Which pass rushers should the Falcons target in the NFL Draft?

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With tight cap space, the departure of Vic Beasley, and a lack of internal options on the roster, the Falcons are almost forced to take a pass rusher early in the 2020 NFL Draft. If you check out my most recent Falcons mock, I had them taking three. Luckily, they should have a plethora of options available to them in the first few rounds, in which they have four selections. So what I am going to do is go round-by-round for the top end of the Draft, highlighting some of my favorite prospects for Atlanta that can get after the quarterback.

First Round

Chase Young

Young is a pipe dream that would likely require a Julio Jones-esque package, something the Falcons should not do given their shaky depth and something Thomas Dimitroff is unlikely to do given his job is on the line. While there have been whispers of some scouts feeling that Young is overrated, I have a feeling they are not in the majority. I won’t spend too much time here given the reality of the situation, but the future superstar out of Ohio State is the type of pass rusher who could step in day one and change the entire dynamic of the Falcons’ defense. He had 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss last year en route to finishing fourth in the Heisman voting and should be the first non-QB off the board.

A.J. Epenesa

Epenesa is one of the favorites in mocks to land with Atlanta 16th overall after posting two consecutive seasons for Iowa with double-digit sacks. Epenesa may not be Chase Young, but he is a dynamic playmaker who should be ready to start in a 4-3 scheme off the bat. He is a bull rusher who uses his power and hands to get to the quarterback, whether it is on the inside or outside, and adding more weight will help in this regard. With that being said, he is not the most explosive rusher, which is why the Falcons might look elsewhere, but he is very fundamentally sound and contributes against the run. Epenesa would go a long way in revamping the Falcons at defensive end, but he is not a one-man plug-and-play fix. They will need to draft another early or find a veteran to compliment him to get this unit where it needs to be.

Yetur Gross-Matos

Gross-Matos, out of Penn State, is built like a freak of nature. He is 6’5″, 265 pounds, making the most out of his size and length. Unlike Epenesa, Gross-Matos uses his explosive first moves to gain an advantage on opposing lineman, but he is also excellent with his hands as a rusher. He is a natural weak side defender for a 4-3 but may not be ready to step up as a top pass-rushing option on day one. There have been questions about him reading the game, though, and going to the NFL will be a substantial learning curve. However, there were significant improvements in this area, and I would argue he has a ton more potential than Epenesa.

K’Lavon Chaisson

Chaisson’s most significant question was his pass-rushing production coming into this season after he tore his ACL as a sophomore. He’s only racked up 6.5 sacks on the season but had 13.5 tackles for loss as well. Before you get too critical, remember that former LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter only had 4.5 career sacks for the Tigers. This is about the overall skillset. He was the primary point of emphasis for opposing offenses and showed elite athleticism along with versatility, possessing explosiveness off the edge, and could be one signature pass-rush move away from being a star. Chaisson has all the tools the Falcons will be searching for in the first round, but they will have to decide whether they should risk using their selection on a guy who did not have elite pass-rushing production in college when it is such a prominent need for them to find a day one contributor.

Second Round

Curtis Weaver

He may not be as physically imposing as the first round picks mentioned, but Weaver was one of the best pass rushers in the nation the past few seasons for Boise State. It all starts with his first step explosiveness, and he then typically uses his long arms and hands to finish outside. Weaver is very fluid as a rusher, which allowed him to accumulate 34 sacks in three years of college ball, but he does not have elite athleticism and will have to work on defending the run. Weaver should be able to contribute relatively early, but adjusting from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL is easier said than done, and he will be tested physically early on.

Zack Baun

Zack Baun had a breakout Senior season for Wisconsin, with 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus gave him ridiculous well-rounded grades, including a 91.0 grade as a rusher and an 86.9 grade in coverage. Baun has a high football IQ, and a creative defensive coordinator should be able to plug and play him along the defensive line… in fact, it is almost crucial for him to be successful. A big reason for his breakout season was him playing off the ball, and he had made it clear that is how he wants to be used in the NFL. Few have a higher motor; he’s likely a guy Dan Quinn will fall in love with. Baun does not have incredible length and could struggle to adjust his effort-based production to the NFL against longer tackles. He’s probably best fit for a 3-4 scheme, but projects as an option at SAM linebacker in the Falcons’ defense; he just may not be a Week 1 contributor. Also, Baun broke the same foot twice in two consecutive seasons in college, which could be a medical red flag.

Bradlee Anae

My favorite pass rusher outside of the first-round prospects, Bradlee Anae, is the University of Utah’s all-time leading sack leader and showed scouts it was far from a fluke with his recent performance in the Senior Bowl. Coming off a 13 sack year for the Utes, Anae had three sacks, one forced interception, and was in the opposing backfield all day long. His stock is rising fast and has elevated to the second round. Anae is a perfect fit for a 4-3 defense, has excellent hands, plays with a relentless motor, and has natural pass-rushing ability. However, he does not have the length many dream of when selecting an EDGE rusher.

Third Round

Josh Uche

Uche would be a great guy to pair with one of the names mentioned earlier in this article to add more pressure since he does not have much college experience. However, the four year player out of Michigan with just 26 games under his belt was able to accumulate 15.5 career sacks. Working opposite of Bradlee Anae, the duo was unstoppable in the Senior Bowl. Uche has terrific burst and bend, showing promise as a rusher as well as playing off-ball. He has an ideal combination of speed and length, though he can afford to add some more weight. A versatile piece that Dan Quinn could have some fun with, Uche may fit best at WILL linebacker in the NFL.

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