NFL draft makeover: How can Falcons get better defensively in 2021?

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Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-5) and late (Round 6 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Atlanta Falcons. How can the draft fix this poor defense?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The Atlanta Falcons are 0-4 and in need of life support. This season is almost certainly toast, and head coach Dan Quinn is going to need a heck of a campaign manager to convince owner Arthur Blank to give him another second chance, the way he did last season after a 1-7 start.

They’re doing enough offensively to stay in games. But in allowing 34.5 points, the Falcons are ahead of only the Dallas Cowboys in that pretty important category.

Perhaps facing three of the league’s best offenses in the Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers has something to do with that. Or maybe this is just a defense in need of new blood. There are some pieces that absolutely are worth building around. But for too long, the Falcons have Scotch-taped glaring holes or lacked depth, relying on their (injury-prone) standouts staying healthy for 16 games.

The Falcons are in a tricky spot for the foreseeable future, even beyond the obvious leadership changes that could come.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who turns 36 next May, has a contract that likely tethers him to Atlanta for at least next season. Trading wide receiver Julio Jones this year would incur a $23 million cap hit in 2021 — and the team is already projected to be more than $25 million over the cap next year, with its top six players slated to take up more than $136 million in space.

They were built to win now, but that clearly isn’t happening.

No matter what the eventual large-scale changes entail, there should be a full-scale effort to revamp a defense that has yet to hold a team under 30 points. Where on the defense? We’re leaving it open; it’s easy to argue they need the best help possible on all three levels.

Early-round prospect

Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau

If the Falcons truly are plunging (or already have plunged) into a full-throttle rebuild, it would make sense to draft players with the highest ceilings as prospects. It’s likely that they’ll be picking in the top 10 next spring, as only one 0-4 team in the past 15 seasons has finished better than .500 (out of the 46 times teams have lost their first four games).

Rousseau is a clear fit on those parameters. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Rousseau has ideal length for the position. He’s able to extend naturally and collapse pockets, and the burst Rousseau displayed during a 15.5-sack freshman season in 2019 was impressive. The cosmos is the limit for his potential, so expecting him to fall out of the top 10 feels like a risky proposition.

Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau possesses elite traits and could be a top-10 overall pick. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau possesses elite traits and could be a top-10 overall pick. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Is he raw? Absolutely. Does his opting out of the 2020 college season make him a tougher evaluation? No doubt. (He played fewer than 600 snaps over a year-plus at Miami.) But after playing a lot as a receiver and a defensive back (!) in high school, it’s easy to see that Rousseau is just now scratching the surface of his pass-rush potential.

If the Falcons can find a defensive line coach to challenge and push Rousseau in 2021, limiting him to a part-time role as he develops, they truly could have a blooming star at the position, a la Danielle Hunter or Jason Pierre-Paul, who hits his peak in the NFL.

The team invested in Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency, and Charles Harris has been a relatively nice reclamation to this point. But overlooking this need could be a dire mistake, especially with Takkarist McKinley on an expiring deal and unlikely to return.

The Falcons have been in the bottom half of the league in pressures, sacks and QB hits since the start of the 2018 season. They need to give Grady Jarrett and Co. help up front.

Mid-round prospect

Syracuse S Andre Cisco

Safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen all are in the final year of their respective deals. They’ve all endured injury issues to this point. It’s fair to assume that at least one, and possibly all three, might not be back.

The Falcons can use playmakers on the back end, no doubt — the team has only 14 interceptions over its past 20 games. So why not consider a safety who is among the best ballhawks in college football?

Cisco has some flaws — missed tackles come to mind — but he also possesses a nose for the ball that can’t be taught. With 13 interceptions in 24 career games with the Orange, there isn’t another DB who can match Cisco’s ball production the past few seasons combined.

Syracuse safety Andre Cisco is one of the best ballhawks in the country. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Syracuse safety Andre Cisco is one of the best ballhawks in the country. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Athletically, he’s everything you could want in a safety (despite lacking elite size) and should test among the best at the position at the NFL scouting combine, whenever he comes out.

Cisco is a true junior, but he figures to be a player who strongly considers declaring early if he keeps his production up. He received mostly second- and third-round grades entering the season.

Round 2 feels like a possible landing spot, though, so we are stretching the definition of “mid-round” just a bit here. Still, the 2021 draft appears to be rich at the position and Cisco’s tackling concerns won’t go overlooked.

The Falcons can add a highly aggressive player such as Cisco and live with a missed tackle or two along the way if it means getting more takeaways. Better tackling form can be taught; ballhawking instincts are typically something players either have or don’t have.

Late-round prospect

Kentucky NT Quinton Bohanna

The Falcons traded a seventh-rounder for Harris (which seems to have worked out nicely so far), but they’re expected to receive as many as three Day 3 compensatory picks. At this stage of the draft, they should be accumulating as much talent as possible and not worrying as much about filling specific positional needs.

That said, adding some bulk up front on the defensive line feels like a box they should want to check off. Jarrett is still one of the best interior penetrators around. But they really could use some more mass and talent up front.

Tyeler Davison and John Cominsky are two replacement-level defenders inside who are playing a lot of snaps, and rookie Marlon Davidson is still finding a role up front. What they really could use is a bigger, stronger, gap-eating nose tackle to help corral the middle.

Kentucky NT Quinton Bohanna takes up a lot of space in the middle. (Photo by UK Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Kentucky NT Quinton Bohanna takes up a lot of space in the middle. (Photo by UK Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Bohanna fits that bill. It feels like the Kentucky staff has tried its best to push Bohanna to greatness, gives that he has a massive frame (6-foot-4, 357 pounds) and has flashed with some truly eye-opening plays the past few seasons. He briefly considered coming out for the 2020 NFL draft but returned to school after receiving Day 3 grades.

That’s about where we place him now: somewhere around the fifth round, if we had to guess. Bohanna hasn’t been a huge factor in the passing game, and he’s not a 50- or 60-snap defender each game. But he can provide a dose of toughness and strength inside to be an early-down enforcer and free up Jarrett to make more plays.

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