Kayvon Thibodeaux or any single prospect will not fix Falcons pass rush

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The Falcons are currently slotted to pick 8th later this month in the NFL draft, and various mock drafts have Atlanta landing a bevy of different prospects. Some have Drake London or Garrett Wilson headed to the Falcons to give the pathetic receiving corps a boost; others have the Falcons immediately trying to replace Matt Ryan with Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis. But the most intriguing scenario I’ve seen several times is former consensus top-three pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux, sliding all the way to the Falcons.

Thibodeaux was the No. 1 recruit three years ago, and he has the potential to transform the Falcons’ pass-rush unit completely. The 6-foot-4, 254-pound Southern California native, who clocked a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine and was a two-time All-Pac-12 player, has some people questioning his work ethic and lack of consistency.

His physical traits are unarguable, though. Thibodeaux possesses the ideal body type for a premier edge defender in the NFL — initial quickness and punch, closing speed, bend, and he’s versatile enough to kick inside. Many pundits will point to his production at Oregon as a reason to lower his draft stock. However, he only played one entire season as a true freshman. Last year, Thibodeaux was injured in the season opener, and his sophomore season was cut short due to the COVID pandemic.

I truly believe he’d be a home run pick for the Falcons in the first round. He’d arguably be the best player left on the board and fill the team’s second-biggest position of need — behind pass-catcher— heading into the draft. But it won’t change anything, at least in 2022.

The Falcons’ pass rush is terrible, and that’s putting it mildly. Atlanta totaled 18 sacks in 2021, which is fewer than some individual players, namely T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn. Dean Pees has been outspoken about the formula the Falcons need to follow to better pressure opposing quarterbacks — man coverage and pass rush. Pees noted that you cannot have one without the other, further explaining the pass rush will improve from experience and an infusion of talent.

Dante Fowler was this group’s most productive pass rusher, totaling 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, eight quarterback hits, 36 total tackles, and six tackles for loss. However, Fowler vastly underperformed his contract and will go down as one of the worst decisions Thomas Dimitroff ever made as general manager. The former Jaguar and Ram signed with the Cowboys earlier this offseason and rejoins Dan Quinn.

As it stands today, the Falcons EDGE room will consist of Lorenzo Carter, Ade Ogundeji, and James Vaughters. That unit desperately needs a premier pass rusher. Vaughters only played in ten games a year ago but totaled four quarterback hits, one sack, and one forced fumble. Vaughters seemed to really impress the staff even with the small sample size. Ogundeji totaled one sack, two quarterback hits, and five tackles for loss — the second-most of this unit behind Fowler. The rookie fifth-round pick has incredible length and uses it appropriately. His long-arm pass rush move worked regularly, but he needs to better refine his hand placement and develop a deeper pass rush arsenal, including countermoves. Ogundeji getting bigger, faster, and stronger this offseason should result in exponential improvement; however, to maximize his skill set, he must improve the technical aspects of rushing the passer.

The fact is the Falcons need more than just Kayvon Thibodeaux. His floor is lower than some like to believe, but what makes him so intriguing is the incredibly high ceiling. His athletic profile puts him in a position to be one of the best EDGE defenders in the league. As it stands today, though, he won’t be transforming the Falcons’ pass rush. He has to improve his hands in the trenches because, during his time at Oregon, Thibodeaux relied too often on his physical gifts against opposing tackles.

I’d be overjoyed if the Falcons landed Thibs, but this scenario group would still be a couple of years away from pressuring opposing quarterbacks regularly. Ogundeji would have to develop into a reliable pass rusher, Thibodeaux would have to reach his ceiling, and the Falcons would have to find a few productive free agents to round out the unit.

Photographer: Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire

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