As well as the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta began, with a 5-0 start, their season deteriorated rapidly, and the end result was a year without playoff football. Better will be expected in year two. The Falcons have been known to be aggressive at times in the draft in moving up and also in taking chances on athletes with upside, and while it’s netted fantastic players such as Julio Jones, the strategies has left a team that lacks a bit of depth which may have factored into the mid to late season drop off in 2015. The team entered the 2016 draft with a number of needs, the majority of which resided on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker, a safety and a pass rusher were high on the wanted list, along with some receiving help in the form of a pass catching tight end and a third receiver behind Jones and Sanu.
Day 1 – Keanu Neal, S, Florida (Rd 1, #17)
When the list was publicised of those attending the draft in person, Neal’s name caught the eye as a slightly surprising one, and immediately became a popular choice as a candidate for the longest Green Room wait. Not so, as the Falcons made him the second safety off the board in the middle of the opening round. Neal is a thumper in the center field, who excels at closing on ball carriers and delivering a hit. It’s easy to see why former Seahawks DC Dan Quinn would like the idea of adding such a presence to a defense that really needs a bit more pace and physicality added. In that respect the pick makes sense. That said, Neal shows questionable overall awareness and anticipation, and can be a liability in coverage. This feels a bit early for a prospect who hasn’t shown he has a complete game. It’s uncertain how much they may have tried to do so, but Neal most likely would have still been available had they been able to trade down a few spots, to pick up another draft choice while still getting their guy.
Day 2 – Deion Jones, LB, LSU (Rd 2, #52). Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford (Rd 3, #81)
The Falcons haven’t managed to find a proper replacement as a receiving tight end since Tony Gonzalez left; they’ll be hoping that’s Hooper. He’s a great athlete, but slightly undersized. Despite only being a redshirt sophomore he has a good chance of contributing early in his pro career. The value is about right where they selected him. Jones hits another big need, as the linebacker group needs an influx of new talent, and in particular someone with more range and ability to excel in space. That’s Jones’ game, so it’s a good fit. He’s small, and it does limit him at times, often getting out-muscled and easily controlled by bigger, stronger opponents. He also has some poor film that includes too many missed tackles. Again, it’s arguably a round early for Jones. Atlanta continue to hit needs, but arguably doing so instead of the more recommended “best player available” tactic.
Day 3 – De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Minnesota (Rd 4, #115). Wes Schweitzer, OG/OT, San Jose State (Rd 4, #195). Devin Fuller, WR, UCLA (Rd 7, #238)
Atlanta has had a habit of drafting athletes who have under-performed and are risks to not work out. See recently-released former 3rd round safety Dezmen Southward as a perfect example who tested well but had obvious bad game film. Campbell and Fuller both were arguably drafted a bit high as well. Campbell has great length and athleticism, but has struggled to put them to use over his career in Minnesota. There’s questionable football IQ, and he needs a lot of coaching up before he’s able to contribute much on defense. What he will provide early is good play on special teams. Fuller is rather slightly built and was injured for much of last season. While it’s never been one for much yardage per catch, he can be a reliable target underneath. He’s another though that will look to special teams, potentially as a returner where he impressed at times for the Bruins, to where he’ll earn his roster spot. Schweitzer is a talented and under-rated lineman, and the pick of the choices from the final day. He’s extremely smart off the field, and has a wrestling background too, a couple of traits that he brings to the field as well. He provides needed depth at both tackle and guard, with versatility being another positive that influenced the Falcons’ decision to take him.
Atlanta certainly hit the majority of their top needs, though perhaps in doing so they took one or two of those a little too high, and over some better talent on the board. The biggest glaring omission from their draft class is more help getting after the quarterback on defense. Shaq Lawson was on the board at the time that they picked before choosing to go with Neal instead. Quinn likes some of his already in-house edge rushing options, while hoping for a breakout year from Vic Beasley. While Jones has his deficiencies that made him a somewhat risky choice for the second round, they did pick up an extra selection in moving down before taking him.