Falcons appear set to add to defense after spending lavishly on offense

Atlanta Falcons coach Raheem Morris and general manager Terry Fontenot share a laugh while responding to a question Monday, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, during Morris' introductory press conference. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta Falcons coach Raheem Morris and general manager Terry Fontenot share a laugh while responding to a question Monday, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, during Morris' introductory press conference. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

FLOWERY BRANCH — With Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot heading into his fourth NFL draft with the franchise, a pattern has been established.

Over the first two seasons, the Falcons were just bailing water out of the salary-cap boat and couldn’t make any seismic moves to redirect the course of the franchise. In 2022, they had to play the season with a record amount of dead salary-cap space.

Last offseason, finally with some salary-cap room, the Falcons spent their money on defense and added offensive weapons in the first and second rounds of the draft.

This offseason, the Falcons spent lavishly on offense – led by quarterback Kirk Cousins’ four-year deal that is worth up to $180 million – and appear set to add to the defense in the coming draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Detroit.

Over Fontenot’s past three drafts, the Falcons added tight end Kyle Pitts (fourth overall in 2021), wide receiver Drake London (eighth, 2022) and Bijan Robinson (eighth, 2023) in the first round.

The spending patterns of the past two offseasons point to a defensive player being selected, although the Falcons insist they will select the best player available in the draft.

Most of the mock drafts have the Falcons selecting Alabama outside linebacker Dallas Turner with the eighth overall pick.

However, some teams list UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu as the best defensive player in the draft. NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks also has Latu rated as the top defender.

Florida State defensive end Jared Verse generally is considered the second best defender behind either Turner or Latu.

“I know there are teams that have Latu as the No. 1 edge guy,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said when asked about Turner versus Latu by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So, I don’t think that’s unanimous with Dallas Turner. I have Dallas Turner, then Verse and then Latu.”

The Falcons’ medical staff would have to approve of Latu, who medically retired from Washington when the doctors wouldn’t clear him to play with a neck injury. His head coach at the time was Jimmy Lake, who’s now the Falcons’ defensive coordinator.

Latu went on to have neck fusion surgery and returned to the field at UCLA.

“(From) talking to teams, there are varying degrees of concerns with Latu’s medicals,” Jeremiah said. “You’re medically retired. You have a (cervical) fusion (surgery), that is concerning to teams and rightfully so. But then on the other side of it, he’s played and been healthy for the last two years and been really productive at UCLA. So, other teams aren’t as concerned with it.”

Former Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, who was hired to that position on the same day that Falcons coach Raheem Morris was named head coach in 2009, has grappled with how to handle medical information before the draft.

The Bucs had grades of A, B, C and F on the players on their draft board. They eventually put medical numbers, 1 through 9, along with the grades.

“So, you might see a C-8 or C-2, depending on how significant the injuries were to get a better sense of pulling guys apart,” Dominik said. “But you have to fundamentally decide if you are going to (listen to the doctors). ... If (they) say we’ve got to drop this guy off the draft board or we can’t take this guy. I’m going to trust them. That’s why we hired them.”

Dominik discussed the medicals for Rob Gronkowski (back), Jahvid Best (concussions) and Da’Quan Bowers (knee) leading to their respective drafts. Gronkowski and Best were taken in the 2010 draft and Bowers in 2011.

“It’s haunted me, and it saved me,” Dominik said of the medical analysis. “When I say it haunted me, we took Gronkowski and moved him down to the sixth or seventh round, and he’s going to (the Pro Football Hall of Fame).”

The doctors advised the Bucs against taking Best, who had three concussions in college.

“The doctors watched the concussions on tape and told me, ‘you can’t take this guy,’” Dominik said. “He was out of the league in two years.”

Bowers was considered perhaps the top pick for the 2011 draft before concerns about his knee pushed him to the second round.

“We looked at the knee and spent hours looking at,” Dominik said. “They said, I think you can get six to seven years out of the knee. ... It turned out Da’Quan didn’t love ball enough until two or three years later. ... It wasn’t his knee that was the problem as much as it was his heart a little bit.”

Fontenot and the personnel men will have to trust the medical analysis of the doctors. The starting point would be if the player could play throughout his rookie contract of four seasons with a team option for the fifth.

“Owners are great about saying I want to sign this guy, and I want him to play 10 years,” Dominik said. “Well, you all know, 10 years, that picture that you take at the owners’ meeting 10 years later sure looks a lot different. If you can get four or five years out of a good player that could help you, with the salary cap and where we sit, that’s fine.”

Dominik spent 19 of his 20 years in the NFL in the Bucs’ front office. He was general manager from 2009-15.

“I’d be more aggressive than I was in terms of medicals,” Dominik said. “If I were to go back in time or if I had another opportunity, I think I’d be more aggressive on taking shots at guys because we understand that these windows can be kind of small for some people.”

Once the medical issues are resolved, the Falcons can get back to picking the best player available.

“I would not just put it in ink that Dallas Turner is the pick there with the Atlanta Falcons,” Jeremiah said. “I would not rule out any of those other top guys on the defensive line.”

The Falcons could move in another direction along the defensive line.

“If you asked me who is somebody that we just didn’t see coming, to me that’s Byron Murphy, the defensive tackle from Texas,” Jeremiah said. “It’s a league that has placed (a greater) premium on defensive tackles.”

There are only about seven or eight top rated defensive tackles in the draft, while the edge rusher pool is deeper.

“When you look at the draft, there are some other interesting names that you can go after outside of the first round at the edge-rusher position,” Jeremiah said. “It falls off pretty quick at defensive tackle.”

Murphy is 6-foot-1 and 297 pounds. He was the Big 12′s defensive lineman of the year. He lifted 225 pounds 28 times at the scouting combine. Illinois’ Johnny Newton is rated by some as the top defensive tackle in the draft.

“Even though everybody is kind of looking at the sack issue that they’ve had and them needing an edge rusher, I wouldn’t just totally rule out Murphy there as somebody that they could be at least interested in,” Jeremiah said.

Some analysts want to compare Turner with Will Anderson, who also played at Alabama (Dutchtown High) and was taken third overall over by the Texans last season.

“They are not similar at all,” Jeremiah said. “Dallas has a little more juice in terms of his get-off, and his burst is pretty elite. He’s a better bender. He’s a more fluid, loose athlete than Will.”

Anderson has more power, is a better bull-rusher and battles through blocks better than Turner.

“He has a little more knock-back at the point of attack against the run,” Jeremiah said. “Whereas Turner is a little bit more, use your length and set the edge. There are some people around the league who aren’t as high on Turner in terms of him being the top (defensive) guy in this draft.

“They’ve used the words, you know, ‘Ahhh, he’s kind of soft. He’s not physical.’ I don’t agree with that at all. I think there is a difference between being a violent player. Jared Verse is a real violent, angry and physical player. Where I think with Turner, he’s more a firm player. He holds (his own).”

The Falcons will add a quarterback and not go to training camp with only two passers, with Kirk Cousins battling back from Achilles surgery.

The Falcons likely will sit out the first tier of six quarterbacks.

South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, Kentucky’s Devin Leary and Tulane’s Michael Pratt are quarterbacks in the second tier at the position.

“There’s a lot to like about him,” Jeremiah said about Rattler. “Not the biggest guy, but a real live arm and someone I think who’s got a shot.”

Leary played four years at N.C. State before playing as a graduate transfer at Kentucky.

“I think (he) throws the ball really well,” Jeremiah said. “He has rhythm, timing and touch. He’s tough. He’ll hang in there. If things break down, he’s got a chance to get outside and make things happen.”

Pratt guided Tulane to a historic win over USC in the Cotton Bowl after the 2022 season.

“He can function inside of the pocket,” Jeremiah said. “He can make some guys miss. He has a beautiful deep ball. I just want to see him be a little bit more consistent underneath. There are some traits and tools to like there.”

The Bow Tie Chronicles

Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner (15) tracks the play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

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South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) rushes for a first down against Georgia linebacker Chaz Chambliss (32) during the first half at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 16, 2023, in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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