Cover 9@9: Falcons have four of the top 100 draft picks in 2022

(Here’s our weekly nine items at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the Atlanta Falcons, otherwise known as the Cover 9@9 blog!)

1. The no-spin zone: With the Falcons’ playoffs hopes down to the 1% to 2% range, it’s officially OK to take a early peek at the NFL draft.

The Falcons’ scouts are off the road and draft meetings started a few weeks ago. They’ll hit the bowl games and start the cross-checking process. The draft is set to be held April 28-30 in Paradise, Nevada.

The Falcons currently hold the ninth (first round), 41st (second), 58th (second round from Tennessee in Julio Jones trade) and 73rd (third) picks in the draft. The Falcons must hit on their picks in the top 100.

The Falcons also have their fourth (111th), fifth (150th) and sixth (188th) round picks. Their seventh-round pick resides with Buffalo from the Lee Smith trade. The slots are projections by tankathon.com.

The official draft list will be released after the season by the league office.

Also, this doesn’t account for possible compensatory picks the Falcons could be awarded. For losing center Alex Mack and safety Keanu Neal the Falcons could pick up two additional sixth-round picks.

Esteemed colleague and columnist Mark Bradley duly noted that Matt Ryan is under contract through the 2023 season, and they have to take a quarterback in the near feature in his recent column about the Falcons being closer to awful than to being good. He mentions Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett. He likes him, but not as much he liked Ryan in 2008.

We’re in the skip-the-quarterback club and keep rolling with Ryan. They can get the apprentice in 2023. I do like Malik Willis from Roswell High (and Westlake before that) and Liberty, but we need to do some more work on him.

The good folks over at Tankathon have projections for the Falcons that seem plausible.

No one is going to argue if they go with edge rushers for the first two picks.

Tankathon has the Falcons taking Purdue’s George Karlaftis, who’s 6-4 and 275 pounds and is the third-rated pass rusher in the draft behind Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux.

With the first second-round pick, they have the Falcons taking San Diego State edge rusher Cameron Thomas, who’s 6-5 and 270 pounds and has 10.5 sacks this past season.

With the Jones pick, the Falcons are projected to take Michigan State running back Kenny Walker, who rushed for 1,646 yards and 18 touchdowns. Go back and watch the Spartans win over Michigan. He dominated the game on the ground.

In the third round, the Falcons are projected to take Alabama defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis, who’s 6-4 and 312 pounds and has eight sacks this season.

Those look like some mighty fine picks although we haven’t started our own research, which will include trips to the HBCU combine, Senior Bowl, college Pro Days in the Southeast and the scouting combine if the COVID-19 protocols allow.

We’ll also have the AJC’s position-by-position draft ratings in April after we’ve talk to general managers, coaches, scouts and personnel men from around the NFL.

Go ahead, it’s just fine to start looking at the draft. We may even get up an early mock draft.

2A. Falcons injury report: Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe suffered a foot injury against San Francisco.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith didn’t share an update on Sharpe on Monday. Surely, the training staff has the latest on his status.

“We’re still waiting on some MRIs,” Smith said Monday on his Zoom media conference. “With Sharpe, I know he didn’t finish the game and that was announced, so we’re just waiting. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not trying to be evasive, but I don’t jump to conclusions medically. No matter how many … medical advice I’ve read online on social media, I don’t think I’m a doctor, so I usually wait until we get him in the MRI machines.”

Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson became ill Saturday night and was inactive for the 49ers’ game. His illness was not COVID-19 related.

2B. Lions injury report: Detroit coach Dan Campbell told the Detroit media Monday that linebacker Alex Anzalone, the team’s signal-caller, suffered a shoulder injury against the Cardinals and would miss the final three games of the season.

Anzalone, a former New Orleans Saint, has 78 tackles on the season.

“He got the shoulder (injury), but we don’t believe this is some long-term issue,” Campbell said. “We just know with three games left, that will probably knock him out for the season. He’s been rock solid. He’s been as steady as a rock. He’s really our quarterback on defense. It will hurt.”

Jaylin Reeves-Maybin, who played at Tennessee, took over against the Cardinals.

“Reeves-Maybin had to play 72 plays, man. He’s the (signal-caller) and he played all out,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I’ll tell you what, the guy made a ton of plays for us and that’s a credit to him. But it will hurt, but look, we’ve had to adapt all year and so here we are again.”

But Campbell was wishy-washy about D’Andre Swift’s status because wants to make the Falcons prepare for a possible Swift return.

“I still think we’re taking this week-to-week, day-to-day,” Campbell said. “There again, as of (Monday) morning I know he’s better than he felt last week. He feels better than he was Saturday when we worked with him. Our plan is to work him back into practice this week and see how he feels.”

3. Series history: This will be the 39th meeting. The Lions lead the series 25-13. They won the last meeting 23-22 on Oct. 25, 2020 in the Todd Gurley fall down game.

Combined ShapeCaption
Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins signals touchdown as Falcons running back Todd Gurley tries to stop short of the end zone to control the final minutes of the clock in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct 25, 2020 in Atlanta. Gurley broke the plane for a touchdown for a 20-16 lead and the Falcons added the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 22-16 but left enough time on the clock for the Lions to come back for the game winning touchdown and extra point to beat the Falcons 23-22 as time expired. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins signals touchdown as Falcons running back Todd Gurley tries to stop short of the end zone to control the final minutes of the clock in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct 25, 2020 in Atlanta. Gurley broke the plane for a touchdown for a 20-16 lead and the Falcons added the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 22-16 but left enough time on the clock for the Lions to come back for the game winning touchdown and extra point to beat the Falcons 23-22 as time expired. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins signals touchdown as Falcons running back Todd Gurley tries to stop short of the end zone to control the final minutes of the clock in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct 25, 2020 in Atlanta. Gurley broke the plane for a touchdown for a 20-16 lead and the Falcons added the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 22-16 but left enough time on the clock for the Lions to come back for the game winning touchdown and extra point to beat the Falcons 23-22 as time expired. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

4. Breakthrough win: Under first-year coach Campbell, the Detroit Lions had a breakthrough win Sunday.

The Lions upset the Arizona Cardinals to get their first win over a team with a winning record, something that the Falcons are still trying to register under Smith.

Campbell and the Lions, who lost his first eight games this season, believe the big win over the Cardinals was a good sign for the future.

“When you put in the work and you trust the game plan, you trust yourself and you trust your teammates and we do things a certain way, good things can happen,” Campbell said during his Monday press conference, according to the Detroit Free Press. “There is a way to win in this league. Once again you’ve got to give yourself the best opportunity in this league to have success. … One more time it validates the fact that, ‘Hey man, we can do some things.’”

Before the upset, the Lions had a win over Minnesota and tie against Pittsburgh. They have six one-score losses. The Falcons are 6-2 in one-score games

“We can take teams to the wire,” Campbell said. “We got a chance to win. Look, that’s one of the better teams over there, particularly in the NFC. It just validates that we can do this. Just stay true to our system and what we are preaching.”

5. Moving on from Stafford: Campbell and general Brad Holmes, who interviewed with the Falcons twice, took over this offseason for the Lions. Holmes was the Rams director of college scouting.

Campbell and Holmes elected to move on from long-time quarterback Matthew Stafford, who requested a trade. They elected to rebuild from the ground floor around veteran quarterback Jared Goff.

The Lions have taken some lumps along they way, including a 34-11 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 17, 44-6 loss to the Eagles on Oct. 31 and a 38-10 shellacking by Denver on Dec. 12. But they partied like rock stars after beating Minnesota 29-27 on Dec. 5. and again after upsetting the Cardinals, who are 10-4 and currently the No. 4 seed for the playoffs in the NFC.

6. Lions like to run the ball: The Lions were leaning heavily on Swift until the former Georgia standout suffered an injured shoulder in the Thanksgiving Day game.

Swift had amass 984 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns, running (140 carries) and catching (56) the ball out of the backfield. With the Lions eliminated from the playoffs, Swift likely is shut down for the season.

We’re not buy Campbell’s “week to week, day to day” ambiguity.

With Swift and Jamaal Williams (COVID-19) out, running back Craig Reynolds rushed 26 times for 109 yards against the Cardinals.

“Do you carry three backs, four backs, who’s up, who’s down, and so we’ll just play it by ear,” Campbell said. “It’s a good problem to have. If Craig goes into the game, Craig is getting some carries. That’s what I would say. Yeah, he’s warranted that.”

7. Josh Reynolds finds a home: The Lions claimed wide receiver Josh Reynolds off waivers from Tennessee on Nov. 10. He’d played with Goff when he was with the Rams. He signed with Tennessee before they traded with the Falcons for Julio Jones.

He was behind Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods with the Rams, but with the Lions he’s the No. 1 option.

“I think the addition of (Josh Reynolds) has certainly helped,” Campbell said. “He kind of brings us something that’s a little different flavor. Just his size, length, speed and ball skills. He’s a smart guy. He’s just been a real good addition for us.”

8a. Local kid makes good: Wide receiver Kalif Raymond, who played at Greater Atlanta Christian and Holy Cross, has 41 receptions for 463 yards and three touchdowns.

Combined ShapeCaption
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Charles Harris of the Falcons during the second half.

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Charles Harris of the Falcons during the second half.

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

Combined ShapeCaption
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Charles Harris of the Falcons during the second half.

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

8b. Detroit’s sackmaster: Detroit outside linebacker Charles Harris, who played with the Falcons in 2020 and signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency, has a career-high 7.5 sacks this season.

Harris, who was drafted in the first-round (22nd) by the Dolphins in 2017 out of Missouri, was considered a bust in Miami was traded to the Falcons for a seventh round pick.

He had a previous career-high three sacks for the Falcons. He signed a one-year deal worth $1.75 million with the Lions.

Harris went off against Arizona in the Lions’ 30-12 upset Sunday. He finished with 12 total tackles (seven solo), 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.

On the season, Harris has 58 tackles, nine tackles for losses and 15 quarterback hits to go with his sacks.

9. DEPTH CHART: Linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee (knee injury) was removed from the COVID-19 list and placed on injured reserve by the Falcons on Monday.

Rookie linebacker Dorian Etheridge was promoted for the San Francisco game.

Linebacker Quinton Bell and cornerback Cornell Armstrong, members of the practice squad, were placed on the reserve COVID-19 list Dec. 13.

Ellerbee, who has appeared in four games this season, suffered a knee injury in the 29-21 win over the Panthers on Dec. 12.

Here’s the projected depth chart for the Lions’ game:

OFFENSE

WR - Christian Blake (promoted because of Sharpe injury) Tajae Sharpe, (Calvin Ridley on the NFI list)

TE - Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst

LT - Jake Matthews, Jason Spriggs

LG - Jaylen Mayfield, Josh Andrews

C - Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman

RG - Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman

RT – Kaleb McGarry, Colby Gossett

TE – Lee Smith, *Keith Smith (Has not lined up as traditional TE), *Feleipe Franks (was part of TE/QB package)

WR - Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby

RB - Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Davis, Qadree Ollison

FB - Keith Smith

QB - Matt Ryan, Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks

DEFENSE

DE - Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson

NT - Tyeler Davison, Anthony Rush, Ta’Quon Graham

DE - Jonathan Bullard, Mike Pennel, John Cominsky

OLB - Dante Fowler, Brandon Copeland

ILB - Deion Jones, Mykal Walker

ILB - Foyesade Oluokun, Dorian Etheridge (currently on practice squad).

OLB – Steven Means, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, James Vaughters

LCB - A.J. Terrell, Darren Hall

FS - Jaylinn Hawkins, Shawn Williams

SS - Duron Harmon, Richie Grant

RCB - Fabian Moreau, Avery Williams, Kendall Sheffield

SPECIAL TEAMS

K - Younghoe Koo

P – Thomas Morstead

LS - Josh Harris

H - Thomas Morstead

PR - Avery Williams, Olamide Zaccheaus

KOR - Avery Williams, Cordarrelle Patterson (Team still lists Patterson as No. 1, but Williams has taken over with Patterson needed more at running back.)

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