Beginning Monday at the NFL scouting combine, Falcons coaches, scouts and personnel executives will closely scrutinize the draft prospects. Before they left for Indianapolis, Falcons coach Dan Quinn met with each of his assistants and took them through an exercise in roster evaluation.
"If you are a (general manager) and you were starting a team — not the current Falcons players — but if you were building a team, how would you take the positions off the board?" Quinn said during a podcast interview with Matt Tabeek posted to the team's web site. "Because some positions are harder to find, like quarterback or pass rusher. ... On earth there is just not as many of them, if that makes sense."
It does. Scarcity makes some positions more important than others. Ideally, the Falcons would select the best player available in the draft regardless of position. But team owner Arthur Blank said the draft would be the primary way to improve the roster. A tight salary cap gives the Falcons little choice.
Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff need to get impact players from this draft. The coach believes the Falcons are in good shape for 2020 because the roster exercise revealed that they have good players at the most important positions.
“That’s why (fans) have such belief, and I do, too, (that) there are so many pieces in place that we can’t wait for this thing to keep going,” Quinn said. “Now ... we’ve got to keep sharpening, but as we head into the season, there should be great optimism about what we can be based on that.”
I never blame team officials for being optimistic during the offseason. That’s especially true for the NFL, where rapid turnarounds are engineered. Let teams be hopeful now so long as they aren’t making outrageous claims. Remind them later if they don’t deliver — for example, the Falcons claiming they fixed their offensive line for 2019, only to see it get worse.
But I digress. Back to positional value. There are different ways to measure it. A chart created by ex-NFL GM John Dorsey is floating around. Another gauge is cap space that teams devote to the positions. Combining those two approaches creates a rough pecking order of positions.
Quarterback is alone on the top tier, of course. The next tier includes edge pass rusher, left tackle, No. 1 cornerback and interior linemen. No. 1 wide receiver is on the next tier. All other positions fall somewhere below.
The Falcons are fortunate to be set at quarterback. Just look around the league. Matt Ryan had a down year by his standards in 2019, his age 34 season. I put most of that on poor pass protection. Ryan still can deliver if given time and the right plan by coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The Falcons have good players at two of the four second-tier positions. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is the main reason the Falcons had much of a pass rush at all last season. Jake Matthews is a solid left tackle. The Falcons also have the third position tier covered with Julio Jones, one of the best wide receivers in the league.
As I see it, that leaves edge rusher and No. 1 cornerback as holes for the Falcons among the most valuable positions. I’m not saying those are the only needs. The Falcons, like all teams, could use depth at several positions. But edge rusher and cornerback are the biggest priorities.
The Falcons are letting edge rusher Vic Beasley walk a year too late. They could save about $4.5 million by releasing Allen Bailey, who recorded one sack in 15 games last season. That would leave fourth-year pro Takk McKinley as the only proven pass rusher on the roster. If McKinley makes the big jump that the Falcons are counting on, they would have a good player at an important position.
You can make a case that Desmond Trufant is good enough to be considered a No. 1 cornerback. I think he’s slipped from his peak, with injuries playing a factor. Trufant also is set to count $15.2 million against the cap for 2020. The Falcons could save $5 million in space by releasing him. But there’s no good replacement on the roster, and they won’t find a top free-agent cornerback for that figure.
It’s hard to find rookies in the draft who will be immediate contributors, especially at the most valuable positions. The Falcons’ highest pick is No. 16. That’s a difficult spot to get an edge rusher or cornerback who can make an immediate difference.
Maybe the Falcons can find innovative ways to create cap space and add pricey free agents. Dimitroff boasted about the Falcons doing that last summer. That was before guards Jamon Brown ($12.75 million guaranteed) and James Carpenter ($9.25 million) flopped. Less than a year later, Blank said the Falcons need a left guard.
After the 2019 season, Dimitroff downplayed his team’s tight salary cap. He did the same thing after 2018. There’s freeing money under the cap, and then there’s spending it on the right free agents. Smart player acquisitions trump creative cap accounting.
Whichever way the Falcons do it, they need to acquire an edge rusher and a top cornerback. They are stocked at the other important positions. I don’t see a real turnaround in 2020 if they don’t take care of those two.