Look past misdirection: Falcons’ biggest need is on defensive line

Former Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, here pressuring Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in the college football national championship game in January at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is among the defensive tackles who could help the Falcons.

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

The NFL draft will begin as scheduled Thursday night. This was reaffirmed when the world did not end Tuesday, contrary to the prognostication of numerologist David Meade, who stated an alignment of the sun, moon and Neptune would lead to a disaster of Biblical proportions, something even worse than when Julio Jones pushed reset on his Twitter and Instagram pages (which ignited a five-alarm fire on social media Tuesday night).

Meade is a frequent doomsayer. He also predicted the end of the world would come last September.

He must be an Atlanta sports fan.

So back to the NFL draft. These things have gone pretty well for the Falcons recently. More than half of the current starting defense alone came from the last three drafts.

Like most NFL teams during these several weeks of disinformation campaigns, the Falcons have done a really good job making sure everybody knows they have needs everywhere.

Everywhere! So don’t even try to figure out what we’re going to do!

There’s a degree of truth to that. They need a third wide receiver to go with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They need a fullback and possibly a tight end and possible another offensive lineman (guard).

But what they need more than anything is a defensive tackle. It's important to remember that while coach Dan Quinn admires many of his skilled players on his offense, he's a defense-first coach. He coached defensive linemen and later became a coordinator in Seattle; The Seahawks went to consecutive Super Bowls because they were physical and explosive on defense. The Falcons had offensive liabilities in 2017, but that was more the residual of underwhelming performances by individual players (particularly dropped passes) and struggles by first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian than personnel deficiencies.

With that, here’s my ranking of Falcons needs going into Thursday’s first round.

1. Defensive tackle

They’ve lost two defensive linemen in free agency: Dontari Poe (Carolina) and Adrian Clayborn (New England). With Vic Beasley returning to end full time with the hopes of him becoming an impact edge rusher again, the Falcons need another big body to line up inside next to Grady Jarrett, along with Takk McKinley at left end. Jack Crawford is penciled in as a starting defensive tackle, but he’s coming off a torn bicep, and it’s probably best to view him as a depth guy at this point.

Once more with feeling: Football is still about blocking and tackling. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff know and embrace this. The Falcons need to fix their front four before anything else because the entire defense spins off of that.

Washington’s Vita Vea, the consensus best defensive tackle, is expected to go in the 10-to-15 range, and it’s extremely unlikely the Falcons would trade so many assets to move up from No. 26. More than likely, they’re looking at either Alabama Da’Ron Payne or Florida’s Taven Bryan. Either also could necessitate a trade to move up a handful of spots. Last year it took giving Seattle third- and seventh-rounders to climb from 31st to 26th to pick McKinley.

2. Wide receiver

Taylor Gabriel was a huge disappointment last season, dropping from six touchdowns to one and 16.5 yards per reception to 11.5. That wasn’t just because Sarkisian didn’t know how to use him. Gabriel frequently was pushed back by defensive backs near the line of scrimmage and didn’t fight through it. That, in combination with too many drops by Jones (7), Mohamed Sanu (6) and Devonta Freeman (4), led to problems in the passing game.

It’s also worth noting that Jones turns 30 in February. The Falcons like Justin Hardy, but they need another receiving threat. If it doesn’t come in the draft, it means they’re going to have to settle for one of the unsigned free agents and there’s not a lot out there. (Don’t go down the Dez Bryant road.)

I don’t think spending the first pick on Alabama’s Calvin Ridley or Maryland’s D.J. Moore is the Falcons’ best option but several good receivers will be available in the second round, including Memphis’ Anthony Miller, Texas A&M Christian Kirk and SMU’s Courtland Sutton.

3AB. Fullback/tight end

The Falcons struggled in the red zone last season. This can traced to several things: predictability (Sarkisian), inefficiency (drops by receivers, errors by Matt Ryan) and pass protection. But having another viable weapon (tight end) and/or an additional blocker to pound the ball (fullback) would be huge.

Patrick DiMarco, lost to Buffalo in free agency last year, never was sufficiently replaced. At tight end, the Falcons haven’t given up on tight end Austin Hooper yet, but the former No. 3 pick had a disappointing second season. This is a prove-it year for him. Having another tight end on the roster to push Hooper wouldn’t be the worst thing. (The team signed free agent Logan Paulsen, but he’s mostly a special-teams player and blocking option.)

5. Guard

I had this as a higher priority in January, but center/guard Brandon Fusco was signed in free agency. Fusco may not wow you, but he has 80 starts on his resume and when a team signs a player to a three-year, $12.75 million contract ($5.5 million guaranteed), it's pretty much guaranteed that he's going to start -- in this case, at right guard. The team could still draft a guard or tackle to develop. But I would be surprised if they took Georgia tackle/guard Isaiah Wynn in the first round, as some mock drafts have them doing, unless they've lost confidence in left guard Andy Levitre or right tackle Ryan Schraeder.

6AB. Defensive back/linebacker

It’s not a screaming need, but the Falcons play the majority of their defensive snaps in nickel and they tend to churn through a number of defensive backs. They’ve already signed veteran Justin Bethel to a one-year deal in free agency.

The team also is shallow at linebacker (Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Duke Riley), though there are other options if needed (Beasley and DB Kemal Ishmael can flex). Another depth guy is possible.

Fresh pod: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the latest, "We Never Played The Game" podcast.

Listen to the, "We Never Played The Game" podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes or, Google play, StitcherTuneIn, or listen from the AJC sports podcasts page or the WSB Radio on-demand page.

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