January 14, 2017, Atlanta: Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff celebrate a 36-20 victory over the Seahawks in a NFL football NFC divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Falcons head for scouting combine

This has been fertile ground lately for the franchise. It was at last year’s combine that the Falcons laid the ground work for the draft that landed three defensive starters and the tight end of the future in Austin Hooper.

This offseason, the Falcons are looking to improve the interior of the offensive and defensive lines and re-sign some returning veterans like safety Kemal Ishmael, a key reserve and major contributor last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

“I think it’s a good year for defense,” Dimitroff said. “Most of the defensive positions are quite strong. That plays well here with a young defense that’s continuing to build. That’s a good thing.”

The Falcons drafted safety Keanu Neal in the first round, linebacker Deion Jones in the second and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth last year. Collectively, the trio started 37 regular season games and nine playoff games.

The Falcons will continue look to improve their pass rush after linebacker Vic Beasley had a breakout season, leading the league with 15.5 sacks.

Offensively, the Falcons appear pretty set, although their lack of depth at center position was exposed in the Super Bowl when they had to play Alex Mack on fractured fibula.

Right guard Chris Chester, 34, appears headed for free agency and the reserves behind him, Ben Garland and Kevin Schweitzer, are untested in the NFL.

“Offensively, there is always a ton of receivers, but I’m not sure that’s the area that we’re going to be focusing on that much,” Dimitroff said. “But it’s again, generally speaking, it’s a good draft and the depth in the lower rounds, I think, is good as well.”

The Falcons, the defending NFC champions, hold picks in the first round (31st overall), second (63rd), third (95th), fourth (136th), fifth (174) and seventh (249). The team’s sixth-round pick went to Tennessee as part of the trade for left guard Andy Levitre. The draft will be held April 27-29 in Philadelphia.

After a few years of experimentation, the combine will go commercial this time. The NFL will allow fan interactive experiences, including access to the drills and press conference, after decades of trying to conduct the workouts in privacy and excluding the media.

Fans will also be allowed to get autographs from NFL legends. One select group of fans will have exclusive opportunity to watch the combine live.

Last year, the Falcons caused a stir when then-defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel asked prospect Eli Apple if he “liked men.” The team afterwards held a training seminar with a league-approved counselor for the entire staff regarding social responsibility.

Manuel took responsibility for the inappropriate question, said it was wrong and apologized to Apple. Manuel, who has since been promoted to defensive coordinator, also underwent an individual counseling session.

The top pass rushers in the draft are Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Alabama’s Tim Williams, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Sanford’s Solomon Thomas and UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, according to NFL Media’s Mike Mayock. The Falcons would have to trade up into the first round in order to land one of the top five.

However, the draft is considered deep with pass rushers and players like Missouri defensive end Charles Harris and Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson could be available late in the first round.

Upgrading the pass coverage is also still a concern and Utah safety Marcus Wilson or USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson could be available late in the first round.

There will be a strong local contingent of 28 players with Georgia connections for the Falcons to scout, including Lawson (Alpharetta, Milton High), who is among the Tigers’ career sack leaders with 14 in 33 games.

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