Second of five-part series on the five position needs of the Falcons for the 2019 NFL draft.
For NFL teams, like the Falcons, who are looking to improve in the trenches, this is the year for defensive tackles in the NFL draft.
There are at least 16 with first-round grades according to several draft analysts and NFL team executives.
The position will be stocked well into the third round of the NFL draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.
“It lines up great,” said Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht, who has the fifth overall pick and appears set to move on from long-time defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Houston’s Ed Oliver, after a strong pre-draft showing, are the top defensive tackles in the draft. Mississippi State’s Jeffrey Simmons, Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery could all be selected in the first round.
“I think the strength of this draft is the defensive line, both passers and the tackles,” said NFL Network analyst Gil Brandt, the former personnel man for the Dallas Cowboys who’s being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.
The Falcons, who hold the 14th pick in the draft, have made getting stouter on offense and defense an offseason priority. Simmons, Wilkins and Tillery are projected to be available when the Falcons pick.
“I look at the Falcons, and clearly the defensive line could use someone who can dominate,” said SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Mark Dominik, a former general manager. “It’s the most talented spot in the draft. At the defensive tackle spot, there are a lot of good ones. At their spot, that makes sense that they could be going defensive tackle.”
The Falcons have Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford as their top two defensive tackles. They signed Tyeler Davison, who started 48 games over the past four seasons for the Saints, in free agency.
» More: Falcons have their eye on Houston's Ed Oliver
Davison, who had part of base salary guaranteed, essentially replaces Terrell McClain, who started five games in 2018 and was not re-signed.
Deadrin Senat, who was selected in the third round last season, had an up-and-down rookie campaign.
The Falcons also added Ra’Shede Hageman, a former second-round pick, when they signed him to a one-year deal Friday.
Other defensive tackles on the roster included Michael Bennett, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Justin Zimmer.
Williams and Oliver are projected to be selected in to the top five. If Oliver slips, the Falcons could try to trade up.
But unlike in 2011, when the Falcons mortgaged the draft to land wide receiver Julio Jones, they may find it too costly to move into the top two ahead of the Jets to get Oliver or into the top five to get ahead of the Bucs.
Oliver, who was a five-star recruit, turned down Alabama and other college powerhouses to stay at home and play for Houston. Some are projecting him to a disruptive force much like Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
“I look at him, the first thing really is his quickness,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “He has a lot of shock in his hands. He’s powerful. He’s very tough to block one-on-one. You have to double team him.”
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There’s much more talent after Williams and Oliver.
“I really like that second-round group of defensive tackles,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
Simmons is an intriguing prospect.
“Jeffrey Simmons from Mississippi State, has top-five talent, but off-the-field issues and the (knee) injury, will make him a ‘medical redshirt’ for a year,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.
“He’s a tremendous defensive tackle prospect.”
In addition to Simmons, Tillery and Wilkins there’s Ohio State’s Dre’mont Jones, Miami’s Gerald Willis III and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence.
Brandt also has Central Florida’s Trysten Hill, Arizona State’s Renell Wren and Western Illinois’ Khalen Saunders in his top 10 of defensive tackles.
Lawrence, who is 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds, was suspended for the playoffs after testing positive for the banned substance Ostarine.
“Then Dexter Lawrence, if it was 10 years ago, we’d all say he was for sure the best of the bunch,” Jeremiah said. “He’s going to dominate against the run.”
Wilkins is a dynamic penetrator, but sometimes gets stuffed against the run.
Lawrence has been busy discussing the suspension with NFL teams, defending himself against any real or perceived character flaws.
“They talk about it and I just tell them the truth,” Lawrence said. “That’s all that I can do and go on about my business pretty much.”
DEFENSIVE TACKLE DRAFT PROJECTIONS
First day (Round 1) – Quinnen Williams (Alabama), Ed Oliver (Houston), Christian Wilkins (Clemson), Jerry Tillery (Notre Dame) and Jeffrey Simmons (Mississippi State).
Second day (2-3) – Dexter Lawrence (Clemson), Dre'mont Jones (Ohio State), Gerald Willis III (Miami), Trysten Hill (Central Florida), Renell Wren (Arizona State), Khalen Saunders (Western Illinois), Charles Omenihu (Texas), Daylon Mack (Texas A&M), Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M) and Isaiah Buggs (Alabama).
Third day (4-7) – Terry Beckner (Missouri), Michael Dogbe (Temple), John Cominsky (Charleston) and Greg Gaines (Washington).
Georgia prospects: Jay Hayes (Georgia) and Logan Hunt (Georgia Southern).
SEC: Dontavius Russell (Auburn), Armon Watts (Arkansas) and Dare Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt).
ACC: Demarcus Christmas (Florida State), Albert Huggins (Clemson) and Ricky Walker (Virginia Tech).
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com