The Falcons, owners of the eighth pick in the NFL draft, will have a shot at adding a marquee player.
While quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will attract a lot of attention from the quarterback-starved teams, the Falcons, who picked left tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick last year, hope to address a major need and improve their pass rush.
“It’s probably the strength of this draft,” former NFL executive Bill Polian said Wednesday. “So, it is a good time to be in that market. The odds are pretty good, I think, that somebody good in that position is going to be there for (the Falcons). That’s what you like to have. You like for the need line and the talent line to cross.”
There are two groups of defenders at the top the draft. There are three stout defensive ends in USC’s Leonard Williams, Oregon’s Arik Armstead and Florida’s Dante Fowler. There’s also a trio of lithe and quick outside-linebacker types like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Clemson’s Vic Beasley.
“Assuming that (Falcons coach) Dan (Quinn) is going to play the same defense, I don’t know that he said that, then they all fit either the (outside linebacker) position,” Polian said. “There are others that fit the (traditional defensive end) position. That wouldn’t be a problem. But if you are thinking about a power 4-3 where you want the guy to play a five-technique, there are some that are a little bit light.”
Here’s a look at seven players the Falcons will scout heavily at the combine and consider for the eighth pick in the draft:
Height, weight: 6-foot-3, 260 pounds
How he could help: NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock believes that Fowler is the best pass rusher in the draft because of his size. He played under Quinn early in his career with the Gators. “It’s really critical to get the edge guy at No. 8 and get that pick right,” Mayock said. “I seem to be in the minority with the media people with having Dante Fowler at No. 1 (ranked edge rusher).”
Height, weight: 6-6, 240
How he could help: “I bring a lot of things,” Gregory said. “I’m a real versatile player. I can play standing up. I can play with my hand down. Great motor. I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can. I’m a great motivator, and I think I’m a great leader. So, I think I have a lot of good qualities that I can bring to a program that is willing to take me.”
Height, weight: 6-3, 245
How he could help: He’s the latest in a string of strong defensive linemen from Missouri, joining Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson and Kony Ealy. Ray was the SEC defensive player of the year and a consensus first-team All-American. He led the SEC in sacks (14.5) and tackles for loss (22.5).
Height, weight: 6-5, 300
How he could help: He might just be the best player in the draft. The Falcons likely will have to trade up to have a shot at Williams.
Height, weight: 6-3, 235
How he could help: He’s considered a one-trick-pony pass rusher by some scouts. He likely will need to add weight. Beasley was highly productive for the Tigers, as he had 101 tackles, 52.5 tackles for loss, 33 sacks, 29 quarterback pressures, 11 pass breakups, seven caused fumbles, two recovered fumbles and two touchdowns in 1,421 snaps over 48 games (25 starts) in his career.
Height, weight: 6-7, 285
How he could help: He’s massive and moves extremely well. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has the Falcons selecting Armstead in his latest mock draft. “Armstead is a potential star if he lives up to his physical potential,” Kiper said.
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