Cover9@9: Kiper puts Falcons’ early draft plan into focus

The Falcons finished the 2018 season with a record of 7-9.

Good morning! Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly list of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons. 

1. Falcons' draft plan coming into focus: Things are heating up around Flowery Branch, with the NFL scouting combine around the corner, followed by free agency and then the draft.

The team made its first free agency retention move when they signed tackle Ty Sambrailo to a three-year contract extension on Tuesday.

The Falcons, who have the 14th pick in the draft, are being projected to select defense early. The draft is set for April 25-27 in Nashville.

“Take advantage of the strength of this draft, which is defense,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on Tuesday.

He’s projecting the Falcons to select Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver with the 14th overall pick although the team’s No. 1 offseason priority is to fix the offensive line.

The Falcons could turn their attention the offensive line in the middle of the draft and find some interior players.

"I think it would be guys like Conner McGovern from Penn State, a center-guard," Kiper said. "He would be a nice player there. Dru Samia from Oklahoma as a guard. Nate Davis from Charlotte is a guard prospect. Garrett Bradbury, the center from N.C. State. Michael Jordan, a guard-center from Ohio State is an interesting guy (at 6-foot-7 and 312 pounds)."

If the Falcons want to go offensive line early and defensive tackle later, they’ll have options.

"On the defensive side of the ball, (tackle) Khalen Saunders from Western Illinois (is a good interior prospect)," Kiper said. "I highlighted him on during the year. Good player. He had a good year. Saunders would be a guy that you get in the third or fourth round."

The Falcons cut cornerback Robert Alford and told nickel back Brian Poole he won’t receive a restricted free agency tender. Alford played 957 snaps and Poole played 831 snaps. While most of those snaps are set to go to second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver and third-year defensive back Damontae Kazee, the Falcons have to restock the position.

“You never have enough cover guys, that’s why you see teams taking corners,” Kiper said. “In this league you need four of five of them to survive in this league. It’s a corner driven league now.”

Kiper is high on Clemson corner Trayvon Mullen, who he has going 15th to the Eagles.

“Trayvon Mullen has the ball skills,” Kiper said. “You saw him against Alabama. He’ll tackle. He has a little physicality to his game.”

Kiper, who’s set to do his 36th NFL draft for ESPN, said he’s looking forward to traveling to Nashville.

“It should be fun,” Kiper said.

2. Coordinators to speak: Falcons coach Dan Quinn and new coordinators Dirk Koetter (offense) and Ben Kotwica (special teams) will speak to the media at noon today.

Check back here later for updates.

3. Who's going number 1? Most of the early projections have either Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa or Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.

“I don’t think it’s that much of a gap,” Kiper said. “The only reason it’s not a big gap is because of durability. Nick Bosa had an injury his senior year of high school and then the injury this year. That’s the only issue there.”

Allen caught the NFL’s attention by getting 17 sacks for the Wildcats last season.

“Josh Allen is more of a one-year standout,” Kiper said. “He had 17 sacks this year and he only had seven last year. I think when you look at it, he more than doubled his tackle for losses numbers. He really came into his own this year.”

Allen had 21.5 tackles for losses last season.

“He was a good player, but he became a great player this year,” Kiper said. “I think that Josh Allen is going to be very interesting. It can go either way. I’m thinking more Bosa.”

4. Alabama players: Kiper has three players from Alabama projected to go in the first round in defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (third to the New York Jets), offensive tackle-guard Jonah Williams (18th to Minnesota) and running back Josh Jacobs (22nd to Baltimore).

“(Quinnen) Williams just had a phenomenal year,” Kiper said. “I just love the way he destroys double-teams. I love his hustle and the way that he pursues.”

Kiper does not believe that Jonah Williams can play left tackle in the NFL.

“He’s not going to be a left tackle, but (he’s going to be a) right tackle, guard or center,” Kiper said. “That’s why I put him at 18 and not in the top 10 because I think he’s an interior guy now.”

Jacobs was dazzling at times last season for the Crimson Tide.

“His attempts, his carries for his career, his yards for his career are basically like one season for a lot of running backs, which means he’s got a lot of tread left on the tires,” Kiper said. “He hasn’t been beaten up. He waited his turn.”

5. Where are Bulldogs going? Kiper projected that cornerback Deandre Baker will go to the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 20th overall pick.

Baker is the second-ranked cornerback behind LSU’s Greedy Williams, according to Kiper.

Nine Georgia Bulldogs players will participate in the combine in Indianapolis.

Three Bulldogs players — Roquan Smith (No. 8, Chicago); Isaiah Wynn (No. 23, New England); and Sony Michel (No. 31, New England) — were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft last year.

Kiper believes that running back Elijah Holyfield could go in the second round.

“Elijah Holyfield from Georgia, Benny Snell Jr. from Kentucky and Damien Harris of Alabama (could go) in the second round,” Kiper said.

Holyfield will need a strong showing at the combine to distinguish himself from the masses.

“It’s kind of a crowded running back group,” Kiper said. “This is a pretty strong running back group overall. There is only one first-rounder, but I think there are five potential second-round running backs and five potential third-round running backs.

“Again, lot of these running backs will drop a lot farther than they should because a lot of teams don’t need running backs. There are third rounders and say three of them drop to the fourth or the fifth and that pushes everybody down a round or two.”

6. Top state prospect: Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat, who played at Stephenson High, is expected to be the first player from Georgia selected in the draft.

Kiper is projected that he’ll go fifth overall to Tampa Bay. He started his career at Michigan State before transferring to junior college and resurfacing at Mississippi State.

“Montez Sweat is a pass rusher,” Kiper said. “He showed that early on. In fact, when we got into early October I had Sweat as the eighth best player on the big board. Then he got kind of quiet. Then he came through with a couple of sacks late in the season.

“Then he had the really good Senior Bowl week. He’s got the length. He’d got the explosiveness. That’s why I moved him up to that spot.”

7. NFLPA externship program: In its sixth year, the NFLPA Externship has 66 players working with 27 organizations. The players will work with businesses ranging from start-ups to established industry leaders while learning about the legislative process, the financial literacy space and media skills.

“We are proud to provide a service for our members that allows them to gain practical experience that will go a long way in positioning them to succeed in their post-football careers,” NFLPA player manager Connor Ford said. “By expanding the players’ network through organizations that are committed to immersing the externs in their fields, the NFLPA Externship continues to be one of the most valued programs offered by our union.”

Defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (Gatorade Sports Science Institute), safety Keith Tandy (Los Angeles Police Department, former draft pick Devin Fuller (The Trust) and former draft pick and Stansly Maponga (Fanatics) are players with ties to the Falcons participating in the program.

8. Combine set: Twenty-five former Georgia high school football players have been invited to the NFL scouting combine to be held Tuesday through, Monday, March 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Georgia’s representation is tied for third-most with California and trails Florida (51) and Texas (31), according to Ohio is next with 20. There are 338 invitees overall.

9. Simms off to 0-2 start: Former Falcons quarterback Matt Simms is 0-2 with the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football League.

The Legends host the Birmingham Iron in their season-opener at 4 p.m. Sunday at Georgia State Stadium.

Simms has completed 32 of 53 passes (60.4 percent) for 286 yards, three interceptions and one touchdown.

The Iron are led by former Falcons secondary coach Tim Lewis.