Brian Billick's thoughts for April 12
Billick examines the draft needs of the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and looks at running backs Daniel Thomas and Ryan Williams.
Atlanta Falcons | Tampa Bay Buccaneers Daniel Thomas | Ryan Williams
Falcons must address concerns on defense
Even though the Falcons went 13-3 and produced a franchise-first, third straight winning season, they came away from 2010 unfulfilled after losing in the divisional round and another one-and-done playoff performance.
Atlanta was solid on both sides of the ball, ranking near the middle of the league both offensively and defensively. With offensive Pro Bowl selections Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Ovie Mughelli, Tony Gonzalez and Tyson Clabo, they have all the assets they need to take the next step into the upper echelon of offenses.
Even though they were a bit of a surprise in their defensive productivity, this is clearly the area they will need to improve, not only in the playoffs, but to even stay competitive in the now-tough NFC South that includes New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff need to lock the offensive coaches out of the draft room and load up on defense. Their top priority with the 27th pick should be an edge pass rusher to complement Pro Bowl defensive end John Abraham. They picked up a winner in the first round of last year's draft in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to team up with Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson. They picked up Dunta Robinson in free agency and got solid play from Brent Grimes in the secondary and saw solid improvement in safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Still, they should focus on the backend and take another corner and safeties for added depth, nickel play and special teams contributors.
If they do take an offensive player they might consider taking a center to eventually replace the effective but aging Todd McClure or a tight end to sit at the foot of Tony Gonzalez for a year before he chooses to retire and walk into the Hall of Fame.
In addition to the now-tough NFC South, the Falcons out-of-division opponents come out of the NFC North and AFC South, and also include 2010 playoff teams Philadelphia and Seattle.
Bucs could look at secondary help
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the darlings of the league last year with coach Raheem Morris seemingly willing the Bucs to a 10-6 record.
The Bucs got better with every outing and if not for an uncharacteristic flop late in the season against Detroit would have made the playoffs.
The schedule will get a little tougher with Tampa Bay having to face the NFC North and AFC South along with Dallas and San Francisco, but Josh Freeman has Tampa Bay believing after growing into a clutch quarterback with six come-from-behind wins.
At the offensive skill positions, the Bucs have developed a solid core with rookie Mike Williams emerging as a big play receiving threat to go along with talented tight end Kellen Winslow and rookie LeGarrette Blount — whom they picked up on waivers — gives them a physical presence in the running game.
The Bucs could use help on the offensive line, particularly at tackle, but if they can just stay healthy next year it will be an already improved unit.
For the Bucs to truly become an annual playoff team, defense is where they are going to have to improve most, particularly against the rush where they ranked 28th in the league. Last year's first two picks of Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, both of whom ended up on injured reserve, should mature into a solid inside presence.
Defensive end is where they need to focus along with an inside linebacker should they lose Barrett Ruud to free agency.
Ronde Barber is back for his 15th season, and Aqib Talib has stepped up to become a solid first round pick, but depth at cornerback may be a priority as well.
Thomas' has strong receiving skills
Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas is another versatile back who will provide great value in the second or third round of the draft. I liken his style of play to Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears. They both have good size and above-average speed, and are excellent receivers out of the backfield.
On the field, Thomas runs downhill but also cam make quick cuts in tight spaces to either cut back across the field or juke a defender in the open field. He shows a great burst running between the tackles and hits the hole hard and with a purpose. He fights for extra yardage after contact and rarely was taken down by the first tackler.
In addition to his value as an inside runner, Thomas also lined up in the slot or motioned out of the backfield to create mismatches in the passing game as well. He ran digs, corners and out routes that would be more typical of a wide recover throughout his college career. This versatility will be very useful in today's pass-heavy NFL.
Thomas will also bring a certain level of toughness and durability. He never missed a game in his two seasons at Kansas Sate while carrying the ball nearly 550 times.
Williams will be a value pick
Measuring in at 5-foot-9 3/8 and 212 pounds, Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams is a small powerful running back who is ready to take his game to the next level. He showed off his powerful and explosive legs at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 40-inch vertical. You see that same explosiveness when you evaluate his on-the-field attributes as well.
He uses his strong lower body to power through tackles and often gains additional yards after contact and is rarely taken down by an arm tackle. He runs with a low pad level and nice balanced forward lean so that even when he is taken down, he will fall forward. Like a lot of power runners who fight for extra yardage, he will need to stay focused on ball security as he did have six fumbles in the past two seasons.
In addition to his power running style, he shows a certain flexibility in his hips that allows him to cut at close to full speed. With his 4.61 40-yard dash, he has the rare ability to get to the edge with quickness and then shows the vision to cut back if a lane opens up. Because of this versatility, he can be an effective inside and outside runner who is valuable in the NFL.
Like most rookie running backs, he will need to prove he can be an asset as a pass protector, but he has shown the ability to get out and catch the ball from the backfield.
Overall, I like the skill set that Williams brings to the table. As running back needy teams consider drafting Mark Ingram or Mikel Leshoure in the mid-first to early second round, they will want to consider the value they could get later in the draft with such backs as Ryan Williams.
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