There is growing speculation about what direction the Falcons will go in the first round of the NFL draft, in part because the scouting combine is going on in Indianapolis and several media members are spasming on Twitter over Jadeveon Clowney’s 40 time. (OMG! He’s fast! Who knew?)
The problem with speculating now is the Falcons, like most teams, can’t be certain of anything in the draft until they get through free agency – which, as a reminder, happens first.
Teams can be begin negotiating with impending unrestricted free agents on March 8. The market officially opens March 11. Obviously if the Falcons were to break the bank on a pass rusher like Carolina’s Greg Hardy – and I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen – the Clowney talk quiets significantly.
The Falcons’ have two obvious needs: offensive line (almost anywhere) and edge pass rusher. Here’s the way I suspect things might play out:
ANALYSIS: There's rampant speculation about the team signing a left tackle to replace Sam Baker. Sorry, I don’t see that happening. The Falcons gave Baker a contract extension with $10 million guaranteed last year. So regardless of what you may think of him, he’s not going anywhere. Same with left guard Justin Blalock, who's just fine Also, the team is not going to pull the chute on center/guard Peter Konz, despite his shaky moments. Pencil him in at center or right guard (less likely). Right tackle is wide open.
FORECAST: Expect the team to sign a physical, veteran guard in free agency with the hope that he can help Konz and bring a new attitude to the line. Possibilities include either Jon Asamoah or Geoff Schwartz from Kansas City (where new assistant general manager Scott Pioli once worked), Zane Beadles from Denver, Travelle Wharton of Carolina and Richie Incognito of Miami.
Just kidding on Incognito. Wanted to see if you were paying attention.
This draft is deep at offensive tackle, so the Falcons can add a young tackle for the future at that time, not necessarily in the first round. Which leads to …
ANALYSIS: Resigning defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux should be a high priority. Peria Jerry and Corey Peters also are unsigned. If the Falcons lose/opt to not re-sign one or both, they'll need a replacement. The primary need obviously is for a pass-rush threat, preferably an end to line up opposite Osi Umenyiora. They could try to go big in free agency with Hardy, Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson or Seattle's Michael Bennett. But I don’t see that happening because it would prevent them financially from filling other needs: safety, potentially defensive tackle, running back, tight end.
FORECAST: It makes sense to draft a pass rusher, whether that’s Clowney from South Carolina or outside linebacker Khalil Mack from Buffalo. (If the Falcons are targeting someone else, like UCLA’s Anthony Barr, they probably could trade down and still get him.)
It’s impossible for the Falcons to know at this point what the market will be for a potential trade up to get Clowney (assuming he's not going to fall to sixth). That depends largely on how early the quarterbacks go. But they should be able to get a pass rusher regardless at No. 6, and still come back with their next few picks to fill other needs (starting with offensive line).
So to recap, this is how I see things going for the Falcons: 1) Relatively low-cost signings at guard, safety and possibly one other spot; 2) draft a pass rusher first, follow that up with an offensive tackle.
The cyber-floor is now yours.