FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons turned up their noses at the quarterback draft class last year.
After losing to Cleveland in the Deshaun Watson derby last month, the Falcons traded Matt Ryan to the Colts for a third-round draft pick, and they signed quarterback Marcus Mariota to a modest two-year, $18.7 million deal.
We are projecting that the Falcons, who plan to select the best player available, will bypass the quarterback group again in the first round of the NFL draft, which is set for April 28-30 in Las Vegas.
In need of pass-rush help after finishing last in the NFL with 18 sacks, the Falcons will select Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson.
Here’s our final mock draft of the first round:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: After recording only 3.5 sacks in his previous three seasons, Hutchinson erupted for 14 sacks last season and was named the Big Ten′s Defensive Player of the Year.
2. Detroit Lions – Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon: Thibodeaux faced a lot of double-teams and double-tight end formations over the 11 games he played. “I’m not really too worried about what people have to say,” Thibodeaux said. “As long as the teams and I can kind of come to an understanding of how hard (I play) and the love I have for the game.”
3. Houston Texans – Ikem Ekwonu, OT, N.C. State: He became the third player from N.C. State to be voted a unanimous All-American. He gave up only three sacks over 476 pass-blocking snaps last season.
4. New York Jets – Travon Walker, DE, Georgia: He had a career-high seven QB pressures in the College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama. He started all 15 games at defensive tackle and had 37 tackles, six sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 36 quarterback hurries.
5. New York Giants – Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State: Very polished pass blocker. Has entered the draft as a third-year sophomore.
6. Carolina Panthers – Evan Neal, OT, Alabama: Neal started 13 games at left guard as a freshman, 12 games at right tackle as a sophomore and 15 games last season at left tackle. A consensus All-American last season, Neal helped Alabama’s offense average 39.9 points per game and 338.2 yards passing.
7. New York Giants (from Chicago) – Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati: Has the potential to be a lockdown corner in the league. He was the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and didn’t allow a touchdown over 1,059 career coverage snaps.
8. Falcons – Jermaine Johnson, DE, Florida State: Johnson began his college career at Independence Community College, where he was featured on Netflix’s “Last Chance U.” He went to Georgia but transferred to Florida State in December 2020. He led the ACC with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2021.
9. Seattle Seahawks (from Denver) – Malik Willis, QB, Liberty: Willis played in seven games in 2017 and completed 6 of 7 passes and five games in 2018 and completed 5 of 7 passes at Auburn. After transferring, he completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,250 yards, 20 TDs and six interceptions in 2020.
10. New York Jets (from Seattle) – Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: Elite run-after-catch ability, Wilson caught 70 passes for 1,058 yards (15.1 per catch) and 12 receiving TDs in 2021. Also returned punts for the Buckeyes. Wilson believes he can make an immediate impact as a rookie, similar to Ja’Marr Chase (81 receptions, 13 TDs) with the Bengals in 2021.
11. Washington Commanders – Kyle Hamilton, FS, Notre Dame: A Marist School grad, Hamilton was considered a top-10 player until he ran slow 40-yard dash times at the NFL scouting combine (4.59 seconds) and at Notre Dame’s Pro Day (4.7 seconds). But with his football instincts, he is not expected to drop far out of the top 10.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Derek Stingley, CB, LSU: Injuries held him back the past two seasons, but in 2019 he led the SEC with six interceptions.
13. Houston Texans (from Cleveland) – Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: He caught 13 TD passes on a loaded Buckeyes offense in 2021 and finished as the school’s all-time leader with 35 TD receptions – a huge feat considering the NFL players produced by the program over the years. Olave is a longtime fan of DeSean Jackson, a California native (like Olave) known for his big-play ability. “All the deep touchdowns he had, the 75-yard touchdowns he had, I try to put that into my game as a deep threat.”
14. Baltimore Ravens – George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: He was a first-team All-Big Ten pick after having 50 pressures last season. He has 14.5 career sacks, 29 tackles for loss and 106 pressures over 27 games.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami) – Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia: Davis won the 2021 Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, and was a near-consensus first-team All-American selection after helping to lead the Bulldogs to the national title.
16. New Orleans Saints (from Indianapolis through Philadelphia) – Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama: He started his career at Ohio State. Williams caught 79 passes for 1,572 yards and 15 TDs at Alabama in 2021. Williams sustained an ACL tear against Georgia in the CFP title game Jan. 10. “Recovery is going well,” Williams said at the scouting combine in March. “Everything has just been going good really.”
17. Los Angeles Chargers – Devonte Wyatt, DL, Georgia: Wyatt played in 14 of 15 games and had 39 tackles and 27 quarterback pressures last season.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (from New Orleans) – Drake London, WR, USC: He had more than 1,000 receiving yards in eight games before a fractured right ankle ended his 2021 season. London, who also played on USC’s basketball team, pointed to Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson and current Tampa Bay Buc Mike Evans as examples of the larger, physical players at the position that he’s working to become in the NFL.
19. New Orleans Saints (from Philadelphia) – Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh: Pickett was spectacular in a 52-21 rout of Georgia Tech on Oct. 1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium, completing 23 of 36 passes (63.9%) for 389 yards and four TDs. The knock on Pickett is that he doesn’t have big hands and will have trouble passing in cold-weather situations.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers – Trevor Penning, OL, Northern Iowa: “Penning initially may be a right tackle,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. “If you coach him up quickly, he certainly may be a left tackle. He’s as aggressive as they come. He’s super talented.”
21. New England Patriots – Andrew Booth, CB, Clemson: He had 75 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 10 pass breakups and five interceptions in his career. He played 981 defensive snaps over 35 career games and made 15 starts. He was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2021. He was an AJC Super 11 member in 2018.
22. Green Bay Packers (from Las Vegas) – Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State: Speed (4.43) and athletic ability (36-inch vertical leap) are key components for the former Nittany Lion, who had 91 catches for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 starts in 2021. The third-team 2021 AP All-American finished his Penn State career among the top five in several receiving categories.
23. Arizona Cardinals – Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa: “He’s not that big at 295, in that area,” Kiper said. “Not as big as some teams would prefer. He doesn’t have the arm length that necessarily teams would prefer, but he’s a great player.”
24. Dallas Cowboys – Zion Johnson, G, Boston College: He bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times and has a 32-inch vertical jump. He was named a first-team AP All-American after starting 11 games at left guard and one game at left tackle for the Eagles.
25. Buffalo Bills – Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah: Some have him rated over Georgia’s Nakobe Dean because he’s taller. He was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.
26. Tennessee Titans – Kenyon Green, G, Texas A&M: Athletically gifted for a big man. His mother, Shalonda, played volleyball at UCLA, and his dad, Henry, played guard at Grambling State.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas: He caught 66 passes for 1,104 yards (16.7 yards per catch) and 11 touchdowns over 12 starts in 2021. Burks is a big, fast receiver who has drawn comparisons with Tennessee Titan A.J. Brown. “I can play outside receiver, inside receiver and running back,” Burks said. “It doesn’t matter. That sets me apart from everybody else.”
28. Green Bay Packers – Daxton Hill, S, Michigan: He is versatile enough to play some cornerback and has played against wide receivers in the slot. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (from San Francisco through Miami): Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State: He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds. His father, Tazim Wajid Wajed (formerly Tim Watson), was a defensive back at Peach County High and Howard. He had a five-year NFL career (1993-97) after he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
30. Kansas City Chiefs – Lewis Cine, S, Georgia: He was a third-team AP All-American last season, was All-SEC first team by the AP and second-team All-SEC by the coaches. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s top cornerback.
31. Cincinnati Bengals – Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan: A native of Austria, Raimann started his career as a tight end but was moved to tackle after two seasons.
32. Detroit Lions (from Los Angeles Rams) – Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati: Ridder was the most athletic of the quarterbacks at the scouting combine, as Willis didn’t work out. He was first in the group in the 40-yard dash (4.52), vertical jump (36 inches) and broad jump (10-7).
On the fringe: Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia; Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss; Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina; Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington; Jaquan Brisker, S, Penn State; Logan Hall, DT, Houston; Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida; Jalen Pitre, S, Baylor.
AJC’S 2022 POSITION-BY-POSITION SERIES
WIDE RECEIVERS – Falcons need to upgrade weapons | Top 10 WRs
RUNNING BACKS – Position has become devalued in draft | Top 10 RBs
TIGHT ENDS – Chigoziem Okonkwo survived heart condition | Top 10 TEs
OFFENSIVE LINE – Ex-UGA lineman Salyer points to wins in SEC trenches | Top 10 OL
QUARTERBACKS – Malik Willis now top QB prospect for NFL draft | Top 10 QBs
DEFENSIVE LINE – Georgia dominates D-line talk ahead of draft | Top 10 DL
LINEBACKERS – Ex-UGA star Dean the latest test of play vs. measurables | Top 10 LBs
CORNERBACKS – Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner or LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. | Top 10 CBs
SAFETIES – Georgia’ Lewis Cine will knock your block off | Top 10 Safeties
SPECIAL TEAMS – Special-teams players attracting draft interest | Top 10 Special-teamers
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