The Falcons were poised to strike to land one of the handful of defensive players on their board at the start of the NFL draft Thursday.
The defending NFC champions entered the draft with the 31st pick and had to sit back and watch the early portion of the draft.
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett was the first player selected in the draft by the Cleveland Browns.
The Chicago Bears traded a ransom to the San Francisco 49ers to move up one spot to draft North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick.
The 49ers picked up the No. 67 overall pick, the No. 111 pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick to move down one spot. They selected Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who played at Gainesville High and is a former Falcons’ ballboy, was the 12th player drafted, taken by the Houston Texans. Houston traded with Cleveland on Thursday night to acquire that pick. Most of the draft analysts were split on whether Watson or Trubisky, who started only 13 games at North Carolina, was the top quarterback in the draft.
Before the draft there was plenty of speculation that the Falcons planned to move up in the first round.
“If we are in fact contemplating trading up, the only reason we would trade up is if we see the players that we would be interested in,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said in an interview with the team’s website. “Quite honestly at the beginning of the draft there might be five or eight that we project will be in the area where we or picking or potentially to where we are moving up. Pretty soon it becomes four, three, two, one, who knows. Right? We are just very mindful of that.”
The Falcons were able to land three starters and their tight end of the future in the draft last season. They picked safety Keanu Neal in the first round, linebacker Deon Jones in the second, tight end Austin Hooper in the third and linebacker Devondre Campbell in the fourth.
The Falcons also had a strong draft in 2015 when they landed linebacker Vic Beasley in the first round, cornerback Jalen Collins in the second, running back Tevin Campbell in the third and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett in the fifth.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank arrived at the headquarters around 5:30 p.m. and was excited about the draft.
“I’m confident that this draft will be as successful as the last two drafts,” Blank said. “These guys have worked their (expletive) off.”
The Falcons had the No. 1 scoring offense in the league last season and vacancies only at right guard and fullback. The defense, which started eight players in their first or second seasons, finished 27th in total defense.
The focus for the draft was the defense.
The Falcons heavily scouted most of the pass rushers in the defense and also some of the top linebackers. Missouri’s Charles Harris, Temple Hassan Reddick, Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt, Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis and Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp. It was learned that the team also coveted Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis.
“When you’re at 31 you have to be very mindful of where you are at on the board,” Dimitroff said. “Yes, it is a needs-driven draft. However, you have to make sure that you are not leaving someone on the board that is exponentially higher and may not be an exact need, but still a need. A guy like Peppers is multi-faceted. He has the ability to play strong and free. He has the ability to run the ball, return the ball. Guys like that are helpful for an organization.”
Dimitroff was relaxed as the draft was approaching.
“We’ve been really busy,” Dimitroff told Ken Rodriquez of Fox 5 Atlanta. “There is a buzz in this building.”
Last season Blank said he wanted three starters out of the draft.
“Dan and I talked a lot about what our expectations were going into this year,” Dimitroff said. “Mr. Blank didn’t come out and say exactly how many he needed to start. But that’s always a good thing. We are behind him, and he’s behind us as an organization. We know that we need to continue to produce football players that are going to make us a difference-making football team. I think we are in a good spot.”
He wouldn’t rule out a trade up in the draft.
“I think since 2008 we’ve had 19 trades in the draft,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve been active and busy. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I want everyone to know that this is never flipping. We’ve spent a lot of good time talking about how we are going to approach it. There are opportunities. There are a number of people that have called us and I’ve called them. It could be five. That could be 10. Who knows?”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com