The Atlanta Falcons could have taken Reggie Ragland, the best defender on the nation's best collegiate team. Or they could have taken Shaq Lawson, the best defender on the nation's second-best collegiate team. Or they could have taken Myles Jack, whom some consider the best defender of this class, albeit one with an extremely iffy knee. They took none of the above.
They took a safety from Florida. According to ESPN's Scouts Inc., he was the 44th-best player in this draft class . The Falcons made him the 17th pick. His name is Keanu Neal. And before we make our"Whoa" jokes -- too late, I guess -- I'd like to say this:
I'm fine with Keanu Neal. If he's a reach (and on paper he is), he's surely a considered reach. Dan Quinn coaches this team and essentially calls every football-related tune. Quinn was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, where Kam Chancellor was/is the best safety in the business. (Quinn also recruited Neal for Florida when he was the DC under Will Muschamp.) If Quinn believes Keanu can be a Kam, that's enough for me.
Give the Falcons credit for guts. Any of the defenders mentioned in the opening paragraph would have been a more popular choice than this Gator, but the Falcons -- meaning Quinn, I'm reasonably sure -- wanted Neal. It could well be that they wanted the wrong guy, but that's for history to decide. I have no problem with a team that knows what it aspires to be and acts accordingly.
We all pretty much knew the Falcons had to address their defense yet again. (Especially given that their two biggest free-agent guys were a center and a receiver.) Last season the Falcons ranked 16th in total defense -- 14th against the run, 18th against the pass. That marked a vast upgrade over the dead last of the year before, the year that led to Quinn being hired here, but it wasn't good enough to make the playoffs after a 5-0 start.
We note also that those Falcons played the NFL’s second-softest schedule. According to Football Outsiders DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, which take schedule into account, the Falcons’ defense ranked only 22nd. Maybe the improvement wasn't quite so vast.
This year the Falcons will play the NFL's toughest schedule. (Tied with San Francisco, actually.) This year they'll need to be better on defense than they've been since ... oh, maybe ever. We saw enough of Air Shanahan to believe this team isn't apt to score in bunches, and if the Falcons can't stop anybody good they'll be bound for something worse than 8-8.
Here's what I'm guessing Quinn was thinking: Vic Beasley Jr., presumably healthy after a so-so rookie season, should supply more juice to the pass rush this time around, but the Falcons lacked an anchor in the middle of that secondary. (Desmond Trufant is an excellent cornerback, but corners tend to be, as the vernacular goes, islands unto themselves.) Neal is a hitter, which any safety should be and Chancellor demonstrably is.
I used to get all caught up in that "reach" stuff, but the older I get the less inclined I am to fault a team for doing its due diligence and targeting the guy it believes it needs. (And anybody who says teams don't draft for need should take a course titled Reality 101.) The many draft analysts might know a lot about players, but the hope here is that Dan Quinn knows more about Dan Quinn's team.
He wanted a big safety. He drafted one. Good for him. And now Keanu gets to take the red (for Falcons) pill.
Sorry. Couldn't resist.