The 2016 NFL season has ended with the New England Patriots winning Super Bowl LI over the Atlanta Falcons in overtime 34-28 with an orchestrated comeback by Tom Brady. Even to Patriots haters, this 25 point comeback was amazing to watch and proved to be a historic game for the ages, while breaking many records and was the first Super Bowl to go into overtime. Now with that out of the way, NFL draft season has finally begun.
Even though Kyle Shanahan will be the new head coach of the 49ers, there still is an offensive nucleus around this team. 2016 MVP Matt Ryan will still lead the way with his plethora of weapons that will include star receiver Julio Jones, 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman and his counterpart Tevin Coleman, 2016 free agent pickup Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, rookie tight end Austin Hooper, and much more. Their offensive line has been solid all year with 2016 free agent pick up Alex Mack at center, the younger core offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, and the veterans Chris Chester and Andy Levitre. This offense will still be top 5 in the league at worst and at best, easily top 3 in the league offensively. Offensively, they are solid besides maybe offensive guard depth due to the veterans Chester and Levitre starting there. Defensively, they can use some help. With a young speedy Seattle-like defense in tact, they can get a defensive playmaker at pick #31 in the NFL draft. They could use a defensive lineman, linebacker and safety depth, and a cornerback. Even with Vic Beasley amounting to 15.5 sacks, the most in the NFL in 2016, the pass rush was still inconsistent all year so a running mate on the other side will help the defense. Here are some possible prospects at pick #31 in Round 1 of the draft that has been linked to the Falcons that can get to the quarterback and help an inconsistent pass rush right away.
*Honorary Mention: Tim Williams (OLB) – Alabama: 6’4, 252 LBS.
If the Falcons are looking for a true Leo type pass rusher, then this is the guy. Williams is the perfect pass rusher for a 3-4 as an outside linebacker but has to bulk up to play 4-3 defensive end. If they wanted a Leo like Vic Beasley, then he would be a perfect compliment with the talent to be a dangerous defensive stud that will do one thing really well in the NFL if he puts it together: get to the quarterback. He has a rare combination of size, speed, and strength for a pass rusher and had 30 total tackles for loss and 20 total sacks in the 4 years he was with Alabama. In 2015 he had 9.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss and in 2016, he had 9 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He has the physical makeup and the traits to be an elite pass rusher but teams will shy away from due to off-the-field and character concerns. Some say he might have a Randy Gregory type fall in the draft. But for some, the talent is there and can be a stud pass rusher if he is committed. His stock varies from team to team so he could be there at pick #31 or maybe he is long gone. With these rumors floating around, teams may pass on him but will the talent be too much for the Atlanta Falcons to pass up at pick #31?
If “Takk Attack” is there at pick #31, the pick should be in ASAP. The freak pass rusher Takk McKinley can be the perfect Leo/ pass rushing outside linebacker in Dan Quinn’s Seattle like defensive scheme. McKinley is one of the best “Edge” players in this draft but could fall due to a torn labrum that eventually may need surgery and opted out of the Senior Bowl. It is still an unknown whether this surgery is required or not and if it is needed, it will most likely be after the NFL Combine. While this is a minor concern, it should not lower his stock too much, he still is a 1st round prospect. In 2016, McKinley recorded 61 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, and notched 10 sacks his senior year at UCLA. He is one of the best pass rushers in this draft with explosive get off and relentless speed to get to the quarterback. Some might think his best fit is in a 3-4 as an outside linebacker, I think he could play both in a 3-4 and a 4-3 as a Leo pass rusher like Vic Beasley in a 4-3 that is similar Bruce Irvin type player when Quinn was in Seattle.
Charles Harris could be the next “Mizzou” pass rusher to be drafted highly from a long line of very talented pass rushers drafted from Missouri over the recent years. From Aldon Smith when he was with the 49ers, Kony Ealy from the Panthers, Shane Ray from the Broncos, and recently Markus Golden of the Cardinals who finished 2016 with 12.5 sacks in his 2nd season. Charles Harris can be versatile to any defensive scheme and can be used as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. In 2015, Harris finished the year with 7 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and in 2016, he had 9 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Harris brings good hand technique and relentless burst in his game; using his lateral quickness and ability as an edge rusher to bend the corner to get to the quarterback and is very fluid in his movements. With impressive techniques and footwork that he uses in his game, Harris can be a sleeper pick for the Atlanta Falcons that could start day 1 and be productive in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme.
A fringe 1st round prospect to 2nd round prospect, Carl Lawson could do really well as a 4-3 defensive end in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme. Like a Cliff Avril from Seattle (6’3, 260 LBS.), Lawson could be a productive pass rusher opposite of Vic Beasley. Lawson can be an aggressive edge setter with his power rush and explosive burst at times but has a lack of flexibility. Lawson also has an injury history that has derailed his career at Auburn somewhat; has missed all of 2014 with ACL tear and in 2015, he missed 6 games with a hip injury. In 2016, Lawson had 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks and showed the talent on the field with the production in his junior year. Teams will have various opinions on him due to his injury history and lack of flexibility but will see the instances of talent as a pass rusher. More likely than not, Lawson will fall into the 2nd round instead of being taken in the 1st round due to the amount of pass rushing specialists in this year’s draft.
Some could say Demarcus Walker is a tweener, a defensive end that has enough weight to in a 3-4 defensive as a defensive end but that does not have the length or consistent ability to win off the edge. Either way, Walker is versatile and was a productive player as a defensive lineman. In 2015, Walker had 9 sacks and 14 tackles for loss but in 2016, Walker one-upped his previous season and had a whopping 16 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Walker was one of the most productive and dominant defensive players statistically in college football in 2016. Although he is a bit heavier, he can be seen similar to Michael Bennett of the Seahawks (6’4, 274 LBS.) but not as athletic or quick off the snap with polished pass rushing technique. Walker could transition to defensive tackle if he adds more weight due to his lack of burst and edge rush ability, could be an inside pass rushing defensive lineman. However he is used and/ or if he falls to pick #31, depending on who is available he would be a perfect pick to improve the defensive front and could be a disruptive force like Bennett is in Seattle. Unsure what position he will truly play in the NFL but if he dominates like he did with FSU, Walker’s upside and production in the NFL could be through the roof.
Emphasis in Round 1: Pass Rusher
With many options at pick #31 at a premium pass rusher with guys that can do many different things, Dan Quinn can not go wrong with this pick. Another 1st round pick next to Vic Beasley, the NFL Sack leader in 2016, will tremendously help a pass rush that was inconsistent all year and a #24 ranked Falcons defensive line that also needs improvement in stopping the run. A defensive front with Beasley- former 1st round pick in the 2015 draft who notched 15.5 sacks as the NFL total sack leader, Jarrett who played outstanding in the Super Bowl with 4 sacks, and a former 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL draft Ra’Shede Hageman could make major improvements. If Jarrett can come off this Super Bowl with a breakout year in 2018 and Beasley is more consistent and Hageman makes more contributions, adding a young defensive pass rusher will be key for the Atlanta Falcons success in 2018 that could turn a below average defensive line into a good one for years to come.