Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

First of a five-part series on the Falcons’ draft needs. Today: Defensive tackles. 

The Falcons’ board is set for the draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday in Arlington, Texas. The question is not if the Falcon will select a defensive tackle, it’s when they will do so.

The Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle with the departure of starter Dontari Poe. He signed with the Panthers in free agency.

The top two defensive tackles in the draft, Washington’s Vita Vea and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, will not be available when the Falcons select with the 26th overall pick. The Falcons interviewed Vea at the scouting combine and had Payne in for a private visit.

The Falcons have traded up in the first round in four of 10 drafts run by general manager Thomas Dimitroff since he joined the team in 2008. He’s traded up in the first round for left tackle Sam Baker, wide receiver Julio Jones, cornerback Desmond Trufant and defensive end Takkarist McKinley.

If the Falcons want Vea or Payne, they’ll have to continue that trend.

The third-rated defensive tackle, Florida’s Taven Bryan, likely will be available to the Falcons if they don’t move up.

However, Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn could elect to add an offensive weapon in the first round and pick a defensive tackle later in the draft.

In addition to the 26th overall pick, the Falcons hold picks 58 (second round), 90th (third round), 126th (fourth round), 200 (sixth) and 244 (seventh). Atlanta was awarded the final pick in the draft (No. 256) -- referred to as Mr. Irrelevant -- as a compensatory pick for losing five players in free agency in 2017.

“I think when we talk about the Florida player, Bryan, he’s a guy from Casper, Wyoming,” said Gil Brandt, a analyst for Sirius XM NFL Radio and former personnel man. “They have short seasons. I don’t know if they have spring football and so forth. But I think he’s got a lot of upside and he’s only a three-year player at Florida. He has the size, at 6-(foot)-5 and almost 300 pounds. He’s got nice long arms. I don’t know what else you need.”

Bryan, 22, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds.

He grew helping his father, Brandy, a former Navy SEAL, with the family construction business.

At Florida, he redshirted in 2014 before playing three seasons and entering the draft after his redshirt junior season. He earned the nickname “Wyoming Wildman” while amassing 10.5 tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks over his career.

“Bryan, as he develops, could play both inside and outside,” ESPN NFL Matchup analyst Greg Cosell said. “He has some individual plays, that quite honestly, make you think of J.J. Watt. He’s not quite there obviously on a down-to-down basis. But it’s probably fascinating to see where someone like Taven Bryan goes.”

Like Brandt, Cosell believes Bryan will continue to improve.

“He’s a kid who’s best football will be ahead of him,” Cosell said. “I know he’s a son of a Navy SEAL so I would imagine he’s grown up with some discipline. To me, he’s a real wild card in this draft because he can develop into a really good pro player.”

The Falcons were in Gainesville, Florida on Wednesday to work out Bryan and other Gators players.

“Defensive tackles who have some up-the-field ability, who can also play some three downs, I know that’s asking a lot, but that’s why we are talking about people like De’Ron Payne who can do that,” ESPN NFL front office insider Louis Riddick said. “Taven Bryan can do that. He has some of the best ‘get off’ that you will see in this draft from a defensive lineman. He’s in the back field so quick. ... He has to get better finishing plays so that he has more stats to get people excited.”

The Falcons have scouted defensive tackles that could be available in the second and third rounds.

The Falcons’ top personnel men and coaches went to Hays, Kansas to hold a private workout for Fort Hays State defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd.

“I think that’s what they are looking for primarily is a defensive tackle or a defensive lineman,” Brandt said.

Shepherd, 24, is 6-foot-3 inches and 307 pounds. He’s a late-bloomer and former walk-on from Ontario, Canada. He played one season in Canada and was out of football for two seasons before paying his way to Hays and walking on to the football team.

“Overall, Shepherd is an up-the-field player who will face an adjustment period as a NFL rookie (not ideal for an older player), but his exciting traits suggest he will bloom into a starter as a rookie or early in year two,” according to Dane Brugler’s 2018 NFL draft guide.

The Falcons also held a private workout with Sam Houston State defensive tackle P.J. Hall and had him in for a visit. Dimtroff, Quinn, assistant general manager Scott Pioli, defensive line coach Bryant Young and director of college scouting Steve Sabo were on hand for the workout.

Hall is 6-foot-1 inch and 308 pounds. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds at the school’s Pro Day. He covered the first 10 yards in 1.66 seconds.

Hall has that explosive athleticism that the Falcons covet and incredible strength. He has a 38-inch vertical jump and benched pressed 225 pounds 36 times.

“I think as you get into the depths of the draft, you look at maybe Harrison Phillips from Stanford,” said Phil Savage, director of the Senior Bowl and a former NFL coach, scout and general manager. “B.J. Hill (from N.C. State) and a guy that I like is Justin Jones from N.C. State (and South Cobb High). I think he has elevated his draft stock. He’s going to go in that second- to fourth-round area. Those are a couple of names to keep an eye on as far as non-first round defensive tackles.”

Defensive line guru Chuck Smith believes that Duke nose tackle/defensive tackle Mike Ramsay is underrated.

Ramsay is from Smyrna and played at The Walker School for coach John East. He lettered four seasons and played in 50 games, with 25 consecutive starts to close out his career at Duke.

“This kid one day is going to be a starter in the National Football League,” Smith said.

Some have compared Ramsay, because of his build, with Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who also was underrated coming out of Clemson and lasted until the fifth round before the Falcons traded up to get him.

A quick look at the defensive tackles: 

List of first-day picks (first round): Vita Vea (Washington), Da'Ron Payne (Alabama), Maurice Hurst (Michigan), Taven Bryan (Florida)

Second day (second-third rounds): Harrison Phillips (Stanfor), Nathan Shepherd, (Fort Hays State), Rasheem Green (USC), Da'Shawn Hand (Alabama),  B.J. Hill (N.C. State)

Third day (fourth-seventh rounds): Trenton Thompson (Georgia), John Atkins (Georgia), P.J. Hall (Sam Houston State), Justin Jones (N.C. State)

Georgia: Atkins and Trent

SEC: Payne, Bryan, Hand, Atkins, Thompson, Mike Ramsay (Kentucky), Breeland Speaks (Mississippi), Khalil McKenzie (Tennessee)

ACC: Hill, Jones, Derrick Nnadi (Florida State), R.J. McIntosh (Miami), Tim Settle, (Virginia Tech), Andrew Brown (Virginia), Kendrick Norton (Miami)