Najee Harris highlights Falcons’ potential prospects at Senior Bowl

Alabama running back Najee Harris scores a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half of the College Football Playoff championship game, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
Alabama running back Najee Harris scores a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half of the College Football Playoff championship game, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In his second full week on the job, Falcons coach Arthur Smith will begin the scouting process.

The Senior Bowl, albeit in a much different format this year, will begin practicing in Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday. Normally this is a time for NFL hopefuls, teams, agents and media to gather en masse and kick off the draft process. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, all media interviews with players will be conducted virtually. NFL clubs are allowed to send a maximum of only 10 representatives to the event as well.

Still, the Senior Bowl is a valuable tool for all teams. Recent Senior Bowl alumni who were drafted by the Falcons include Marlon Davidson, Matt Hennessy, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary and John Cominsky.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, teams haven’t sent their scouts across the country to college campuses, as they normally would have. And now that the NFL scouting combine is called off, the Senior Bowl has become that much more valuable.

With the Falcons needing to fill multiple positions, here are a few groups to keep an eye on throughout the week of practice.

Running back

The Falcons were again one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL in 2020, which surely will be something Smith tries to change.

During his introductory news conference, Smith, a former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, said there would be no replacing Derrick Henry in the Falcons’ offense. But there is at least one running back attending the Senior Bowl who gives off Henry vibes. This particular back could be too enticing to pass on if the opportunity presents itself.

Alabama’s Najee Harris: Harris, who totaled 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2020, has everything you want at the position. He has great power, vision and receiving capabilities. In an era of football where running backs aren’t valued nearly as much, Harris is one of the lone exceptions, as he has a great chance to go in the first round. If the Falcons want him, a trade back to accrue picks may be in order, as it would seem they are unlikely to spend a fourth overall selection on a running back.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs past Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the Sugar Bowl Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs past Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the Sugar Bowl Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Ohio State’s Trey Sermon: Sermon saved his best football for the end of the season, highlighted when he took 29 carries for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game. He followed that with 31 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal. However, he was injured on his first carry in the CFP Championship game, so his workload at the Senior Bowl remains to be seen. Sermon could be a second- or third-round selection.

North Carolina’s Michael Carter: The Tar Heels featured a dynamic rushing attack with Carter and Javonte Williams, who could go as early as the second round. Although Williams has received more hype, Carter ran for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. Carter’s size, 5-foot-9 and 199 pounds, could have him going in the late second round or third round, however.

Edge rusher

When have the Falcons not needed an edge rusher? It seems like every year the franchise is trying to find yet another pass rusher to upgrade the sack production. This past season, linebacker Deion Jones led the franchise with 4.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ranked second with four. Defensive end Dante Fowler, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal in last year’s offseason, had only three, a career low.

Case in point, the Falcons need some help on the edge.

Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo: Although his team didn’t, Odeyingbo had a superb individual season in 2020, with 5.5 sacks. With the Falcons likely to run a 3-4 hybrid defense under coordinator Dean Pees, Odeyingbo, at 6-foot-6 and 276 pounds, could be used as a down lineman or standing up. A good week may cement Odeyingbo’s standing as a second-day draft prospect.

Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond (11) fumbles the ball on fourth down as he is hit by Vanderbilt's Dayo Odeyingbo (10) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in College Station, Texas. Texas A&M won 17-12. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond (11) fumbles the ball on fourth down as he is hit by Vanderbilt's Dayo Odeyingbo (10) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in College Station, Texas. Texas A&M won 17-12. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Penn State’s Shaka Toney: At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, Toney recorded five sacks during his senior season. Perhaps overshadowed by teammate Jayson Oweh, Toney’s athletic ability should still put him in the conversation to be selected in the second or third round, especially if he impresses during Senior Bowl practices.

Safety

Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee’s contracts are up, putting the Falcons in a position where they may need to add to the position group. In addition, the franchise must decide whether they want to keep safety Ricardo Allen on his existing contract, restructure the deal or save $6.25 million against the cap by cutting him.

If the Falcons decide to start from scratch, the draft will be a good place to add talent to the defensive backfield.

Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte, who was injured in a motorcycle accident earlier in the season, prepares to play Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta.   (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte, who was injured in a motorcycle accident earlier in the season, prepares to play Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia’s Richard LeCounte: LeCounte’s senior season was cut short after a traffic accident the evening of the Bulldogs’ win over Kentucky. LeCounte was one of Georgia’s emotional leaders during his tenure and showed a knack for finding the football. LeCounte finished his Georgia career with eight interceptions. It’s unknown at this time what football activities he will be able to participate in at the Senior Bowl. For now, LeCounte is considered a second-day selection.

Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen: Nasirildeen is built a lot like Neal at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. An enforcer, Nasirildeen totaled 101 tackles during his junior season. However, he tore his ACL late during the 2019 season and played in only the final two games of Florida State’s 2020 campaign. Nasirildeen likely is a second-day prospect as well.

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