need for Atlanta. While this is true, having learned that Matthews will be the starting RT this season I cannot give this pick an excellent grade as taking a RT at 6th overall in the draft when in my opinion there were bigger needs on the roster is not a great decision. Now there is a very good chance Matthews will be moved to LT in the not too distant future at which point I will warm slightly more to his selection. However, at this stage I feel the Falcons would have been better trading down and grabbing a pass rusher and/or safety. If the Falcons planned to let Baker start at LT all along this season then why not leave offensive tackle to the mid rounds? Just so were clear my qualm is not with Matthews, indeed I think he will be a very solid player, I just think the Falcons roster would have been better if we had added a pass rusher or safety instead.
Ra’Shede Hageman, Defensive Lineman, Minnesota
If you read my review of the Falcons picks from day 2 then you will already be aware of my feelings on Hageman. Hageman’s an incredibly gifted athlete, arguably the second biggest freak in this draft behind Jadeveon Clowney. Despite his talent and skill set Hageman is incredibly inconsistent, however, when he’s good, he produces some genuinely jaw dropping moments. What is promising is that the Falcons coaches, in particular D line coach Bryan Cox, got to spend a lot of time with Hageman at the Senior Bowl and they clearly liked what they saw from Hageman.
Hageman is very raw so don’t expect him to play a ton of snaps this year, I would think at best he will be a part of the Falcons very deep rotation that they now have on the D-line. Because of his boom or bust capability this pick can;t get a top grade but it’s a pick I’m a huge fan of. Hageman has so much potential, the sky really is the limit with him.
Dezmen Southward, Safety, Wisconsin
Who? Southward was a pick that not many could have predicted. First things first, Southward has the perfect build for an NFL safety and he did blow up his pro day, running a 4.37 40 yard dash. Having not heard of Southward before the Falcons selected him I have only watched a couple of his game tapes. What is quickly apparent is that Southward’s speed is legit. His closing speed is good and he can use his speed to close down angles quickly. Southward looks like a good tackler who does have the ability to make the big hit. Wisconsin used Southward in a variety of ways, he was lined up as both a safety and slot corner and played in both man and zone coverage. I imagine the Falcons will make Southward a full time safety as his hips and footwork aren’t fluid or quick enough to hold up as a slot corner in the league. When the play is in front of Southward he will often go and make it, he’s instinctive in this regard and he often makes a nice drive on the ball. However, Southward is not good when he’s asked to turn his head and run, his hips look stiff in this regard and he often lets people get behind him. A lot of Southward’s faults are technical and he can definitely be coached up and erase some of these faults with the Falcons. Like Hageman, Southward has a ton of upside and potential but at the moment he looks like a reach who could have probably been taken a round or two later.
Devonta Freeman, Running Back, Florida State University
Devonta Freeman was one of my favorite players in the draft and I love this pick by the Falcons. Freeman is a back who can do it all. He’s a tough compact runner who has legitimate home run speed. Freeman also displays nice hands and is a reliable pass catcher and most importantly he is an absolute stud in pass protection. Freeman will fit into a running back rotation of Jackson, Rodgers and Smith and adds some much needed depth to a position of need for the Falcons. Look for Freeman to come in on third downs a lot this year and maybe take 20% of the running back snaps. With Steven Jackson probably coming to the end of his career look for Freeman to be number 1 on the depth chart this time next year.
Prince Shembo, Linebacker, Notre Dame
Before I delve into the actual player I will just quickly touch upon Shembo’s controversial off the field incident in which he was accused of inappropriately touching a girl. The whole situation involving Shembo is now well documented and I have my own thoughts and feelings on the situation which I will not delve into now. What I will say, and Thomas Dimitroff confirmed this was that the Falcons did look extensively at Shembo’s situation and I’m sure Thomas would not have pulled the trigger if he hadn’t been 100% comfortable.
As a draft prospect Shembo was never a player who I particularly liked. He is a limited athlete who seems to wait until plays are in front of him before reacting. Shembo’s snap anticipation and first step are very inconsistent as is his transition of speed to power. Shembo is a pass rusher but he has very few pass rushing moves, he is quick enough to turn the corner on slow footed tackles but he will really struggle to do this in the NFL. Shembo does have the prototypical NFL linebacker build and he has tremendous arm length for a player his size, he however very rarely uses this length to its potential. In Shembo the Falcons get a linebacker who will play mostly at the line of scrimmage, he projects as a depth and special teams guy who will probably never be a starter due to his limited athleticism. The fact that the Falcons selected a player like Shembo over a player like Telvin Smith is completely baffling to me.
Ricardo Allen, Cornerback, Purdue
Allen is a player who I really like. A lot of people will look at his size and 40 time and will immediately be turned off, don’t be. Allen is a ball player. Allen loves to attack the ball in the air and is extremely skilled at undercutting routes and getting his hands on the ball. Despite not being physically imposing Allen is an aggressive, tenacious defender who is a really good tackler for his size. Allen’s also a good blitzer off the edge. Allen’s lack of long speed is a worry, you don’t want to put him on an island because he will get torched over the top. Allen is an out and out zone corner and he actually is very reminiscent of a particular Brent Grimes. Allen will come in and compete for the slot corner role from day 1. The Falcons got a really good competitive corner here who I think will surprise a lot of people. A really nice sleeper pick here by the Falcons. Allen joins a really good, competitive group of corners for the Falcons and the competition should be fierce throughout camp.
Marquis Spruill, Linebacker, Syracuse
Spruill is an undersized speed guy at the linebacker position who will come in and be a special teams ace. Haven’ty seen enough tape to have a strong opinion on him but the stuff I did see wasn’t great, left a lot of plays on the field. Can’t get too excited or angry with this pick, he’s a depth guy who will see most of his snaps as a special teamer.
Yawin Smallwood, Linebacker, Conneticut
Another linebacker! Smallwood is a great value pick here, a potential steal. Teams were put off by his poor combine showing but don’t read too much into that, he was injured. Smallwood comes in and will compete at the middle linebacker spot. He will push Dent for the No3 mike spot and to be honest I expect him to win it. While Smallwood’s 40 time wasn’t quick his read and reaction time on the field is excellent. Any speed that he may lack he makes up for with his quick decision making. Not only is Smallwood quick to react but he also seems to nearly always know where the ball is going. He is very rarely misdirected or fooled. While not an outstanding athlete Smallwood shows some nice skills in coverage, he has a knack for disrupting passing lanes and is comfortable dropping into coverage. A really nice late round pick here who some had as a day 2 pick, Falcons got some tremendous value here.
Tyler Starr, Linebacker, South Dakota
Starr is a big strong lengthy player who can come in and compete as a jack of all trades utility player for the Falcons. Starr can rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage. The problem being that he isn’t particularly dominant doing any of these. When rushing the passer Starr shows a good first step and has active hands that he uses to beat lineman. Starr is a great athlete for someone his size, he has fluid hips and he really is an impressive athlete. On tape the thing that really stands out is Starr’s hustle, he keeps playing from whistle to whistle and as a late round pick this is something that you have to have if you want to make a roster. Starr has a lot of tools at his disposal and hopefully he makes the roster or practice squad because he has an intriguing set of weapons.
This draft class is an intriguing one as the Falcons took a lot of guys with boom or bust potential. If players like Hageman and Southward pan out then this class could be special, however, if they don’t, this class could turn out to be a disaster. The most shocking and infuriating issue that I have is that once again the Falcons didn’t prioritize a pass rusher. It’s not even that they didn’t take one early. They didn’t take one at all. Dimitroff claims the pass rusher class wasn’t a strong one but there were still plenty of options who the Falcons could have brought in and who would have contributed. I’m also pretty shocked that the Falcons didn’t go after a tight end, the tight end depth chart is grim reading right now. The one thing that does worry me is that the Falcons took a lot of guys who would need a lot of work before they can be NFL starters. Matthews is by far and away the most NFL ready player but after that these not really a player who can step in and contribute significant snaps right away. Much like the rest of the off season the biggest thing that the Falcons achieved with the draft was adding depth. With the addition of Hageman the D-line is absolutely stacked, some good players will be cut from that group. The cornerback group is also extremely competitive right now with a whole bunch of guys competing for the 3rd, 4th and 5th corner spots. The weakest spots on the roster are still pass rusher and TE. At least with Toilolo the Falcons have a glimmer of hope, as for pass rusher I just don’t know what the plan is anymore. Once again the Falcons didn’t add a WR in the draft which means another year of Harry Douglas in the slot unless the Falcons actually let Darius Johnson compete for that slot WR role, which lets be honest, they wont. The offensive line now looks pretty much set and should be league average at worse this year while the running back group looks solid. One player who can’t get injured this year is William Moore, the Falcons are going to really rely on Moore to not only play well but to add leadership. If he goes down the back-end of the defense could get ugly. The Falcons roster definitely improved this week, its a shame that a lot of these improvements probably wont be seen until next season. None the less, a solid if unspectacular draft for the Falcons.
Overall draft grade: B
Just one thing to keep an eye on. The Falcons signed QB Jeff Matthews from Cornell as an UDFA, don’t be surprised if he ends up as Matt’s backup by the start of the season.