Falcons face crucial decision

sports@macon.comApril 26, 2014 

NFL Draft Clowney Coming

In this April 2, 2014 file photo, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney competes in a drill for NFL representatives at South Carolina football pro day in Columbia, S.C. Despite the commitment issues that have trailed him the past year, there’s no question about this: Clowney loves sacking passers and can’t wait to get started.

MARY ANN CHASTAIN — AP

Every time an NFL team has a high draft pick, there is usually a dilemma. Teams hope there is enough talent to make the decision difficult, and this year presents perhaps a franchise-changing choice for the Atlanta Falcons.

Do they stay at No. 6 in the first round May 8 and select an offensive lineman, or do they trade up to the first pick in the draft and take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who many believe might be the best defensive end available in years?

While the need at offensive line is serious and should make this a no-brainer for the Falcons to stay at six, this is not a slam dunk decision. The Falcons do need a difference-maker on defense, and Clowney has a chance to be a star.

Will Clowney play hard consistently? That’s the question that haunts every general manager thinking about either taking Clowney or trading up to try and get him. Clowney was criticized for being too careful in his junior season, worried that an injury might jeopardize his potential NFL career.

But can you really blame Clowney? A year ago analysts said he was so talented he could have been the top pick in the 2013 draft. And after Clowney’s teammate, running back Marcus Lattimore, blew out his knee in 2012, an injury that put his pro career in serious doubt, human nature would have made anyone scared about getting hurt with a full year to go before turning pro.

Can Clowney turn it back on and play at full speed once he gets on a NFL field? But does even asking the question make it too much of a risk for a team that has so much at stake?

The Falcons cannot afford a draft bust. They’ve had them before. Remember Aundray Bruce, the defensive end from Auburn they took with the first pick in 1988 draft? He was expected to be the next Lawrence Taylor, but instead became an example himself of a player you want to avoid drafting after he failed to live up to expectations.

The quote, “You can’t slip up and draft the next Aundray Bruce” is not the type of comparison the Falcons hoped would be made when they picked Bruce 26 years ago.

So is Clowney the next Taylor or the next Bruce? That very question has most fans worried about the Falcons mortgaging too many draft picks to move up five spots.

Plus, the need at offensive tackle is almost at an emergency level. Atlanta brought in guard Jon Asamoah from Kansas City, but they have not added another tackle. Sam Baker is due back from the knee injury that cost him most of last season, but he has been inconsistent enough in his career to not make that a completely worry-free spot either.

The Falcons went 4-12 last year mainly because of a bad offensive line. Before Baker was hurt, projected starting right tackle Mike Johnson had his own knee injury and missed the entire season. So Atlanta had to turn to players like Lamar Holmes, Jeremy Trueblood and Ryan Schrader to play tackle. It was a complete disaster, and the Falcons cannot even think about having those type players there again.

If the Falcons stay at six, they might be able to take one of the three top offensive linemen: Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. All three are being called franchise offensive linemen, with a chance to anchor a line of scrimmage for a decade.

Isn’t that what the Falcons need? Yes, they need their next Mike Kenn or Bob Whitfield, two players who were outstanding for Atlanta for many years. They need to protect Matt Ryan, who they’ve made a huge investment in to be their quarterback.

Can general manager Thomas Dimitroff be trusted to select a good offensive lineman later in the draft who will need to start immediately? His track record with high pick selections at the position is not good. And if he traded up to get Clowney, Dimitroff would still need to somehow fix the offensive line.

But Dimitroff seems almost infatuated with Clowney, much like when he was taken with getting Julio Jones a few years ago. That trade up to get Jones cost a ton, and it hurt Atlanta’s depth for several years. Can Dimitroff afford to do that again to get Clowney?

You can’t blame him for being tempted by Clowney. If he turns out to be a star, who cares about the price? But that’s a big ‘‘if,” and the decision will shape Atlanta’s future and put Dimitroff’s job squarely on the line.

That’s why it’s not an easy call.

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

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