In their effort to add a versatile safety who can cover wide receivers, the Falcons took a chance on a size/speed prospect who doesn’t have much experience doing it.
Dezmen Southward, the team’s third-round draft pick late Friday, said he didn’t cover receivers much at all during his first season as a starter for Wisconsin.
“My senior year is the first year that I did it,” Southward said. “I was kind of thrown in the fire. I was pretty much asked to be the third cornerback. I did that about 80, 85 percent of the game. I’m glad I was able to add that to my repertoire. I have to get better at it, but it adds to my versatility.”
In 54 games for the Badgers, Southward had two interceptions and 13 passes defended. He was named honorable-mention All-Big Ten in each of his final two seasons.
Southward participated in the Senior Bowl, and Falcons coaches, who coached at the scouting showcase, liked what they saw. Southward also had a strong showing at Wisconsin’s Pro Day with a 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds and a 42-inch vertical jump, best among all defensive backs who tested for scouts.
The Falcons list Southward at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds.
“He is a guy who is big and fast (and has) really good natural agility and movement for a bigger safety,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He has had one of the best three-cone (drill) times, which is usually an indicator of body control and movement. He has cover skills and very good range. We think he has some real upside.”
Dimitroff said Southward will play free safety. William Moore is the incumbent at strong safety.
The Falcons released last season’s starter at free safety, Thomas DeCoud, and added veteran free agent Dwight Lowery in April. Also returning are second-year safeties Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta.
“It’s going to be a really competitive (safety) group,” Dimitroff said.
Southward didn’t participate in the NFL scouting combine because of a wrist fracture. He also had a spine injury that Dimitroff said “checked out positive” with the team’s medical staff.
Southward was late to football at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High, which has produced several NFL players. Southward played basketball and ran track before taking up football as a senior.
“Everyone told me that I would always end up playing football,” Southward said. “When I gave it a try, I fell in love with it.”
New era at tight end: The retirement of Tony Gonzalez left a big void for the Falcons at tight end, and they won’t be filling it with the same kind of athletic pass-catcher lined up all over the field.
Dimitroff said there weren’t many of those types of tight ends in the draft, and the Falcons will use more of a traditional player at the position. The transition fits with the team’s desire to be more physical on the line of scrimmage.
“There’ll be a change in the type of tight end we’ll have on our roster,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We’ll have a ‘Y’ tight end, where he’ll be an inline player (lined up tight to the formation). They won’t be moving around nearly as much as what we call a ‘F.’ Tony Gonzalez was more of a ‘F’ tight end than a ‘Y’ tight end.”
Levine Toilolo, one of the Falcons’ third-round draft picks in 2013, is the presumed starter at tight end for 2014. He played in all 16 games as a rookie (198 snaps) and had 11 catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
The Falcons signed veteran tight end Bear Pascoe on May 1. He’s a blocking tight end who has just 38 receptions and one touchdown in 66 career games.
Lost time: The draft occurred two weeks later than usual this year so teams have a compressed time frame to get their rookies up to speed before training camp. As a concession, the league is allowing rookies to immediately begin participation in teams’ offseason programs.
The Falcons’ drafted players will report Sunday, take their physicals Monday morning and then start the program Monday afternoon. The rookies will work join the veterans Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before beginning the three-day rookie minicamp Friday.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do with these young rookies to catch them up with the veterans,” Smith said. “There’s no time to rest. We’ve got to get moving because we’ve lost some time with these players.”