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Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Grading the Falcons’ 2014 NFL Draft: C-plus

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FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons earned a C-plus for this draft.

The Jake Matthews pick was awesome. He'll be a stud for years to come.

Now, in a couple of years, if defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman and free safety Dezmen Southward develop into Pro Bowlers, we can come back and change the grade to an A under the Bill Polian three-year rule exception. (I just made that up!)

The Falcons couldn’t fix everything in the draft.

They got the tackle to help stabilize and improve the offensive line in Matthews.

We are not sure if they filled the free safety opening and they didn’t do much for the pass rush or the tight end vacancy.

Hageman has the potential to be one of the steals of the draft, but defensive line coach Bryan Cox will need to get him to play 100 percent of the time. He was up and down during his days at Minnesota.

“We had an opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with him in the classroom, on the field, in the cafeteria eating meals, seeing how he interacts with the other players,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Ra’Shede is a very big, strong, passionate football player, and we really enjoyed the week that we spent with him in Mobile (at the Senior Bowl).”

Southward is a physical marvel, but defensive backs coach Tim Lewis must turn him into a NFL free safety.

“Dezmen, we had him at the Senior Bowl as well,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff

said. “This is a guy who is big and fast, really good natural agility and movement for a bigger safety. He has had one of the best three cone times, which is usually an indicator of body control and movement. He has cover skills and very good range for us, so we think he has some real upside to continue to bolster this secondary group.”

Southward has some incredible upside, but the weaknesses listed in the Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2104 Preview are troubling: “Short arms. Average Flexibility and range. Still developing positional instincts and diagnostic skills. Man-coverage limitations – dull transitional quickness and closing burst. Ordinary production on the ball – not a playmaker. Does not punish or intimidate. Reliability should be looked into.”

Falcons fans have to hope they are flat out wrong about the “does not punish or intimidate” part.

Running back Devonta Freeman should press for time behind Steven Jackson and at least fill the Jason Snelling vacancy and perhaps take some snaps from Jacquizz Rodgers.

Not sure why they took another smallish cornerback in 5-foot-9 Ricardo Allen, when all of the teams in the division were loading up on big wide receivers.

“Philosophically, we stick to what we believe going into the draft, although we’re very mindful of what our division is doing,” Dimitroff said. “If something stands out that causes us to make an adjustment, we would consider it, but again, we’re very set on how we philosophically approach

the draft from year to year.

“It may adjust from year to year. We spent a lot of time as an organization on what we want to do, and we won’t be swayed just because Carolina takes a tall receiver. (That) won’t have us adjusting a decision on a type of corner.”

(FILE NOTE: We’ll have to revisit this if 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin catches a TD pass over 5-9 Allen when the Falcons face the Panthers in the coming years.)

All of the linebackers will get a chance to help on special teams.

Here’s how some others are grading the Falcons’ draft:

--Dimitroff gave himself an A when asked by AJC columnist and esteemed colleague Mark Bradley to grade his draft.

“An A. Well, if this is such a ridiculous exercise we all talk about, I’m going to give you a very candid maybe arrogant response.”

--ESPN analyst Mel Kiper gave the Falcons a B-minus.

Summary: I was a big fan of the Jake Matthews pick when it happened, and I'm not changing my tune now. Big need, good player and you add the bonus of his versatility. The Falcons also got a pretty good safety prospect in Dez Southward, hitting another need. But there were also a couple areas I think they missed, and maybe it had to do with the way the board was breaking. For instance, they really need pass-rush help, and Demarcus Lawrence could have been an option at No. 37, but Dallas moved up and grabbed him. Atlanta ends up with a high-upside talent in Ra'Shede Hageman,


but he ran really hot and cold at Minnesota. Devonta Freeman gives them an underrated running back, which is something they need, and maybe Prince Shembo can provide some value as a pass-rusher. Ricardo Allen is a solid player and gives them added depth at CB. Tyler Starr is also a sleeper as a pass-rushing addition. The question for me is whether they did enough to really help the pass rush, which was a big need, and I also think a tight end made sense given the departure at that position. Not bad, overall. Matthews will be good. Pete Prisco gave the Falcons a B-plus

They addressed a lot of needs with their picks, including getting a top tackle in Jake Matthews. The second- and third round picks will both be rookie contributors. Grade: B-plus Gregg Rosenthal listed the Falcons as one of the draft “winners”

When the Falcons set out to fix a problem, they really fix it. This offseason has been all about upgrading their line play up front on both sides of the line. They continued the theme with offensive tackle Jake Matthews in the first round and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round. Fourth-round running back Devonta Freeman adds needed juice to the backfield, but he's just a

Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo (55) celebrates as he's hugged by teammate Stephon Tuitt after a tackle for a loss against Temple during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

nice bonus. Atlanta's first two picks continued the team's aggressive bid to get tougher.

--Si.Com's Doug Farrar gave the Falcons a B

The Falcons started their draft by getting bigger, stronger and more talented at their most pressing positional groups — the offensive and defensive lines. First-round offensive tackle Jake Matthews should slot right in as Matt Ryan’s blindside protector for the next half-decade. And on defense, Minnesota hybrid lineman Ra’Shede Hageman has the potential to play over multiple gaps on a line that has changed in scheme. Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward is an excellent athlete who can move around to a few different roles, and Notre Dame outside linebacker Prince Shembo is an interesting developmental pass rusher. All in all, a nice haul for the Falcons — if Hageman develops into the player he can be.


Round 1 / 6 -- Jake Matthews, RT, 6-5, 308, Texas A&M

Round 2/37 – Ra’Shede Hageman, DE, 6-6, Minnesota

Round 3/68 – Dezmen Southward, FS, 6-0, 211, Wisconsin

Round 4/103 – Devonta Freeman, RB, 5-8, 206, Florida State

Round 4/139 – Prince Shembo, LB, 6-1, 253 Notre Dame

Round 5/147 – Ricardo Allen, CB, 5-9, 187, Purdue

Round 5/168 – Marquis Spruill, LB, 6-1, 231, Syracuse

Round 7/253 – Yawin Smallwood, LB, 6-2, 246, Connecticut

Round 7/255 – Tyler Starr, LB, 6-4, 250, South Dakota


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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.