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Wyche: Why edge rusher could be Falcons focus in NFL Draft's first round

Falcons must get better affecting the passer after just 18 sacks in 2021


It's not a cliché.

The two most important positions for all NFL teams are the quarterback and those who affect the quarterback.

Protecting the quarterback is paramount, but in today's NFL, it often takes two offensive players – a second lineman, a tight end or running back - to slow down the elite athletes coming off the edge of a defensive front.

When speaking of affecting the passer, cornerbacks also come into play, especially in this draft where there are some studs.

All that brings us to the Falcons, who hold the No. 8 selection in the first round of the three-day NFL draft, have nine picks overall and two selections each in the second and third rounds.

So, take a quarterback, or at least one that affects the QB?

Atlanta likely will address all those issues – QB, edge and cornerback. It better. The question is this: when and where in the draft will those positions be tackled?

The strength at the top of this draft is at edge rusher. The glaring weakness on the Falcons roster is at edge rusher. Atlanta had just 18 sacks last season.

That is a stat where I personally clutch my pearls every time I re-read the total. 18? As a team? T.J. Watt (22.5) and 31-year-old Robert Quinn (18.5) had more. The Eagles, who ranked 31st in sacks, had 29! Fourteen teams had more than 40.

Okay, I'll stop, but you get the point.

Atlanta hasn't had a player who could consistently win one-on-one or beat double teams since John Abraham, who last played for the Falcons (2006-2012) before Tik Tok, Twitter and Netflix were parts of our everyday lives.

Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II, Georgia's Travon Walker, Purdue's George Karlaftis, Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto, Minnesota's Boye Mafe and Michigan's David Ojabo (he tore his Achilles' at his pro day) are considered the potential difference making prospects at the edge position.

Atlanta runs a 3-4 front, and smart coordinators like the Falcons' Dean Pees tweak schemes to play to player strengths. What the Falcons need from the edge position, more than anything, is a QB hunter and someone that can be disruptive enough against the run to make offenses pay constant attention to where he's aligned.

Hutchinson is projected to be one of the first two players off the board. The rest are unknown, although Walker's stock is perceived to be rising and he could be gone by the time Atlanta selects. It's too early to know for sure. A trade or two could happen and someone could be pushed back. Or not.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot have been doing tons of work on a lot of players, but this is where they can't overthink things.

There will be edge defenders, cornerbacks and wide receivers who can make immediate impacts available should they keep the No. 8 pick. Quarterbacks should also be on the board. Remember that immediate impact part I just mentioned, though. None of the QB prospects, Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett or Desmond Ridder is considered a Day 1 starter.

History has shown that few rookie edge rushers have dominated out of the gate. Yet, those who develop quickly change dynamics of defenses. They also get other players to raise the level of their games.

There are young first-round picks like Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, Rashan Gary, and Micah Parsons, a unicorn who plays on and off the ball, who impacted things within their first two seasons. Teams also have hit on disruptive non-first rounders like Trey Hendrickson, Maxx Crosby, and Yannick Ngakoue, so there's that.

These types of players don't come around often. When you can get one, you get one. Think the Falcons wouldn't mind having a Bosa or Watt?

Let's also put our GM caps on. The economics of getting a pass rusher on a rookie contract for four years – if you hit, you're likely re-upping before that fifth-year option first-rounders have – gives the Falcons some cost certainty to fortify the roster with some of the free-agent money that's finally available next year.

As mentioned, edge rushers aren't the only ones who affect the passing game.

Cornerbacks do too, and there could be some potential studs like Cincinnati's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, LSU's Derek Stingley, Clemson's Andrew Booth and Washington's Trent McDuffie when Atlanta selects in the first round.

However, and this is with the GM hat on again, A.J. Terrell, one of the best at his position in the NFL, is already in place. Veteran Casey Hayward was signed in free agency.

A young corner could learn from both, and you can never have enough ball hawks. With the No. 8 pick, is a corner more valuable to a team than a player who can pressure the quarterback? Maybe. And, remember, guys like Hendrickson, Crosby and Ngakoue weren't first rounders.

Also remember where the top-end strength lies in the 2022 draft, though – edge defenders.

If quarterbacks in the NFL have time, they're going to beat a good DB nine times out of 10. It's why teams like the Rams, 49ers, Bengals, Buccaneers, Chargers, and other top teams, despite having good players in their secondaries, have invested in passing-game disruptors.

The Falcons also need game-breaking wideouts. Remember, Fontenot and Smith have said for more than a year that they want to build the roster so that, by the time they secure their long-term quarterback, they want pieces in place.

Ohio State's Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, USC's Drake London, Arkansas' Treylon Burks and Western Michigan's Skyy Moore are wideouts that could develop into go-to threats.

Look what has happened this offseason, though. Many of the top wideouts who were either traded, re-signed to big deals, or moved via free agency. Another note: Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Christian Kirk, Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chris Godwin weren't first-round picks.

That's not to say that drafting a great talent at wide receiver in the first round should be avoided. Former Falcons wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones proved the worthiness of first-round wide receivers.

Many great receivers were selected in the first round. A quick look, though, will tell you that many were selected when a quarterback was in place – even when it's a young quarterback like Joe Burrow (2020) in Cincinnati, who was gifted Ja'Marr Chase in the first round a year after he was drafted.

As I have said before, after covering the NFL for close to two decades, teams that select in the top half of the draft, pick for need or quarterbacks. That best-player-available stuff kicks in at some point, but always not early.

The Falcons need a lot, so they theoretically can't go wrong.

Look at the better teams in the NFL though. As explosive as they might be offensively, they affect the passer. The Rams, Bengals, Packers, Bucs, Niners, Bills, Steelers and others have pass rushers who lead to offenses shifting protections toward them or occupying much of that week's game planning.

You win, with quarterbacks and those that affect them.


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