The Falcons’ defense didn’t do anything well in 2013—no surprise considering the team’s 4-12 flop—and that ineptitude helps explain why they went heavy on that side of the ball with their draft picks.
After selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick, the Falcons drafted defensive players with seven of their eight other picks. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the focus on defense was purposeful and that coach Mike Smith will stress to the rookies that “every position is open” when they begin work on Monday.
“ ‘Smitty’s’ approach leading in here (is) knowing that this isn’t about who is drafted where (or) the money we’ve paid any individual,” Dimitroff said. “Coming off of the (poor) 2013 season going into 2014, this is truly about competition. We’re very clear to them this is about competition and don’t come in here thinking you are a young guy opening the door, literally and figuratively speaking, out on the field for veterans.
“You have to be respectful, obviously, to everyone (but) this is about competition. Mike has really set the tone with that and that is what we want to see. This is going to be a very competitive offseason.”
There will be an influx of several young players on defense.
On Day 2 of the draft the Falcons selected Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round and Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward in the third. The Falcons began Day 3 by drafting Florida State running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round and then selected defenders with their remaining picks.
Four of those players are linebackers: Notre Dame’s Prince Shembo (fourth round), Syracuse’s Marquis Spruill (fifth), Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood (seventh) and South Dakota’s Tyler Starr (seventh).
“We did need to replenish at the linebacker position, and the guys that we’ve added all four of them have special traits,” Smith said. “Playing the linebacker position you have to have a lot of flexibility. You have to have the ability at times to rush the passer, put your hand on the ground, be able to drop (in coverage). As exotic as we try to be in third-down situations, we got a lot of guys standing in two-point stances and they’re going to have to do different jobs. That was the thinking behind that, and I really like the guys that we’ve added.”
Free agents added: Two players with local ties are among the rookie free agents the Falcons reached agreement with following the draft: Utah State cornerback Tay Glover-Wright, a product of Campbell High in Smyrna, and Riverdale native Kimario McFadden, a safety from South Carolina State.
Glover-Wright played two seasons at Utah State after stops at Eastern Arizona and Highland (Kan.) community colleges. Glover-Wright played quarterback and wide receiver before making the switch to defense.
McFadden made his way to South Carolina State via Alabama A&M, Georgia Military Academy and Atlanta Prep. McFadden was a second-team All-MEAC selection in 2013.
The Falcons won’t release the official list of their rookie free agents until all contracts are signed on Monday but the following players also have reached agreement with the team:
Geraldo Boldewijn, WR, Boise State
Brenden Daley, LB, Hawaii
Nosa Eguae, DL, Auburn
Maurice Hagens, FB, Miami
Freddie Martino, WR, North Greenville
Jeff Matthews, QB, Cornell
Walker May, DE, Vanderbilt
Roosevelt Nix, FB, Kent State
Jacob Pederson, TE, Wisconsin
Bernard Reedy, WR, Toledo
Donte Rumph, DT, Kentucky
Jacques Smith, LB, Tennessee
Jerome Smith, RB, Syracuse
James Stone, OL. Tennessee
Matt Yoklic, P, Pittsburgh
No rush: The Falcons didn’t select an edge speed rusher among their eight draft picks. Hageman will play defensive end but at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds he’s more suited as a power player in their 3-4 alignments than as an outside pass rusher.
The Falcons have ranked near the bottom of the league in sack percentage in each of six seasons under Smith and Dimitroff. Last season’s additions at defensive end—veteran free agent Osi Umenyiora and draft picks Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga—didn’t do much for the pass rush.
Smith said there weren’t many talented pass rushers available after the second round in this draft.
“I think every team in the league is looking for that,” Smith said. “I think when you go and talk to 30 of the 32 teams their need is to add a pass rusher. If you’ve got four, you want five; if you’ve got two, you want three.”
Smith said Hageman will help the outside pass rushers because of his ability to get penetration inside. He said linebacker Marquis Spruill, a fifth-round pick out of Syracuse, also has some inside pass-rushing ability.
“It is important to have push,” Smith said. “I say it all the time, sometimes sack numbers are overrated. It is about making the quarterback uncomfortable and making him have to move off of the spot he’s accustomed to when he is throwing the ball.”