Final grades: Falcons addressed pressing needs in draft

The Atlanta Falcons' second-round pick, Ra'Shede Hageman, adds more size to a re-tooled defensive line.

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John Manasso details his pick-by-pick grades for the Atlanta Falcons’ 2014 NFL Draft, highlighted by one of college football’s top offensive line prospects:

The Falcons ranked last in the NFL in rushing last season and quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times, third-most in the NFL. While it would have been tempting to pick a top pass-rusher in the first round, the Falcons’ biggest need clearly was to protect the $120-million investment they made in Ryan last summer.

Matthews comes from an NFL family — he is the seventh member of his clan to reach the NFL. The son of a Hall of Fame player and former NFL offensive line coach, he will know what it takes to succeed and has the tools and the mental make-up to do so. This pick was a no-brainer. The only downside here is the amount of time it takes to get him up to speed on the right side, where the organization said he will start out, so the Falcons can eventually move him to the left to protect Ryan’s blind side.

The Falcons aren’t joking around about stopping the run, which is one way to generate a pass rush (put teams in third-and-long and let defensive coordinator Mike Nolan go to work). At 6-foot-6, 318 pounds, Hageman fits the body type of a 3-4 defensive end, as does Tyson Jackson, the free agent defensive end the Falcons signed earlier this spring. Falcons head coach Mike Smith is determined to win the line of scrimmage and one way to do that is by getting bigger and stronger.

"He’s a big, strong, passionate football player," Smith said of Hageman, whom the Falcons coached at the Senior Bowl.

The Falcons appear to be moving away from the 255-to-260-pound 4-3 defensive ends (John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora). Those players appear as if they will become outside linebackers or designated pass rushers in this system.

This pick made sense in that the Falcons cut Thomas DeCoud and had a need to fill. Incidentally, the Falcons also chose DeCoud in the third round back in 2008. He eventually became a Pro-Bowler for his performance in the 2012 season before his play fell off precipitously last season.

Southward appears to fit a similar mold that DeCoud did in terms of size (they’re both 6-foot-2). Southward will play the free safety. The way the Falcons used DeCoud was often to cover a tight end in passing situations. That means if Southward wins the job (free agent Dwight Lowery will alsp be a leading contender to start), he will have to contend with the likes of Jimmy Graham (Saints) and Greg Olsen (Panthers), tall, athletic tight ends.

He played some cornerback and some safety at Wisconsin, which is ideal for the Falcons’ needs. Nolan likes to use a dime package in which a third safety plays the role of a linebacker in the scheme. That would give the Falcons’ additional possibilities in terms of playing coverages — if Southward is up to the task.

There is definitely a pattern here (as there should be) of the Falcons’ prioritizing need and using each subsequent pick to fill it. With the retirement of Jason Snelling, the Falcons clearly needed a running back. Steven Jackson is not getting any younger and Jacquizz Rodgers, entering his fourth season, needs to show that he has not peaked.

One interesting question left unanswered by this pick is the status of Antone Smith, another former Florida State running back similar in stature to Freeman’s 5-foot-8, 206 pounds. Smith, a top special teams player who is sure to be marginalized as a returner by the signing of Devin Hester, had excellent production in his few touches late last season as a running back. Perhaps drafting Freeman shows the Falcons do not intend to use Smith at running back much.

Freeman became the first Seminoles running back since Warrick Dunn (another former Falcon and now a limited partner) to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Last season, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry, an encouraging stat, although his offensive line no doubt was miles better than the competition in most games, which will not be the case in the NFL.

Four of the Falcons’ final five picks were spent on linebackers. Obviously, they felt a need at this position. (It also stands to reason that 3-4 alignments require more linebackers and so after cutting Stephen Nicholas and perhaps being less than enamored with Akeem Dent, the Falcons want to reload in that area.)

Shembo comes with a complicated backstory. He revealed at the NFL Combine that he was implicated in an investigation of a sexual assault in which the victim later committed suicide. He was never charged with a crime and the Falcons say they have investigated the situation thoroughly. There is no need to doubt that they have done so, especially with the Michael Vick case in their somewhat recent past. Shembo could be a value pick on the field that could prove tricky off of it in terms of public relations. Dimitroff said the organization will continue its commitment to pick high-character players. He no doubt will have a short leash.

Shembo’s 19.5 career sacks rank seventh in Notre Dame history. He appears to have been picked to take the spot of Dent, who has fallen out of favor, as an inside linebacker.

The Falcons are certainly loading up on cornerbacks the past few seasons. In addition to drafting Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second rounds last season, they signed Javier Arenas in the offseason and have Robert McClain, the incumbent at nickel whose play fell off last season (as did almost that of every Falcon). While the Falcons went for more of a raw athlete type at safety with Southward (who began playing football later in life), they went for a player with strong film and a record of success on the field here.

Allen is only 5-foot-9, 186 pounds (sort of the mold of former Falcons corners Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens in terms of size), but he posted 13 career interceptions.

The Falcons traded the 182nd and 220th overall picks to Minnesota to move up and pick Spruill. They must have seen something they liked. Sized almost more like a safety at 6-foot, 224, Spruill would appear in the mold of undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu, the team’s linebacker who specialized in coverage last season. That’s an increasingly important role on defense so if Spruill pans out, it could end up being a valuable pick.

The Falcons tend to go back to programs that they like (Missouri, notably; but they also have used a second-, third- and fifth-round picks on players out of Wisconsin in the past three years). Interestingly, Smallwood is the second Connecticut player the Falcons will add to the defensive side of their roster following McClain. Smallwood has good size (6-foot-4, 236 pounds) and somewhat like last year’s undrafted rookie phenom Paul Worrilow seems something of a tackling machine. He was Connecticut’s leading tackler in his last two seasons.

With the issues the Falcons had tackling last season, they seemingly cannot have enough players who can perform that elementary task.

Here and there the Falcons go for players from small schools as they did with Alford, Biermann and Shann Schillinger, the latter having each played at FCS Montana. Starr comes out of South Dakota as its all-time leader in sacks with 27. He brings size but one might have to question, as with most FCS players at positions like linebacker, whether he possesses the requisite speed to succeed in the NFL. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a defensive end out of him. Seems a bit of a gamble, as are most late-round picks.