Walker: Falcons New Eyes Are Evident
The dust has now settled on the 2014 National Football League Draft for the Atlanta Falcons. The hope springs eternal for a club that finished 4-12 last season after the much publicized SuperBowl aspirations in the preseason of 2013. It seemed that the “Dirty Birds” were exposed; for some merely a “finesse” group capable of the nightly highlight but soft in its core. This team was oft injured but due to moves to get “more explosive” may have sacrificed depth in critical areas such as the Offensive & Defensive Lines. Some questioned the Falcons Front Office and Coaching Staff’s ability to secure and develop talent, especially in the trenches in the “Next Man Up” philosophy. The team always used “The Process” as a stable of continued growth but the lack of success in 2013 essentially led to the question, has this Dimitroff-Smith Regime’ hit its ceiling?
In the off-season, front office and coaching changes occurred within the Falcons Organization with the team bringing in Scott Pioli, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs as the Assistant General Manager and Billy Devaney formerly of the St. Louis Rams as a Player Personnel Scout. Pioli was brought in primarily as another set of eyes and to be a resource in selecting trench players, an area of need for this team. Devaney has quality experience that is beneficial to the organization as a whole. The coaching staff also went through some changes, adding Mike Tice, former Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings and NFL Tight End as the Offensive Line Coach along with Bryan Cox, former Linebacker with the Miami Dolphins as its Defensive Line Coach. This was just one of many reactions to the mandate from owner Arthur Blank that this team get tougher and more physical. Of course such mandates have been made before from the top down but it seems this time “Mr. Home Depot” understands the function of creating a structurally sound foundation.
There were talks before the draft that the Atlanta Falcons would possibly trade up to get the coveted pass rusher Jadaveon Clowney out of the University of South Carolina and I am certain that talks were attempted but instead of the splash that General Manager Thomas Dimitroff is known for the team stayed true to its needs and apparently to its board. The team drafted Jake Matthews with its 1st pick, the Tackle out of Texas A&M with whom I absolutely love because of his pedigree, along with being 100% of what this regime’ loves….his versatility. From an X’s & O’s standpoint Matthews played under two very different offensive systems, yet flourished in both. Under Mike Sherman it was a system-based offense where it relied on the Quarterback going through progressions and timing was essential. After Sherman was fired however, here comes the Kevin Sumlin’ Spread System with Quarterback Johnny Manziel primarily never being in the same spot and having to block for a sustained period of time. In my eyes, that transitions well to the next level, especially the success that Quarterback Matt Ryan has in the no-huddle system for the Falcons because Matthews is both fast enough to process the information needed and a good enough run blocker to bolster the ground game, along with him being able to handle the traditional Dirk Koetter vertical passing game.
The pick of Ra’Shede Hageman, the Defensive Tackle/End out of Minnesota in the 2nd round was both a pick for need and by influence. A relationship was already established with Hageman and the Falcons Coaching Staff in the Senior Bowl, primarily with Defensive Line Coach Bryan Cox who according to some really took a great interest in the young man and pushed him during practices. They saw the potential, along with the freakish 6’6, 310 pound frame and athletic ability, and pulled the trigger. Also playing in the Senior Bowl for their next pick the team went to Dezmen Southward, Safety out of Wisconsin. Despite some injury concerns, Southward tore up his pro day at Wisconsin, running a sub-4.35 40 yards dash time. He also has shown the flexibility to play both Corner and Safety speed wise but the assuring thing here is his tackling ability. He can bring the ball carrier to the ground. He will compete from day one for the Safety position with Free Agent Dwight Lowery, along with Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael. The Falcons 4th round selection of Devonta Freeman, Runningback out of Florida State was tremendous in that it filled both the talent need and went with the offensive philosophy. Freeman can run with speed and strength, catch the ball out of the backfield, and block in pass protection. The unique thing about him is despite him getting over 1,000 yards last season, he actually shared duties with two other backs, leaving plenty of tread on the tires. This is important considering Jason Snelling has retired, Steven Jackson is an older back in the twilight of his career, and after three years the team is not really sure what it has in Jacquizz Rodgers.
The linebacker of picks for the Falcons symbolized what I believe is the changing of defensive philosophy from primarily to a 4-3 team to a 3-4 team. Of course Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan will continue to be versatile but the picks of Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame, Marquis Spruill out of Syracuse, Yawin Smallwood out of Connecticut, and Tyler Starr out of South Dakota were telling in that there was clearly a search for both inside and outside linebackers in the 3-4. Shembo adds pass rush ability while Spruill, Smallwood, and Starr may add the much needed thump that you want from both the middle linebacker positions. Some pundits and fans alike wanted a traditional pass rusher like a Kony Ealy out of Missouri that ironically ended up with division foe Carolina Panthers but with the Falcons going heavily Defensive End in last years draft with Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga, along with free agent addition Tyson Jackson and last years’ addition Osi Umenyiora, the team may have felt that the addition of Cox to the coaching staff will change the fortunes of the pass rush.
The drafting of Ricardo Allen, Corner out of Purdue in the 5th round was very important because of adding depth at corner. The Falcons are already young at that position with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, along with Robert McClain, but in addition receivers within the NFC South have gotten an upgrade and a lot bigger. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers added Mike Evans out of Texas A&M to complement Vincent Jackson, both standing 6’5, Carolina added Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State who is 6’4, 240, and the New Orleans Saints added Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State who although small in stature runs a sub-4.3 40 yard dash. The Falcons must be able to defend the perimeter of the football field along with strengthening the tackling along the defensive front. Overall, there is no way of truly evaluating what this draft class is until they have played but it was clearly evident that the influences of Arthur Blank, Scott Pioli, Billy Devaney, Mike Smith, Mike Nolan, and even Bryan Cox are reflected in this draft class. As a fan and analyst I am looking forward to this season.
Jamie Walker is a Producer and Blogger for Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. Walker can be reached on Twitter @coachjdub21, on Instagram @coachjdub21 or through email at Jamie.Walker@cbsradio.com.