The Atlanta Falcons will enter the 2014 NFL Draft with a number of areas of need. But the two most glaring holes that must get fixed, are the need to better protect quarterback Matt Ryan and get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with an improved pass rush.
We’ll focus here on keeping Ryan upright, which means the Falcons would need to draft an offensive tackle in the first round.
There are two legitimate scenarios for the Falcons to take an offensive tackle in the first round. The team can stay at No. 6 and take the best tackle on the board, or if the landscape is favorable, the Falcons could move back a few picks and grab the best tackle there.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Falcons moving up the draft via trade. While that’s a real possibility, a move like that would only be for a pass-rusher like former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Atlanta won’t trade up to take a tackle.
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Who could be there at 6: Greg Robinson, Auburn, Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, Taylor Lewan, Michigan.
Why the Falcons should take an offensive tackle: Prior to the 2013 season, the most Ryan had ever been sacked was in 2012, when he was pulled down 28 times. Last season he was sacked a career-high 44 times.
Let that sink in for a second.
Ryan was sacked a little more than 57 percent more frequently than he ever was in the past, and that’s not the worst of it. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons’ offensive line gave up a league-worst 264 total pressures, which in addition to the sacks, also included 42 quarterback hits and 190 hurries.
Atlanta’s $103.75 million quarterback can’t go through too much more of this abuse. Ryan’s under contract through the 2018 season, but might need a walking cane prior to that if the Falcons don’t fix the offensive line.
Protecting their huge investment, and giving Ryan more time to throw the football should be priority No. 1.
Why the Falcons shouldn’t take an offensive tackle: If the need for protecting Ryan is No. 1, the need to enhance the Falcons’ pass rush is No. 1a.
Atlanta finished the season with 32 sacks in 2013. Only two teams were worse, the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars with 31. With a diminutive pass rush, the Falcons were unable to disrupt opposing quarterbacks when they needed to, and suffered. The team ranked 27th in total defense as teams piled up 379.4 yards per game against them.
If you examine the league’s best teams by sack total, it’s apparent that getting to the quarterback was a huge factor in winning football games.
Of the top 10 teams by sack total, seven were playoff teams, and one of the three that wasn’t, the Arizona Cardinals, could arguably be called the best NFL team that didn’t make the playoffs last season.
One of the quicker ways to improve a defense is to add a potent pass rush. If the Falcons were able to land a defensive end or an outside linebacker that could start from Week 1 and make plays in the backfield, Atlanta would instantly become a better team.
The trade back scenario: When the Falcons make their selection at No. 6, there’s a chance all three of the top offensive tackles might be available. But it’s more likely that at least Robinson will have already been swiped with an earlier pick.
It’s likely that the Falcons would figuratively sprint to the podium to take Matthews, and be extremely happy. But if for some reason Matthews gets taken early too, Lewan would be the only choice at No. 6.
Provided with that scenario, the Falcons might choose to gamble.
Between picks No. 7 and 10, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 7 have a huge need for an offensive tackle. But because the Bucs were forced to trade wide receiver Mike Williams, their need for a receiver might outweigh a tackle. The Detroit Lions, at No. 10, might also be in the market for a tackle, but they also have other needs, and have been linked to numerous trade-up scenarios.
The Falcons could trade down with the Lions and still possibly draft Lewan at No. 10. If that happened, Atlanta would still get one of the top three tackles, and pick up an extra pick, or picks, later in the draft.
This scenario would also work, and be less of a gamble, if both Lewan and Matthews were available at No. 6 and Atlanta chose to trade the pick. That way, if the Bucs took an offensive tackle, there would still likely be one available at No. 10. If Tampa Bay didn't take a tackle, Atlanta might have the same option of Matthews or Lewan at No. 10, with the benefit of an extra pick(s).