Mel Kiper: 5 names to watch for Falcons in rounds 1, 2 of the NFL draft

Nolan Smith, Kelee Ringo, Jalin Hyatt, Jonathan Mingo and Josh Downs

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are projected to select two former Georgia standouts – linebacker Nolan Smith and cornerback Kelee Ringo – in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s latest two-round mock draft, which was released Tuesday.

The Falcons have loaded up on defensive players in the free-agency period, and Kiper projects that they will stay with a defensive theme early in the draft.

“They went offense the last few years, and the defense, in particular, you look at the cornerback spot,” Kiper said Wednesday in response to a question from the AJC on a virtual call. “They made the (Jeff Okudah) move (Tuesday). So, I went with the linebacker who’s basically a pass-rusher. He can get you eight to 10 sacks a year, I believe Nolan Smith can. He’s a heck of a player. He’s very smart.”

Smith missed most of last season with a pectoral injury. He had a great combine performance and is doing well on the pre-draft interview circuit. Kiper admitted that he has Smith ranked higher then most other draft analysts because of his versatility.

“He ran in the 4.38 range, tell you what kind of athlete he is,” Kiper said. “He had the pectoral injury which prevented him from finishing out the year at Georgia. At that particular point, who can you take that fills a need area, gives you a pass rusher, which is what they were lacking. (Outside linebacker Arnold) Ebiketie, hopefully comes along.”

The Falcons took Ebiketie in the second round last season, and he showed some promise as a rookie.

Kiper gave Ringo to the Falcons in the second round, but he could see them taking a wide receiver.

“In the second round you get a corner like Ringo, you stay with the Georgia program,” Kiper said. “Or at that point, what receiver would be there who’d be intriguing? Jalin Hyatt from Tennessee. He’s a speed option. If he’s around at that point, I thought about giving him to Atlanta. He didn’t run ... as fast as we thought he would at the (NFL) combine.

“He ran 4.4 instead of 4.28. He’s got to add some poundage to that frame. Maybe 10 pounds to that frame and maybe get a little stronger. He’s a take-the-top-off-the-defense receiver. He was phenomenal for (Tennessee quarterback) Hendon Hooker.”

There are other options at wide receiver for the Falcons early in the draft.

“(Mississippi’s) Jonathan Mingo would be another big receiver,” Kiper said. “If you want a slot guy, it would be Josh Downs from North Carolina. So, they have some options there if they want to go receiver there either slot or wide.”

The Falcons said they were looking for players with versatility and Smith fits that description.

Kiper noted that Smith could play on the edge, move around and track down running backs and running quarterbacks and get the eight to 10 sacks a season. The Falcons haven’t had a double-digit sacker since Vic Beasley in 2016.

“He’s got value,” Kiper said of Smith.

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