The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin their new season featured on HBO’s hit documentary series Hard Knocks later this summer. Last year though, it was quarterback Matt Ryan who was receiving hard knocks from opposing defenses. In the 2013 season he was hit 100 times and sacked 44 times in just 16 games, a heavy increase from previous years of steady offensive line protection. Those 2013 statistics ranked in the bottom third of the league for protecting the quarterback, while the team’s sacks allowed numbers in Atlanta in 2012 and 2011 were 28 (tied for 5th best in the NFL) and 26 (4th best in the NFL). Clearly there was a sharp upward trend in allowing defenses to get to Ryan last year. It has to be a frightening pattern that may also be slightly correlated with the Falcons disappointing 4-12 record last season, after coming off of an NFC best record of 13-3 in 2012.
Yet entering the 2014 NFL Draft there was a lot of speculation as to whether or not the Falcons would be attempting to trade up with the Houston Texans or St. Louis Rams to get the #1 or #2 spots in the draft. By doing so, they would be targeting draft class stars Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack. Both players were considered to be elite defensive prospects and would immediately bolster Atlanta’s 3-4 defense that is projected to struggle to pressure the quarterback. As it turns out, Atlanta stayed put in their #6 draft position and selected promising offensive tackle Jake Matthews from Texas A&M. Ultimately, Clowney ended up being selected first overall to the Texans and Mack fell to the fifth pick, where he was selected by the Oakland Raiders.
Many thought that the Falcons did not do enough to bolster their defense in the draft by choosing to pass on trading up to get Clowney or Mack. However, they did end up drafting intriguing prospect Ra’Shede Hageman, a defensive lineman from Minnesota in the second round. Hageman is a 6’6”, 311 pound, incredible athlete for a player his size. He can play nose tackle or bounce out to defensive end. He may not be the edge rusher the Falcons could have gotten by trading up, but he will add some versatility to coordinator Mike Nolan’s defensive scheme. Atlanta also added some more defensive talent later in the draft by selecting free safety Dezman Southward from Wisconsin and outside linebacker Prince Shembo from Notre Dame.
What the Falcons did get by standing pat in their draft position though is an offensive lineman in Jake Matthews that offers an immediate upgrade in protecting their franchise quarterback Matt Ryan. Matthews also has the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler and eliminate a large number of those hits and sacks that Matty Ice ends up taking. Once again armed with a healthy wide receiver duo in Roddy White and by Julio Jones, it will be of great importance for the Falcons o-line to keep Ryan upright. Matthews should play a big part in making sure that happens for years to come.
Maybe the Falcons were right in addressing protection for their quarterback first in the draft and worrying about getting after their opponents’ later. Time will tell, but it is possible the Falcons could see what they missed out on when they meet up with the Texans in the preseason on August 16th. It would be a thrill to see Clowney across the line from Matthews on an episode of the aforementioned Hard Knocks series. There’s no doubt that matchup would live up to the name of the show.