Atlanta Falcons Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M – Round 1
The Falcons had to upgrade their pass protection for Matt Ryan this offseason. Ryan was battered throughout 2013 as opponents had their way with Atlanta’s finesse offensive line. That led to an offseason mission to get bigger, more physical and tougher at the point of attack. The team wanted to trade up for Jadeveon Clowney, but as said well before anyone else, the trade package to get the first pick would be comparable to the Robert Griffin III trade in 2012; a price the Falcons just weren’t willing to pay.

Atlanta settled for Matthews at the sixth pick, which is decision you can’t knock. The 6-foot-5, 308-pounder was an excellent right tackle and left tackle for Texas A&M. As a senior, he was phenomenal at protecting Manziel’s blind side for the passing game. In 2012-2010, Matthews was extremely effective as right tackle. He isn’t the most physical or strongest offensive lineman, but he is a technician who is effective as a run-blocker and pass-protector.

The Falcons have a ton invested in Ryan, and if they don’t keep him healthy, they have no shot at winning a Super Bowl. Left tackle Sam Baker has had injury issues and has been inconsistent in his play. He simply isn’t good enough at left tackle for what Atlanta needs. In time, Matthews will take over at left tackle and should become a solid and reliable starter for the Falcons.

Most Likely To Bust

Dez Southward, S , Wisconsin – Round 3
The Falcons were desperate to land a starting safety in the 2014 NFL Draft, so Atlanta reached on Southward in the third round. knew other safety-needy teams that had Southward as a third-day pick. These sources felt that Southward had some physical skills, but as a player was a “JAG” (just a guy). They didn’t think he was consistent in pass coverage and didn’t play up to his talent at Wisconsin.

Southward finished 2013 with 40 tackles, five passes broken up and an interception. In 2012, he had 69 tackles, with five passes batted and two interceptions. Southward never was an elite player for Wisconsin.

The 6-foot, 211-pounder can run well, but his instincts and pass coverage need to improve. This feels like a forced pick by Atlanta and a reach for a need. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Falcons force him as the starter at free safety considering all they have at the position is journeyman Dwight Lowery. This reach-for-need pick could easily go bust.

Potential Boom Pick

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota – Round 2
Consistency was the big issue for Hageman in college. It was obvious when you watched Minnesota that Hageman could turn it on and be unblockable, but he also had stretches where was barely noticeable. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder has an impressive combination of power and quickness. Hageman can fire by blockers and close on the quarterback in a hurry. He also can run over offensive linemen with a furious bull rush. If the Atlanta coaching staff can get Hageman to play at a high level consistently, he could be a potentially dominant player at the point of attack.

The Falcons have switched to a 3-4 defense that Hageman is an excellent fit as a five-technique defensive end. He has the length and the strength to set the edge while being able to provide some rush when he moves inside in the sub package. Hageman also could play some nose tackle for Atlanta as a sub for Paul Soliai. While Hageman won’t be an immediate starter, he still should play a lot as a rookie rotating into the game.

Hageman could use some development, and Atlanta has veterans in front of him on the depth chart. However, Tyson Jackson has been a big disappointment in his career and has limited upside. Jonathan Babineaux turns 33 next season and isn’t a great fit in a 3-4. In a year, Hageman should be a starter, and if he’s coached up well, he could be one of the top five-techniques in the NFL.

Future Depth Player

Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State – Round 4
The Falcons seem adept at picking quality backup running backs. Jason Snelling had a quality career as a secondary back. Jacquizz Rodgers has had some moments, and Freeman could be better than either of those runners.

The 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman was the Seminoles’ most reliable back during their National Championship run. Freeman ran for 1,016 yards on 173 carries with 14 touchdowns this year. He had 22 catches for 278 yards and a score, too. Freeman is a quick back who also has some strength to him. He has demonstrated the potential to be a third-down back, but will need development as a pass-blocker.

Freeman may not have the size to holdup as a bell-cow back in the NFL. However, the Falcons could draft other backs and form a nice running back-by-committee approach. Freeman may not be an every-down starter, but he should at least be a good rotational back as a pro.

Walt’s 2014 NFL Draft Grades:

6. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: A Grade
Would anyone be surprised if Jake Matthews ends up being the best tackle in this draft? No one should be. Jake Matthews doesn’t have Greg Robinson’s athleticism, but he’s still a stud, and he’s the best the Falcons could have hoped for without trading up (Khalil Mack was not getting by Oakland). Protecting Matt Ryan is paramount, especially after this past season, and Atlanta has just added a major piece to keep its quarterback off the ground.

37. Ra’Shede Hageman, DE/DT, Minnesota: C Grade

How many defensive linemen do the Falcons need? They signed so many this offseason, and they had so many other needs. There’s decent value with Ra’Shede Hageman, so this pick isn’t terrible, but Hageman is blocked with all of the talent ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s also basically a height-weight-speed guy, so he has a high bust rate. I feel like Atlanta panicked a bit because all of the players it was considering went off the board (Deone Bucannon, Dee Ford).

68. Dez Southward, S, Wisconsin: C- Grade
The Falcons started off well with Jake Matthews, but they’ve headed southward since. Get it, southward? Meh. Dez Southward is a reach; I had him in the sixth round of my mock, and I haven’t heard any team that had him much higher. I get that Atlanta is desperate for safety help, but it could have waited for Southward.

103. Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State: A- Grade
There were some less-talented running backs chosen before Devonta Freeman, so I really like this value for Atlanta. Steven Jackson was a major disappointment this past year, so the Falcons need to find a long-term solution who could perhaps step in this season if Jackson struggles again. Freeman has Rookie of the Year potential if Jackson gets hurt.

139. Prince Shembo, DE/OLB, Notre Dame: B- Grade
The Falcons finally get their pass-rushing linebacker. They showed a ton of interest in Prince Shembo throughout the pre-draft process, so it’s no surprise that they’re picking him a little earlier than he was projected to go.

147. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue: B+ Grade
Ricardo Allen could have been chosen a bit earlier than this, so I like this selection. The Falcons had to address their cornerback depth, so this is a pretty solid choice.

168. Marquis Spruill, ILB, Syracuse: C Grade
The Falcons had to find some linebacker depth, so picking a player at the position in the fifth round makes sense. However, they chose a seventh-round prospect; they could have obtained him later and chosen a better prospect here instead.

253. Yawin Smallwood, ILB, Connecticut: A Grade
I thought Yawin Smallwood would go much earlier than this. There was a ton of interest in him during the pre-draft process, so seeing him fall to the seventh round is surprising. The Falcons are doing a good job of adding depth to their linebacking corps, and I like Smallwood as a prospect better than the other linebacker they chose.

255. Tyler Starr, DE/OLB, South Dakota: B Grade
Another linebacker, but this one can get after the quarterback. The value is right for Tyler Starr, and considering the lack of talent at pass-rushing linebacker, the South Dakota prospect could definitely make the roster.

2014 NFL Draft Team Grade: C+ . Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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