MOBILE, Ala. — The Falcons have plenty of avenues to upgrade their defense in the NFL draft.
Anthony Robinson, the Falcons’ director of college scouting, spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution briefly at the Senior Bowl and noted that defensive line and edge rusher might’ve been the deepest positions at the event. Keion White (Georgia Tech), Derick Hall (Auburn), Andre Carter (Army) and Isaiah Foskey (Notre Dame) are playing in the exhibition game, hoping to improve their draft stock.
The Falcons, of course, need help across their defense. The team seems a natural fit to take a front-seven defender at No. 8 overall this year given the options – Tyree Wilson (Texas Tech) and Myles Murphy (Clemson) are projected around their range – but offensive line and potentially cornerback fit, too (among other positions – every team cites the best-player-available approach). It’s easy to envision new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen campaigning for a pass rusher.
The cornerbacks in the Senior Bowl are impressive physically, though none project as sure first-round picks. Kyu Blu Kelly (Stanford), son of former NFL player Brian Kelly, has been one of the best players in Mobile, coming close to multiple interceptions and getting a pick-six Wednesday. The Falcons will need to add cornerback reinforcements. Casey Hayward is 33 and might not be back. Isaiah Oliver is a free agent.
Kelly is a bigger cornerback at 6-foot-1, 188 pounds. As the receivers keep growing, so do the players trying to stop them. Projected first-round corners Joey Porter (Penn State) and Christian Gonzalez (Oregon) both are 6-2.
“They get bigger, they get faster, they get longer,” Robinson said. “I think if you look at the league, depending on the scheme, this is a big man’s game, so everybody loves the big receivers and big corners. The receivers are getting bigger, so guess what? The corners have to get bigger. It’s good to see these guys. You just have to figure out how they fit your system.”
Robinson also noted the receiver talent in Mobile. This receiver class isn’t considered on par with the stellar ones of recent years, but the sport never lacks incoming pass-catchers. Puka Nacua (BYU), Michael Wilson (Stanford) and Rashee Rice (SMU) are among the standouts through two practices.
The Falcons could use further receiver depth alongside Drake London, their top-10 pick last spring who enjoyed an excellent rookie season, but that could be addressed in free agency and/or later in the draft.
- Robinson on Georgia’s Senior Bowl participants: “It’s the No. 1 program in the country, so the talent level is high. They have four guys here. That says a lot. They’re well-represented.” The Falcons drafted two Bulldogs last year: guard Justin Shaffer and tight end John FitzPatrick.
- One former Georgia player, running back Kenny McIntosh, left practice early Tuesday with a calf cramp, but he returned Wednesday and looked good. McIntosh’s receiving ability gives him clear additional value in the pros, and he’s looked comfortable in that area during the practices. He also ripped off a 50-yard run Wednesday.
- Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said Tuesday that running back was the deepest position in Mobile. “I think there are multiple NFL starters in that group,” Nagy said of the running backs. Tulane running back Tyjae Spears has been spectacular during the first two days and has produced multiple big runs.
- The Senior Bowl has had a quarterback selected in the first round for seven consecutive years, but Nagy acknowledged Tuesday that the streak will end in 2023. It’s an interesting crop of developmental quarterbacks, but each is trying to work his way into the Day 2 range rather than the opening round. No one has separated himself during the first two days of practices.
Nagy mentioned the Senior Bowl would’ve loved to have quarterback Bo Nix, formerly of Auburn and currently at Oregon, but he returned to school. Former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett declined his Senior Bowl invitation, a decision that disappointed many evaluators.
- Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is at the Senior Bowl, though he won’t play after tearing his ACL late in the season. Hooker was a Heisman Trophy front-runner much of the campaign and was, according to Nagy, “the face of college football” for a while.
Hooker’s draft stock is a hot topic given his age (25) and injury coming off a breakout year. Nagy said Hooker and Nix were the two quarterbacks who improved their draft standing the most throughout the season. Nix could find himself in the first-round conversation next year if he continues excelling in Eugene.
- The other biggest name among the quarterbacks is Max Duggan, TCU’s signal-caller who led one of the great underdog stories in recent history. But Duggan’s season ended on a sour note when Georgia obliterated TCU 65-7 in the national championship.
Duggan went 14-for-22 passing for 152 yards and two interceptions in that game. The Bulldogs sacked him a season-high-tying five times.
“It obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to, unfortunately, how the national championship game went,” Duggan said Tuesday. “We got our butts kicked. But there’s a lot to take from it. We’re not going to let that game dictate how we see ourselves and how the program is going to go. There’s a lot to learn from it, who we are, how to prepare for games in big spotlights, how to handle something that was a failure in our eyes and how to get up from it.”
Duggan is a similar prospect to Bennett. Both players had college success, but neither possesses the physical traits sought by NFL teams. Duggan, 21, and Bennett, 25, are projected in the mid-to-late rounds.
- Among the coaches who have attended Senior Bowl practices, per Nagy: Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Hugh Freeze (Auburn), Josh Heupel (Tennessee), Shane Beamer (South Carolina), Eli Drinkwitz (Missouri), Steve Sarkisian (Texas) and Trent Dilfer (UAB).
- Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence and Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz have proved worth their hype as interior offensive linemen. Both players could enter the first-round conversation. Schmitz likely is the top center in the class. Torrence, who transferred from Louisiana-Lafayette to follow Billy Napier to Florida, might be the draft’s best guard.
- The Chicago Bears own the No. 1 overall pick, which has implications for a couple of former Bulldogs. Quarterback Justin Fields, the Kennesaw native who spent a year at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, is their incumbent quarterback. NFL insider Albert Breer said on the “Rich Eisen Show” this week that his “sense” is Chicago will stick with Fields rather than move off him and select a quarterback with that pick.
Breer also noted he believes the Bears will try to trade the first selection. Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter would be a logical option for them if they keep it, but trading the pick would likely mean another team moving up for a quarterback. The Houston Texans, picking No. 2, need a quarterback. As usual, the need for signal-callers will play its role atop the draft, and that will affect where Carter lands.
- Tom Brady’s retirement only further muddies the quarterback picture in the NFC South, as the Buccaneers have only one – Kyle Trask – under contract. While the Falcons have spoken highly of Desmond Ridder, it’s possible every NFC South team could have a new quarterback next season.
Even if the Falcons stay with Ridder, the other three seem destined for change. The Buccaneers will have a new quarterback, be it a veteran, rookie or Trask. The Panthers, under new coach Frank Reich, will have a new starter after shuffling through multiple in 2022 (Sam Darnold, an impending free agent, finished the season as their starter). The Saints only signed Andy Dalton to a one-year deal, and Jameis Winston, while under contract for 2023, fell out of favor and could be released.
For as bad as the division was in 2022, it could remain uninspiring in 2023 due to the quarterback situations. A division that’s featured Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees in parts of recent seasons now features the worst collection of quarterbacks of any division. Perhaps that changes this offseason, though, as those teams seek upgrades.
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