Draft Preview: 30. Atlanta Falcons

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Will Tony Gonzalez’s successor be drafted this year?

Offense generally isn’t a problem for the Atlanta Falcons. That happens when you employ Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and now Steven Jackson. This past season — one in which they finished just five points short of a Super Bowl appearance — the Falcons averaged 26.2 points per game (7th), while winning the NFC South largely on the strength of a combined 2,549 regular-season receiving yards and 17 touchdowns from White and Jones. Toss in Gonzo’s 930 yards that were good enough for second at his position even at the age of 36 (he just turned 37 last month), and one side of the ball is secure.

Well, sort of and kind of. Gonzalez heavily flirted with retirement before finally returning, and even though he signed a two-year contract, it’s likely 2013 is his last year. That complicates matters, because in the first round of the draft on April 25, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have to determine the greater need: a successor for Gonzalez, or addressing more immediate defensive concerns.

The Falcons cut an effective but aging John Abraham, meaning even though they’re highly expected to sign Osi Umenyiora, a pass rusher is still a glaring need. With Dunta Robinson gone and Brent Grimes possibly soon to follow, a cornerback is also needed early to support a secondary that gave up 242.4 passing yards per game in 2012 (23rd).

So, where to first? Well, for me the answer to that is to Dave Choate, the editor of The Falcoholic. He knows things.

1. Even if we assume that one of the top remaining veteran defensive ends signs in Atlanta (most likely Osi Umenyiora), that position is likely still a first-round priority after John Abraham had 10 of the team’s 29 sacks this past season, and no one else had more than four. Agree? The 30th overall pick could be a good spot to land Bjoern Werner or Damontre Moore.

I think unless the Falcons can land both Osi Umenyiora—and that seems like a lock at this point—and John Abraham, they still need pass rushing help this season. Even if they brought both aboard, I’d like to see them add young, developmental talent. The wildcard here is Jonathan Massaquoi. If the Falcons think he’s a legitimate future starter and a quality pass rusher, they may not use a first round pick at defensive end.

2. The other possible first-round direction is a tight end. Gonzalez is now almost definitely entering his final season, and at least one of the top two tight ends (Zach Ertz or Tyler Eifret) should be available late in the opening round. Is a tight end early the right move?

I don’t know about the right move, but it’s not a bad idea. If Tony’s planning on walking away next season, the Falcons are right back in the same spot if they don’t draft a tight end they can groom. Eifert might go before the Falcons get a chance to pick, but Ertz is a productive player the Falcons could trot out in two tight ends sets in 2013. I’ll be watching closely, but I wouldn’t hate a pick being spent on one of those two guys.

3. There’s been widespread speculation that Mike Nolan will switch to a 3-4 base defense. If that’s true, then should we expect a high pick to be invested in a nose tackle, most likely John Jenkins?

I think they may invest in a nose tackle for those hybrid fronts, but I don’t think they’ll be moving to a full 3-4. The Falcons like to be able to offer up a variety of fronts under Nolan, and they’re missing that big, space-clogging tackle who could further mask what they’re up to. I’d consider Jenkins or Jesse Williams a definite possibility, but the rest of their personnel moves seem to point to a 4-3.

4. Looking more generally, after Abraham and Dunta Robinson were released, and Brent Grimes could still be lost through free agency, will this draft focus primarily on defense? Only a few years ago in 2009 the Falcons spent nearly their entire draft (all but one pick) on defensive players.

I think so. The Falcons have 11 picks, and if they keep all of them, I expect at least seven of those to go to shoring up the defense. The Falcons need impact starters, quality depth and athleticism across the board, so the draft is a great place to get it.

5. Of those 11 picks, six of them are in the fifth round and beyond. Do you have any late-round sleepers in mind?

Keep an eye on Vernon Kearney. He’s a big, physical corner, the kind the Falcons currently lack, and someone whose athleticism isn’t in question. He’s likely to be a seventh-round pick. Also, don’t be surprised if they invest a late-round pick in another developmental quarterback.