Atlanta’s pick in the first round likely comes down to a pass rusher or a cornerback
Review 10 different mock drafts, and you might get 10 different players for Atlanta, which owns the No. 8 overall pick in the upcoming draft.
ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid thinks Atlanta will take a pass rusher or an offensive lineman in the first round. Another ESPN draft analyst, Todd McShay, mocked USC wide receiver Drake London to the Falcons. Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle has the Falcons taking Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. Charlie Campbell, lead draft analyst for Walter Football, has the team taking Georgia pass rusher Travon Walker. And Purdue edge George Karlaftis was the pick for Atlanta by Pro Football Network’s Cam Mellor in his latest mock draft.
Fact is, there’s a reason for the uncertainty surrounding Atlanta’s pick in the first round. That’s because the Falcons need help almost everywhere, especially on defense. The team could literally take the best defensive player available in any round.
So who will that player be?
Here’s how things are shaping up one week before the Combine:
- At least one QB will be drafted before Atlanta picks. Right now, media reports suggest that Carolina, with pick No. 6 overall, will be that team.
- The top two pass rushers, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, are likely going to be gone by the eighth pick.
- At least two offensive tackles will go before Atlanta, with Alabama’s Evan Neal and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu the highest-rated. Mississippi State’s Charles Cross isn’t far behind and has been mocked as high as the No. 1 overall pick by one publication.
- The top center, Tyler Linderbaum of Iowa, and the top safety, Notre Dame’s Hamilton, are far-and-away the top players at their respective positions and could land in the top 10.
- The top three cornerbacks are generally seen as LSU’s Derek Stingley, Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Washington’s Trent McDuffie.
Of those 12 prospects, the five who are most likely going to be drafted ahead of Atlanta are Hutchinson, Thibodeaux, Neal, Ekwonu and a QB. That means it’s possible at least one of Cross, Linderbaum and Hamilton are available.
However, Atlanta has invested fairly heavily in the OT position. Left tackle Jake Matthews, a 2014 first-round pick and a 2018 Pro Bowler, won’t be a free agent until 2024. He earned a respectable 71.3 grade from Pro Football Focus this past season.
Kaleb McGary, though, has struggled at right tackle. Could either the best remaining tackle, Cross, or Matthews excel on the right side? And does the team want to take another tackle in the first round after taking McGary with pick No. 31 overall in 2019? With all those questions, you can probably scratch Cross off the list.
The same goes for Linderbaum. Current center Matt Hennessy, a 2020 third-rounder, has performed well, earning a 77.1 PFF grade last season.
The Falcons would have to take a long look at Hamilton, should he slip to them, especially with starters Duron Harmon and Erik Harris set to become unrestricted free agents. However, Atlanta drafted Richie Grant in the second-round last year, while safety Jaylinn Hawkins was a fourth-round pick in 2020.
So Linderbaum would be considered a luxury, while Hamilton and Cross would take snaps away from recent high draft picks – which also seems like a luxury, given Atlanta’s overall needs.
The team could also consider taking a receiver with the eighth-overall pick – especially if receiver Calvin Ridley plays elsewhere next season, as expected. However, most draft evaluators don’t have a receiver ranked in the top 10.
Therefore, the choice for Atlanta on Day 1 likely comes down to taking one of the best cornerbacks versus the third- or fourth-best pass rusher.
Making a case for drafting a cornerback
Cornerback wouldn’t have been a consideration this early in the draft had things panned out in recent years for the Falcons. Atlanta has drafted nine CBs since 2015, including three in the first or second rounds.
Out of that total, only one has proven to be a long-term solution at the position: A.J. Terrell, who was a first-round pick out of Clemson in 2020. The two second-rounders, Isaiah Oliver (2018) and Jalen Collins (2015), haven’t fared as well.
Multiple suspensions for violating the NFL’s policy on performing-enhancing substances ultimately cost Collins, as he’s been out of the league since his release from the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad in 2019.
Oliver, meanwhile, is an unrestricted free agent, but don’t be surprised if he isn’t resigned after playing just 161 snaps last season. A starter in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Oliver played in four games last season before injuring his knee. He has 27 pass deflections but only one interception for his career.
Replacing Oliver in the starting lineup last season was former UCLA CB Fabian Moreau, who signed a one-year free agent deal. His 1,037 snaps on defense led Atlanta’s cornerbacks and was just ahead of Terrell’s 1,024 snaps. But he also finished the season without an INT and an uninspiring PFF grade of 57.7. By comparison, Terrell had a career-high 3 INTs and an 82.7 PFF grade.
After Terrell and Moreau, you have to go all the way down to fourth-round rookie Darren Hall of San Diego State to find the CB with the third-most snaps – and it wasn’t much. Hall finished with 282 snaps on defense and another 104 on special teams. Therefore, if the Falcons don’t re-sign Oliver and/or Moreau, then Hall would be the most likely candidate to start opposite of Terrell.
Overall, Atlanta finished the 2021 season with 12 INTs, tied for the sixth-fewest in the league. Assuming Atlanta hopes to increase its INT total next season, you can probably cross McDuffie off the list. He had 2 INTs and 8 pass deflections in his three seasons at Washington.
On the other hand, Stingley (6 INTs, all as a freshman) and Gardner (9 INTs, including 3 each year) are considered more of a ball-hawk.
Making a case for drafting a pass rusher
You can also make a strong argument that pass rusher is the much-greater need for the Falcons, as they finished last in the NFL with just 18 sacks last season. The next-closest team was Philadelphia, which had 29 sacks during the regular season. Pittsburgh finished first with 55.
Just how bad was Atlanta’s sack total? As Twitter user Kenny G. said, the team could have increased its sack total by 60 percent last season and still finished last in the league.
So you can expect the Falcons to draft at least one pass rusher and maybe even double-dip at outside linebacker and/or 5-tech defensive end.
That’s where things get a little tricky.
Hometown favorite Travon Walker of Georgia is steadily rising up draft boards. Evaluators love his size (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) and athleticism, but his sack total is low for a player who should go in the top-15. Walker finished last season with 6 sacks, giving him 9.5 for his career. Given his size, Walker could be asked to play the 5-tech in Atlanta’s 3-4 defense, but those players typically don’t have as much impact as you’d like from a top-10 pick. You can say the same about Purdue’s George Karlaftis, who is one inch shorter than Walker and listed at the same weight.
On the other hand, Michigan’s David Ojabo, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior, seems like the ideal fit, save for one problem: Ojabo played defensive end in Michigan’s 4-3 defense. Can he learn to play as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4? Probably, but the learning curve for the Nigerian-born, Scottish-raised Ojabo may be steeper than most, as Ojabo didn’t start playing football until his junior year in high school.
His athleticism and potential are what make him a likely first-round player. But his inexperience – Ojabo didn’t receive regular playing time until this past season, when he racked up 11 sacks – is why he may be drafted outside of the top 10.
The final verdict
Depending on how the Combine and post-Combine workouts go, the pick likely comes down to Ojabo or either Stingley or Gardner (whoever is left).
If both corners are gone, then Ojabo is the obvious pick. Walter Football, in its scouting report of him, said Ojabo’s best fit might be at outside linebacker. Ojabo was also the Fanspeak pick for Atlanta back in December.
However, he’d be considered a bit of a reach at pick No. 8. Ojabo is No. 15 in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board.
On the other hand, Gardner (No. 7) and Stingley (No. 8) are ranked closer to where Atlanta will pick.
Keep in mind, opposing teams will likely attack the other side of Terrell. Even if the team re-signs Moreau or another similar veteran in the offseason, Atlanta still needs another option at the position. Otherwise, an injury to either starting cornerback would leave the team with 2021 rookie Hall as the next man up. Hall finished with a 48.0 PFF grade, so having him as the team’s third corner isn’t ideal.
But the Falcons could be faced with the same situation with Stingley due to the junior’s injury history, which has been well-chronicled. To be fair, any player can be injured at any time – including those without an injury history. Just ask former South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn, who missed most of the season for Carolina after suffering three fractures in his right foot in Week 3.
However, a player’s injury history is often the deciding factor for who a team is going to draft. In this case, Gardner wins hands-down. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior has no injury history and has started 28 of the 35 games he has played in. By comparison, Stingley has started all 25 games he has played in but has missed 13 contests due to injury.
One other factor in Gardner’s favor: The 2022 draft is considered deep at pass rusher. Case in point: The Athletic’s Dane Brugler says teams can still find quality at the position into Round 4.
On the other hand, the draft isn’t as deep at cornerback – all the more reason to draft one at pick No. 6 overall.