Falcons: In the first round, expect the unexpected

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Dan Quinn began his Falcons tenure in 2015, marking the start of a relationship with general manager Thomas Dimitroff that has left many fans and draft experts puzzled in April after Day 1 of the draft.

Beginning in 2015, the Falcons came off an underwhelming 6-10 season and needed help pressuring the quarterback. They were second-to-last in sacks, recording only 22 all season. Many mock drafts projected Atlanta taking Dante Fowler, Danielle Hunter, or Bud Dupree. Instead, Dimitroff and Quinn selected Vic Beasley. This was not a total shock, as Beasley was a perfect scheme fit and one of the best pure pass-rushers in the draft. Not to mention, it satisfied the most significant need for the team.

Things became a lot more unpredictable by the 2016 draft. Coming off a less than stellar 8-8 season, fans and analysts alike saw the roster close to competing for a playoff spot. Despite using a top ten pick in the year prior’s draft, the team posted even fewer (19) sacks than in 2014. This encouraged the thought of taking another defensive end like Shaq Lawson or Emmanuel Ogbah to pair with Vic Beasley. Linebacker was also a glaring hole, as the Falcons had trouble covering running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field. Many mocked Darron Lee to Atlanta Because of this. Instead, the front office decided on hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal.

With a need for a cover safety, the Falcons, in turn, went the other direction and selected a physical box safety, who wasn’t even projected to go in the first round. Neal was not perceived to have the coverage to blanket tight ends and running backs, but the Falcons were able to address that in the next round, selecting Deion Jones, who possessed the speed to mask Neal’s weaknesses. Both went on to become integral pieces to the Falcons Super Bowl run in 2016 and Pro-Bowlers the following year, suggesting maybe we should trust management’s gut more than what the “experts” are predicting in their mock drafts.

Moving on to 2017, the Falcons were coming off a crushing Super Bowl loss. With a high-powered offense and reigning MVP, Matt Ryan, the team was poised to make another run. Their most substantial draft needs were at the Leo linebacker position and offensive guard. Many thought the team would address the pass-rush with Jordan Willis, T.J. Watt, or even Derek Rivers. The offensive guard class was weak, but Forrest Lamp would have been a home run. Instead, they traded up with the Seahawks to pick Takkarist McKinley, who was slated as the fifth or sixth best outside linebacker.

Selecting Tak came with concern because of a post-combine shoulder surgery that put his return for the start of the season in doubt. The Falcons still satisfied a need, but many thought there were better prospects at the position on the board, i.e., T.J. Watt. Forrest Lamp went on to last until the 38th pick, where he was selected by the L.A. Chargers. In hindsight, passing on Watt for McKinley may go down as one of the most foolish first-round draft decisions Dimitroff and Quinn have made.

During the 2018 offseason, the roster was talented but plagued by poor coaching decisions. The defense was much improved, but the offense took a massive step back. Many ranked the positional needs as the following: defensive tackle, offensive guard, and even cornerback. Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn were expected to part ways in free agency, leaving a need to pair breakout star Grady Jarrett with another talented interior defensive lineman. Many thought Da’Ron Payne, Vita Vea, or even Maurice Hurst would all work well with Jarrett, and one would likely be available with the 26th pick.

At guard, Andy Levitre was on his last legs, which pushed analysts to believe the team could draft an interior offensive lineman. Cornerback was not the most pressing need, but some still felt there could be an improvement. Brian Poole was alright but unreliable in man coverage, and many thought he would be a better safety, which left a hole at the nickel back position. But just like the two year’s prior, the Falcons shocked just about everyone when they selected Calvin Ridley.

This pick was a prime example of the rich getting richer. The offense was littered with talent; Matt Ryan now had three top-flight receivers and two big-time running backs. It was a head-scratcher, though, as the need along the defensive front was drastic. However, this decision had nothing on the 2019 draft. At least Ridley was widely regarded as the best player available.

Going into Day 1, the defensive line was seen as the most significant need. Vic Beasley, at this point, was a one-trick pony, who only possessed a speed rush. Many suggested the second tier of edge defenders and defensive tackles is where the Falcons would go. Names like Brian Burns, Zach Allen, Montez Sweat were plug and play pass-rushers whose specialty was getting after the quarterback. Defensive tackles like Ed Oliver, Rashan Gary, Christian Wilkins, and Jeffery Simmons were seen as perfect complements to Grady Jarrett.

The team half-ass addressed the offensive line in the months before the draft but did sign multiple starting-caliber linemen. Andy Levitre was a free agent; the team re-signed tackle Ty Sambrailo and dipped into the free agency pool, bringing in Jamon Brown and James Carpenter, two offensive guards that were paid like starters. Confusion ensues, as Atlanta used the 14th overall pick to draft a guard in Chris Lindstrom. The front office decided to double-dip and trade two second-round picks, moving up to the 31st pick to select a tackle, Kaleb McGary. Both selections were seen as reaches by the experts, but it’s too early to tell whether they were worth it.

Lindstrom was injured for the majority of his rookie campaign, but many believe he can become a Pro-Bowler at right guard. McGary became the full-time starter, which is promising in itself, but he had several forgetful performances at right tackle.

Finally, to this year’s first-round — heading into the night, the Falcons desperately needed a cornerback, along with help across the defensive line. Isaiah Oliver is a questionable CB1, and although Kendall Sheffield had a promising rookie season, it was inside at the nickel. Many expected the team to trade up for C.J. Henderson. Others projected a defensive tackle pairing of Javon Kinlaw and Grady Jarrett. And if neither were there, K’Lavon Chaisson looked like an outstanding athlete to complement Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler Jr. Instead, the team selected “their guy” in A.J. Terrell as Henderson and Kinlaw were both off the board.

I mentioned before the draft; I thought the team could trade down and still select their man in the twenties, but in this case, many draft experts believed Terrell would’ve been there at the beginning of the second round. However, reports since the draft suggest otherwise. Though he is an ideal scheme fit, few had Terrell going that early in the first round to the Falcons. But this is once again another case of Atlanta standing pat and taking their guy — no matter the outside noise. So when Day 1 comes around in 2021, expect the unexpected.

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