MOBILE, Ala. – After using two first-round picks to address the offensive line in last year's NFL Draft, many expect the Atlanta Falcons to use an early pick in the upcoming draft to bolster their pass rush.
Atlanta has three picks in the first two rounds of the draft – Nos. 16, 47 and 55 – giving it plenty of opportunities to add a pass rusher if the team so chooses. Barring a big trade up, the Falcons likely won't be in position to land Ohio State's Chase Young, the consensus top edge rusher in the class. And outside of Young, the top-level talent and depth of this group of pass rushers doesn't appear as strong as in recent drafts.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said that he had heard as much while talking with the media during the Reese's 2020 Senior Bowl. It's still entirely possible the Falcons opt to select an edge rusher in the first round, but the team could also seek to add firepower to their pass rush in free agency if Atlanta does indeed believe that group isn't a strength of this particular draft.
There is another way the Falcons could provide held for their pass rush, which was tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league last season, and it doesn't have anything to do with the defensive line. Pass coverage is directly tied to a team's pass rush, and there are plenty of talented defensive backs in this year's draft.
Atlanta has drafted three cornerbacks in the past two drafts and has added to its secondary through the draft every year since 2011. That streak might very well continue, as Dimitroff appears to like the crop of talent coming out this year.
"We do think in this year's draft there is a way to continue to bolster that secondary, so we'll keep an eye on that," Dimitroff said.
Starting cornerback Desmond Trufant missed seven games this season and ended the year on injured reserve, but he's still proven to be more of an asset than a liability to the defense when on the field. Isaiah Oliver showed noticeable growth as his second season progressed, and Kendall Sheffield had a solid rookie season for the Falcons while playing multiple roles.
Still, with NFL teams becoming more oriented around throwing the ball and a new crop of young quarterbacks emerging as legitimate stars, teams may want to stockpile as many playmakers in the defensive backfield as possible.
And there are playmakers to be had in this year's draft, and quality depth to match if the Falcons choose to address the secondary after the first round.
LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton looks to have all of the traits a team would desire in a top cover corner, while his college teammate, safety Grant Delpit, is incredibly versatile and could fit a number of roles. Alabama safety Xavier McKinney is similarly versatile with good instincts, and cornerback Trevon Diggs is an excellent zone defender. And then there's Ohio State's Jeffrey Okudah, a player some consider to be the top cornerback in this class.
"The only reason I think they don't go [pass rusher] on Day 1 is if they're going corner," The Draft Network's Trevor Sikkema told AtlantaFalcons.com. "That's the other biggest need that I think this team has, depending on how they want to switch up their personnel this offseason. Just like the edge class, this corner class is really strong."
There's no question the Falcons need to find a way to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks at a more consistent clip in 2020, a fact the team is well aware of. However, there are other ways to accomplish that goal than by simply drafting a pass rusher, especially if decision makers come to the conclusion the value doesn't match the draft spot.
Developing a strong coverage unit is another way of either disrupting the timing between a receiver and quarterback or closing down any potential throwing lanes before they appear. Either way, the result should be a quarterback having to hold onto the football a little bit longer.
In the NFL, sometimes an extra half-second is all it takes for a pass rush to get home.
"There's no question about that," Dimitroff said of the impact coverage can have on creating pressure. "If we can get our hands on guys – and we have some aggressive guys, we like where we are with some of our young corners as well – continue to grow there and hold them on the line a little bit longer and make sure we get the pass rush up. They work together, for sure."