The Falcons’ first selection will come at #26 in the first-round of the 2018 NFL draft. Ever since Dan Quinn has arrived, the Falcons have been able to strike gold with their first-round selections. Vic Beasley Jr. led the entire NFL in sacks two seasons ago, Keanu Neal made his first pro-bowl last season, and Takkarist McKinley looks like he is on track to follow his predecessors, recording 6.0 sacks in the regular season and added two more in the postseason. Atlanta has had a knack of drafting some guys who are well under the radar, and probably should have gone much higher. Here are a few guys who fit that description and could end up wearing the red and black next season.
Saying the Falcons are thin across the defensive line, particularly at the defensive tackle position, is a colossal understatement. Atlanta is desperate for some youth, speed and athleticism to line up next to Grady Jarrett, and Taven Bryan out of Florida could be just that. Bryan looks like the prototypical player the Falcons have drafted since Dan Quinn became the Falcons head coach. At 6′ 5″, 291 pounds, with rare speed, Bryan is a physical specimen that has all the tools to be a force to be reckoned with in the NFL. His sack production might not show it, but Bryan was elite at putting pressure on the quarterback. He just had trouble completing the actual sack, which very well might be related to his poor instincts as a football player, making him a project of sorts. Since Quinn’s arrival, Atlanta has made the most of their projects, particularly on the defensive side. If Bryan were to fall to the 26th slot, it should not be surprising if the Falcons were to select him.
Daron Payne’s draft stock has shot up due to his fantastic play during the College Football Playoff, where he showed off his unique athleticism and hands with an interception and a touchdown reception. Payne was not much of a pass rusher in college, as he only recorded three sacks over his college career, but like Dontari Poe, he can fill up the rushing lanes with his size. That may have also had a lot to do with scheme, as Payne has great hands and speed, which should allow him to develop into more of a pass rusher next to Grady Jarrett. The 311-pound lineman ran a ridiculous 4.95 40-yard dash at the combine, which should cement his spot in the first-round. There are some potential issues with the Falcons drafting Payne, however. Most notably, he projects to go somewhere in the 15-20 range. The Falcons showed last year they are not afraid to move up to draft their guy, but given their limited amount of draft picks, it is hard to see them giving up much to move up 5-10 spots. One thing is for sure: Payne lives up to the fast and physical mantra Quinn has placed on this defense. He would be an immediate plug-and-play on the Falcons defensive line but will likely be gone before the Falcons select with the 26th pick.
Due to the Falcons current depth chart and the weak draft class at the defensive line position, it is very likely they opt to take a defensive lineman with their first pick. But if they opt to invest in the future of their offensive line, it would be hard to blame them for drafting Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia. Wynn is a versatile and athletic lineman with the ability to play either the guard or tackle position. His size projects him as more of a guard in the NFL, but he was a 2017 All-SEC member and second-team All-American at tackle his senior season. The future at the guard position is one of the biggest question marks moving forward for this Falcons team. Wes Schweitzer proved not be the answer last season and Andy Levitre is entering the last year of his deal. It is a position Atlanta will certainly have to address in this year’s draft, which will have them interested in Wynn, one of the best guard prospects available. Although, the signing of Brandon Fusco this offseason puts a little ease on the position for now, and will allow the team to zero in on a defensive line prospect first.
The defensive tackle position is definitely a bigger need for Atlanta, but what team is not in the market for elite pass rushers. Coming into the 2017 season, there was talk that Key could possibly be the #1 pick in the entire draft. He recorded 55 tackles and 11 sacks in 11 games at LSU his sophomore season. Off the field issues led to Key missing games his junior season, hurting both his stat line and his draft stock. However, there is little doubt that Key has the potential to be a superstar in the NFL. At 6′ 7″, 240 pounds, the former LSU product possesses a freaky combination of size and athleticism. The biggest question surrounding him is undoubtedly his work ethic. Players have a lot more time when they are in the NFL and they also have a lot more money in their bank account. Will Key stay motivated and put in the necessary amount of work to reach his full potential? His junior year at LSU shows that could be a problem. After making a name for himself his sophomore year, Key missed most of summer workouts due to an undisclosed issue and did not return in the best shape. Based on potential alone, Key has no business making it out of the first-round, or the top ten even. That kind of upside might just be worth it given the Falcons struggles consistently getting after the passer over the years.
Vita Via became a national star at Washington his sophomore year on the way to their first College Football Playoff appearance. The dominant nose tackle recorded 39 tackles, 6.5 of them coming for loss including 5 sacks. The sack numbers were not as high his junior season, as he finished with 3.5, but still ended with 5.5 tackles for loss and 43 total tackles. He has NFL-ready size that will be perfect for clogging up run lanes and freeing up rushing lanes for pass rushers, which is certainly something the Falcons are looking for with Dontari Poe headed to the Panthers. Vea’s ability to get after the passer himself is a huge plus and still has room for improvement. His strength is unparalleled compared to most other prospects, as he put up 41 reps on the bench at the combine, good for second among defensive tackles. There is no doubt Atlanta has to be considering Vea, but there is a very good chance he could be selected before the 26th pick.