The Atlanta Falcons flirted with the playoffs last season, hanging on until Week 17 before they were eliminated from contention. But the "almost there" mentality should be avoided at all costs.
With a 6-10 record this team is closer to a work in progress than a squad that’s a player or two away.
First and foremost, Atlanta needs help rushing the passer. The Falcons finished 30th in the NFL with only 22 sacks, and too many quarterbacks eluded the rush or could sit back and pick the defense apart. Team owner Arthur Blank was very candid after the season about the deficiency.
"Clearly we have not had the kind of pass rush for a number of years that I think is important in this league," Blank said. "Even the better quarterbacks in this league, when they’re under tremendous pressure they make more mistakes than they do if they’re not.
"So, in my opinion pressure is a really big deal. And we have not had pressure. We just have not, for a variety of reasons. You can get into that debate; is it coaching, is it scheming, is it players?"
There are a number of other areas that need to be upgraded. Atlanta’s linebacker corps could use more than just a coat of paint, the safety situation has to be improved, and the Falcons might look for a running back in the draft.
The Falcons’ offensive line performed admirably with all the injuries it was forced to endure. But there’s still room for improvement there. If the team were to find a tight end that reminded folks in Flowery Branch, Ga. a little of Tony Gonzalez, that addition could be made too.
With 92 days remaining until the 2015 NFL draft, it’s still a bit too early to fully run a seven-round mock draft. But pondering the first three picks from the Falcons could be a lot of fun.
Here a mocked version of the first seven picks:
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Jameis Winston, QB — Florida State
2. Tennessee Titans — Leonard Williams, DT — USC
3. Jacksonville Jaguars — Randy Gregory, DE — Nebraska
4. Oakland Raiders — Amari Cooper, WR — Alabama
5. Washington Redskins — Shane Ray, DE — Missouri
6. New York Jets — Marcus Mariota, QB — Oregon
7. Chicago Bears — Landon Collins, S — Alabama
It’s too early to grab an offensive lineman with the No. 8 pick. And the only first-round safety was Collins, and he was taken with the pick prior. The Falcons are going to add a pass-rusher.
8. Atlanta Falcons — Dante Fowler, Jr., OLB — Florida
Fowler is arguably the best player on the board at this point, and he’s without a doubt one of the best edge rushers. He’s also versatile enough to play with his hand in the ground or as a stand-up rusher.
Fowler posted 8.5 sacks last season and 15 tackles for loss. He can set the edge and also has the unique trait of shooting through gaps like he’s propelled by rocket fuel. While at Florida, he was moved around on all downs to find the best matchup for him to exploit. He played on the left and right side at the end position, and also inside or outside at linebacker.
Speaking of the Gators, Fowler player for coach-in-waiting Dan Quinn in 2012 when Quinn was the defensive coordinator at Florida. Quinn has a knack for putting people in situations to succeed, and Fowler has a good work history with Atlanta’s likely next head coach.
After the Falcons pick Fowler, here’s how the rest of the first round could play out, followed by the first nine picks of the second round:
2.7. (39th overall) Chicago Bears — Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE — UCLA
2.8. (40th overall) New York Giants — Eric Kendricks, ILB — UCLA
2.9. (41st overall) St. Louis Rams — Melvin Gordon, RB — Wisconsin
With the way the draft has unfolded, the Falcons could look hard at former Georgia star Todd Gurley. He’s coming off ACL surgery on his left knee in November, but could be ready for Week 1 in the NFL. Atlanta could also look at an offensive tackle like Cameron Ewing from Florida State.
But the prediction here is to beef up the linebacker corps and add another pass rusher.
Orchard was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl, absolutely blowing past offensive linemen all week, including first-rounder T.J. Clemmings. He also showed that he could get into coverage and hold his own there.
With 18.5 sacks, Orchard finished second in the Pac-12 last season. He added 21 tackles for loss to finish in third place in the conference. He’s likely going to be more of an outside linebacker than end in the NFL, but he showed an energy and powerful force that mens he’ll beat offensive linemen with regularity.
3.9. (73rd overall) Atlanta Falcons — Nick O’Leary, TE — Florida State Anyone who watched the differences between the 2013 offense and the 2014 version the Falcons trotted out immediately can agree that Atlanta missed Gonzalez at tight end. Matt Ryan seemed to long for that third huge target, and no No. 3 receiver could fill that void.
O’Leary won the Mackay Award as the nation’s best tight end last season. He caught 48 passes, and had more touchdown grabs (6) than any other ACC tight end. At 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, he’s not an immense target like Gonzalez was, but he can play in the NFL.
He’s a good route runner, and O’Leary has tremendous hands. He’s shown the ability to catch passes in traffic as well. O’Leary, and this could be crucial for the Falcons, is also very capable in pass protection.