Combine could answer questions for Falcons

sports@macon.comFebruary 22, 2014 

The NFL scouting combine is going on the next few days in Indianapolis, and don’t be surprised if Atlanta Falcons fans are paying more closer attention than usual.

The Falcons have the sixth pick in the first round, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff said this past week the team would even entertain moving up to a higher spot if it falls in love with a certain player.

And that could happen. Many analysts believe this could be the best draft in a decade.

This is a particularly good year to need offensive linemen, and Atlanta is at the top of the list of teams that need help at that position. On Saturday, the linemen worked out, doing the 40-yard dash and an assortment of drills to test their strength, agility and athleticism.

There are three players who stick out at offensive tackle: Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. The folks on NFL Network said Saturday that all three grade out higher than the top overall pick in last April’s draft, Kansas City’s Eric Fisher.

Watching Saturday convinced me the Falcons cannot go wrong if they get Matthews, Robinson or Lewan. They were all impressive, all athletic, and all three look like franchise tackles. They’d probably be in that order if I had a Mel Kiper-like draft board, but no team will feel like it got a consolation prize if it doesn’t get its top choice.

The Falcons desperately need their next Mike Kenn, their next franchise lineman. They have to protect quarterback Matt Ryan, who is the key to making this team a championship contender once again.

Dimitroff has failed miserably at evaluating the offensive line. His draft picks at that position have mainly been flops, and he cannot miss this time around -- not with potential franchise linemen on the draft board.

But what if Dimitroff is tempted by South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney? He showed he can be a beast, a game-changer at defensive end at times with the Gamecocks. But the questions are there after Clowney had a less than spectacular junior season in Columbia.

Did Clowney just protect himself from injury and get through the season, knowing he was going to be a top pick? And if so is that a poor reflection on his work ethic and dedication? There’s little doubt Clowney has great talent, and he could be a dominant player at defensive end. But he has to show something in Indianapolis with his on-field workouts and individual interviews to quiet the concerns.

The Falcons need a lot after the 4-12 season, and there’s no doubt a game-changer on defense is needed. But Atlanta has bigger needs at linebacker and at defensive tackle, where only one player is under contract for next season.

So Clowney would have to be a slam dunk in Dimitroff’s mind to pass on a potential franchise offensive lineman and to not address bigger needs at other positions. The scary thing is Clowney might be that good to convince any team that he could make an immediate difference.

Free agency will be part of this equation, and Dimitroff and his staff might be more tempted by a veteran player than to wait on May’s draft. They will have more help in evaluations, as they hired former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli (known for his expertise in evaluating linemen) and former Rams general manager Billy Devaney. That will be crucial for Dimitroff considering his prior misses in drafting linemen.

But the combine will set the tone for what happens this offseason, and for a team desperate to rebound quickly and get back into the Super Bowl discussion, the next few weeks possibly will shape the 2014 roster.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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