After a 2008 season that saw them go 11-5 with a rookie quarterback, many had high hopes for the Atlanta Falcons in 2009. But losing six of eight games after a 4-1 start and allowing 228 points during that span hurt the Falcons, as well as injuries to Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. They had just one pick in the top 80 this season and Chris Tripodi evaluates what Atlanta did to improve one of the league’s bottom-five defenses last season.
Missouri Sean Weatherspoon was Atlanta’s man in round one. Witherspoon is an outside linebacker with a nasty attitude whose sideline-to-sideline range makes up for a lack of size (6-1, 239). He has a nose for the football, good athleticism and burst and is a sure tackler in space. His size causes him to get caught inside at times, but Witherspoon’s skill set fits well in the Atlanta defense and he has potential as a three-down weak-side linebacker, a position where the Falcons need depth and youth.
The Falcons didn’t pick again until late in round three taking Kentucky defensive tackle Corey Peters, who we had rated as a fifth- or sixth-round prospect. Peters plays with good leverage and penetrates the backfield quickly, shows good lateral movement and burst and the ability to slide off blocks. His motor has been questioned and his lack of bulk at 6-3, 300 pounds hurts him when he doesn’t get the first step on opposing lineman. He fits well in Atlanta’s attacking defensive front, but will be more of a rotational lineman early in his career with starting potential down the road.
Fellow third-round pick, Alabama guard Mike Johnson, is an average athlete with average base strength, but has good instincts and a natural feel for the position. He has great fundamentals which help disguise his lack of athleticism and he’s above average blocking in motion for a player with 5.37 speed, showing the ability to get to the second level and redirect to linebackers. Johnson will give Atlanta depth along the line and has enough growth potential to start down the road, particularly if the Falcons limit his responsibilities blocking in motion and play to his strengths as an inside blocker.
We had fourth-round pick Joseph Hawley rated as a free agent, representing the second reach of the first four rounds for Atlanta. He is an instinctive lineman who can be an effective backup at both guard and center, with the size (6-3, 297) to be effective in a small area. Hawley lacks agility and is slow pulling and kicking out and needs to work on his finishing his blocks rather than just steering opponents from the action.
The Falcons got good value with Oklahoma cornerback Dominique Franks early in the fifth round, as we had Franks graded out as a third-round prospect. Franks is athletic and physical with good size (5-11, 194) and speed (4.46) to run downfield with receivers. He’s a strong open field tackler with above-average route-recognition skills in zone coverage and solid ball skills. Franks has starting potential in a bump-and-run system if he improves his coverage instincts and a tendency to blow assignments.
Fifth-round pick Kerry Meier started his career at Kansas as a quarterback before moving to receiver during his sophomore season. He became an extremely effective possession receiver for the Jayhawks, catching 97 balls last season. His lack of speed (4.62) and quickness will limit him to being a fourth receiver in the NFL, but he has the size (6-2, 224) and strength to succeed in that role if he can polish his route running.
With their final pick early in round six, Atlanta took Montana safety Shann Schillinger. Schillinger is a hard-hitter who plays well against the run, but doesn’t play to his 4.42 40 time and has limited range and ball skills. His skill set is one that could make an NFL roster, but he will need to become more than just a downhill player and contribute on special teams.
Atlanta reached on three of their first four picks although we like how Witherspoon fits in their defense. Franks was a nice upside pick in round five but Atlanta could very well end up with just one or two starting players from this draft. The lack of a second-round pick from last year’s trade for Tony Gonzalez ended up hurting the quality of their draft class, which grades out as one of the worst in the league this year. They addressed some of their needs on the defensive end, but it won’t matter if those players don’t live up to their draft slot.