2014 Rookie Club Heavy on Defense

When the draft began last Thursday, the intentions of the Falcons weren’t fully known. Outside of the mandate to add more grit to the roster, no one knew what general manager Thomas Dimitroff and his staff planned to do. Two picks in, we began to form an idea and by the end of it Saturday evening, we had a pretty good picture. Dimitroff looked to beef up the trenches with his first two picks, Jake Matthews and Ra’Shede Hageman, and after that, the defense was a heavy focus. Of the final seven picks, six were used on defensive players, including four picks on linebackers.

“We were mindful of what we needed to adjust, and where we needed to bolster our depth, as well as add the speed and explosiveness which we think we’ve done as well as some size,” Dimitroff said after the draft ended. “We’re excited about the addition of these defensive players and how it’s going to affect our depth, as well as challenge – Smitty can speak to that – every position is open, and that’s what we hope guys are going to be competing for.”

In landing Jake Matthews with their first round pick, the Falcons get a lineman that will step in and get the job done. If you don’t hear Matthews’ name ever again, it means he’s still getting the job done. With the exception of a low-mileage, high-reward running back in Devonta Freeman in the fourth round, the remainder of the Falcons’ 2014 Rookie Club plays on defense, making 2014 an exciting one for the many changes we’ve seen this offseason on the defensive side of the ball.

Round 1, 6th overall: Jake Matthews Atlanta’s offensive line made significant strides with the addition of first-round pick Jake Matthews. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons were open to moving out of the sixth overall pick, but when they didn’t find a deal to their liking, they happily stayed at No. 6 and took Matthews, a player described as the most NFL-ready in this year’s draft.

Front Office Take: “Absolutely, big, strong, football player that has a lot of experience.  Basically a four-year starter, 46 starts, playing in the SEC, playing against some very good football players.  He has a great skill set not only on the field but off the field.  He’s got great lineage, we all know his family background.  He has been in the NFL since the day he was born, so we are really excited about that.” (Mike Smith)

Round 2, 37th overall: Ra’Shede Hageman While everyone was expecting a pass rusher in the second round, the Falcons surprised some with the selection of Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman. Versatile is the name of the game when it comes to Hageman and he offers pass rush from all over the defensive line as well as a player with rare athletic gifts in a huge body. He could develop into the most dominant player in Atlanta’s front line.

Front Office Take:Ra’ Shede is a big man, 6’6”, 310 pounds, knocks a lot of balls down, pushes the pocket, he shows athleticism to make people miss.  I believe he has blocked two kicks as well because of his pure length. It is important to have push. I say it all the time, sometime sack numbers are overrated.  It is about making the quarterback uncomfortable and making him have to move off of that spot he is so accustomed to standing in when he is throwing the ball whether it is a five step or a seven step drop.” (Smith)

Round 3, 68th overall: Dezmen Southward Safety was a need heading into the draft, but when the Falcons would address was open for debate. With their third-round pick, the Falcons addressed free safety, landing Wisconsin’s Dezmen Southward, a rangy player with a potent mix of speed and hard-hitting ability.

Front Office Take: “He (played both corner and safety) in the Senior Bowl.  He even lined up outside.  He lined up outside, inside and played the free safety.  I believe we feel he has the ability to give us flexibility in where we are going to line him up.” (Smith)

Round 4, 103rd overall: Devonta Freeman The Falcons were rumored to be interested in a running back as Day 2 closed and when the draft’s third day began, that’s the position they addressed, taking Florida State’s Devonta Freeman. The first back to rush for over 1,000 yards at Florida State in over a decade comes to the Falcons with low mileage and a work ethic that is off the charts.

Front Office Take: “He’s a versatile back. He has the ability to tote the rock as a lead back. He’s a strong back. He runs with some authority and some anger to his running style. He can catch the ball well, and for us we thought he was a real versatile addition to our running back group.” (Dimitroff) 

Round 4, 139th overall: Prince Shembo With an eye still on improving the pass rush, the Falcons stayed on defense with their second Day 4 pick, taking linebacker Prince Shembo. Shembo may be raw as an all-around linebacker, but tell him to go sack the quarterback and you’ve got a heat-seeking missile on the field.

Front Office Take: “He’s been very productive. 24.5 tackles for loss and 35 quarterback pressures, which I think is a Notre Dame record. Again, I’m going to go back to our flexibility. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed as ‘this defense’ or ‘that defense’. I think when you really study how people play defense, and how we play defense you don’t know what we are, and that’s the key. You got to have guys that play the different roles as I mentioned earlier. I believe Prince can do that. Prince can rush the passer. Prince can drop into coverage. Prince can matchup. There are certain matchups you don’t want to expose any of your linebackers to all the time, but when you got an allusion going on somewhere else you can allow that to happen. We really like the energy that he plays with. He’s a guy that when he gets going up the field, slices in the backfield he can make some plays. He’s got big strong hands and an upper body.” (Smith) 

Round 5, 147th overall: Ricardo Allen The youth movement at cornerback will continue this season for the Falcons with the addition of Ricardo Allen. The former Purdue corner joins second-year corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the defensive backfield. Allen is expected to compete at the slot corner where he can use his physical and aggressive play to his advantage.

Front Office Take: “He’s an aggressive guy, and has been very productive. He started a lot of games. He’s been very productive, not only tackling, which you don’t normally see from a corner spot, as well as his interceptions. He ran back four interceptions for touchdowns.” (Dimitroff) 

Round 5,168th overall: Marquis Spruill The Falcons double-dipped at linebacker on Saturday and traded up to do so. Using sixth- and seventh-round picks, Atlanta moved back into the fifth round to take Syracuse linebacker Marquis Spruill. A versatile linebacker and four-year starter, Spruill adds to the depth on defense and could be spotted in the middle of 3-4 looks.

Front Office Take: “He will be an inside linebacker, playing inside. Again, with the different looks he’ll line up anywhere from head up on the center to lineup on an offensive tackle.  It will be dependent on how were displacing our front in front of them.  He will be a guy that will line up on the inside, won’t be an edge player.  He will be a guy that has good speed and has good ability to rush the passer. I think if you saw some of the highlights that they put up on one of the shows today that you can see that he is a guy that can get up the field as well.  That gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of what you want to do with your linebackers.” (Smith) 

Round 7, 253rd overall: Yawin SmallwoodWith their final two picks, the Falcons continued to focus on linebacker, adding Yawin Smallwood from Connecticut before ending the draft with Tyler Starr from South Dakota. Smallwood is a long and quick player that played middle linebacker and will compete with the Falcons at that position.

Front Office Take: “Smallwood’s another highly aggressive guy. Team captain type of guy, where everyone is just behind him on that football team. He’s been very productive, very active. He comes in here as the Mike linebacker for us. He was injured at the combine. That’s a very slow time from the combine. We recognize that. As a football player he’s one of those guys that plays faster than he timed.” (Dimitroff) 

Round 7, 255th overall: Tyler Starr :Hailing from South Dakota, Tyler Starr was the last player the Falcons added in the 2014 draft. Tall and lean, Starr excels as a linebacker that can accelerate, chase and cover and while the three-year starter may not be a starter right away, he’s expected to have an impact on special teams.

Front Office Take: “I think at playing the linebacker position you have to have a lot of flexibility. You have to have the ability at times to rush the passer. Sometimes you got to be able to put your hand on the ground. Sometimes you got to be able to drop, and as you know, 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. Even though it was the second day, these are guys we felt were going to give us a lot of flexibility on defense.” (Smith)