Bill Shanks

Falcons gambling by not addressing biggest needs early in draft

The Falcons’ top draft choice this year, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, could help fellow wideout Julio Jones, but did Atlanta falter by not addressing bigger needs early in the NFL Draft?
The Falcons’ top draft choice this year, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, could help fellow wideout Julio Jones, but did Atlanta falter by not addressing bigger needs early in the NFL Draft? AP

Sure, Calvin Ridley will probably be good for the Atlanta Falcons. Their first-round pick will probably be a nice complement to fellow former Alabama receiver Julio Jones. It’s never a bad thing to give quarterback Matt Ryan another weapon.

In the second round, the Falcons took Colorado cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a taller defensive back who can take on some of the NFC South’s taller receivers. Current starter Robert Alford will be a free agent after 2018, so Oliver is his potential replacement.

The problem is the Falcons did not address the two biggest needs with their first two picks. Ridley is essentially replacing third receiver Taylor Gabriel, who left Atlanta to sign a free agent deal with the Bears. So, you spent your first-round pick on a third receiver?

When Dontari Poe left the Falcons in free agency and signed with division-rival Carolina, it left a humongous hole at defensive tackle. Atlanta waited until the third round to pick a replacement – Deadrin Senat, a 6-foot, 314-pounder ESPN rated as the ninth-best defensive tackle in the draft.

They also had a serious need at offensive guard, but the Falcons have never seemed to figure out the importance of protecting Ryan, their best player.

Left guard Andy Levitre turns 32 next month. He missed the final few games of the 2017 season with a biceps injury. It was the first time Levitre ever had to sit out with injury. Plus, Levitre will be in the final year of his contract this season.

Right guard Wes Schweitzer, a former sixth-round pick, started every game last season. However, he was horrible in pass protection. So, the Falcons brought in Brandon Fusco as a free agent. Fusco is a 29-year old who is considered average at best.

That’s the situation you want in trying to help your franchise quarterback? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least make one of your top three picks an offensive guard, if not for anything but to groom someone to take over for Levitre if he leaves after next season?

This should be simple. Look, when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the five members of their offensive line started every single game in the regular season and playoffs. That consistency meant something, and it’s no coincidence that was the season Ryan was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

And, with Chris Chester, the starting right guard in 2016, gone and Schweitzer taking his place, the Falcons went from averaging 33.8 points per game in the Super Bowl season to 22.1 points per game last year. Not that it was all Schweitzer’s fault, as there were other reasons, but the consistency on the line two years ago was a huge reason for their success.

So, as Ryan is getting older, and more expensive, the Falcons can’t even make protecting him more of a priority?

Perhaps Kirby Smart should make the 47-mile trip from Athens to Flowery Branch to remind them why having a strong line of scrimmage is priority No. 1.

The Falcons might say there wasn’t a fit for an offensive guard when they picked at 26 in the first round. Maybe there wasn’t a lineman who fit their zone blocking scheme. They may even try to convince you this wasn’t the best year for linemen in general.

They may even say they picked the best available player. Ridley might have been the best available talent at pick 26, and he is a good value pick for that spot in the first round. But the draft should be about helping address needs when a team really has a need.

Oh, and then there’s this. One of the other reasons for the decrease in points last season might have been the Falcons led the NFL in dropped passes by receivers. So, they brought in Ridley, who had 20 drops in his career at Alabama, not to mention (but we will) a decrease in caught passes in each of his three years at Tuscaloosa.

The Falcons are betting heavily on Levitre and Schweitzer and Fusco. Ryan’s health might depend on it. And it’s maybe even more of a gamble that Senat can be good immediately at defensive tackle. But their biggest bet is that Ridley will be a first-round pick they won’t regret.

They better be right.

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