NFC champs added pass rusher, quality depth in draft

While Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn may not have landed three starters like last year, they had another strong draft.

This year’s draft was about landing a pass rusher and improving the team’s depth.

“We were really dialed in on our areas of need — not only from a starter standpoint, but from a depth standpoint — more than we’ve ever been,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the end of the draft. “This third year we worked together and were very communicative. That means a lot. We are trying to bring in guys who can help us.”

After the season, Dimitroff spoke about the team not having any holes. He clarified that by pointing to years past when there were obvious needs among the group of 22 starters.

“We were solid at most starting positions across the board, and we have to make sure that we are improving our depth,” Dimitroff said. “That will always be the case.”

Getting guys for depth is not a bad thing long-term.

“Sometimes they will rise to being a starter, and sometimes they’ll continue to be depth players for us for years to come,” Dimitroff said. “More than ever, we’ve had a great dialogue in discussing what part of the roster legitimately needs improving.”

After the season, Quinn and his staff did a brutal self-analysis of the roster. That left veterans such as defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, defensive end Tyson Jackson and tight end Jacob Tamme unemployed.

Quinn then communicated the coaching staff’s needs to Dimitroff, who is trying to fulfill those needs either through free agency or the draft.

If the Falcons hadn’t signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency, that would have changed how their draft board was stacked.

“Between free agency and the draft we knew we had to get a pass rusher, a linebacker, a guard, a returner and backup quarterback,” Quinn said. “Now, we can go back and check off those lists.”

Wide receiver Andre Roberts is the returner added in free agency, and he’ll compete with Devin Fuller to replace Eric Weems. The Falcons re-signed backup quarterback Matt Schaub.

Dimitroff and Quinn were quick to praise the scouts and the personnel men who did the leg work in gathering the information for the draft.

After Dimitroff made his 20th and 21st trades in the draft, the Falcons ended up with six players, three on defense and three on offense.

The big cloud over this draft class is the right shoulder of first-round pick Takkarist McKinley, who had major shoulder surgery in March and may not be available for the start of the season.

The Falcons, as with most injuries, are glowingly optimistic that McKinley’s recovery will be closer to the four-months period and not the back-end projection of six months, which bumps right up to the Sept. 10 start of the regular season.

Because of the shoulder, the Falcons will need to ease McKinley into the operation. With Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Brooks Reed and free-agent signee Jack Crawford, there is no need to rush him into action.

When he’s ready to play, McKinley will be set to assume the third-down/nickel rush-end position opposite of Vic Beasley to start with. His role on the defense eventually will expand from there.

The Falcons moved up five picks to land McKinley. They sent their third-and seventh-round picks to Seattle in the move.

In the second round, the Falcons traded with Buffalo to go back 12 spots to the 75th spot in the third round and scooped up two fifth-round picks.

In the third round they added LSU linebacker Duke Riley, who figures to play special teams and compete for time at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker. The team didn’t re-sign veteran linebackers Paul Worrilow, Sean Weatherspoon or Philip Wheeler and needed depth at linebacker.

In the fourth round, the Falcons selected offensive guard Sean Harlow, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound scrapper from Oregon State. He’ll compete with Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland and Hugh Thornton for the starting right guard spot.

He’ll also get some work as the backup center. With the opening at right guard and center Alex Mack (31) and left guard Andy Levitre (turns 31 on May 15) being older, the Falcons needed some quality interior line depth.

In the fifth round, the Falcons added cornerback Damontae Kazee, running back Brian Hill and tight end Eric Saubert.

Kazee, a ballhawk and strong tackler, will player corner and free safety for the Falcons. He’ll get a good look as a special-teams player, too.

Hill, a hard-charging runner, will compete for the backup spot behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. He’ll also get a shot at some of the fullback duties and a role on special teams.

Saubert, a pass-catching tight end from Drake, is an intriguing project for position coach Wade Harman to develop. He’s a slick route runner and has sticky hands.

The Falcons will continue to look to improve their roster and are in the process of signing undrafted rookies and players who’ll have tryouts at the teams’ rookie minicamp, May 11-13.

“We are going to continue to look at what needs to happen in the secondary,” Dimitroff said. “Sometimes you can grab a guy there like (Brian) Poole last year, and he rises through the ranks quickly. I think you’re going to get that. The offensive line, of course we’ll need to continue to build the front.”