Falcons search for needed talent at NFL Combine

Photo by Allie Ghisson Student Publications

For many, it may seem that the NFL season just ended with the Super Bowl last month, but the NFL Draft, set to be held in Las Vegas on April 23, is rapidly approaching. With the draft comes the NFL Combine, which took place this past week in Indianapolis. Every team in the league, including our own Atlanta Falcons, were there scouting college football’s elite players and were hoping to meet their needs in the Draft.

The Falcons are coming off a poor 2019 season, and they are constrained by a tight salary cap looming. The Falcons had a defense that was one of the worst in the league, especially in the first half of the season. This was due largely to a lack of pressure on the quarterback off the edge. The Falcons have attempted to remedy this in recent drafts, but a lack of production from former first-round picks Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley have left them in need of more help in this area.

With the 16th pick in the Draft, the Falcons have several edge rushers that performed well at the combine on their radar. One such  player is Wisconsin native Zack Baun, who put up good numbers this past week, running a solid 4.65 40-yard dash and benching 24 reps of 225 pounds. 

Another option is A.J. Epenesa, a defensive lineman from Iowa. Epenesa is larger than Baun by three inches and 40 pounds and is also considered an edge rusher. He put up a slower 40 time at 5.06 and benched 17 reps of 225 pounds. Terrell Lewis, a linebacker from Alabama, weighed in at 6’5” 262 pounds and only competed in the vertical and broad jump, though he performed better than Epenesa and Baun in both. The Falcons spoke with all of these players in Indianapolis and depending on the actions taken by the teams in front of them, may very well take one of these players as their first pick.  

There are a few more edge rushers that are intriguing but are less likely to be drafted by the Falcons. Jabari Zuniga from Florida ran an impressive 4.64 second 40-yard dash, second fastest among defensive lineman, and ranked in the top six of all drills he participated in. Zuniga is lower on the draft board than other edge rushers, but an impressive combine showing could increase his draft stock. Although unlikely, there is always a chance the Falcons trade up in the Draft and go after a star like Chase Young from Ohio State or Isaiah Simmons from Clemson.

Another area that the Falcons may look to address is the running back position. The team had the third-fewest rushing yards per game in 2019 as current running back Devonta Freeman was hampered by injuries and put up career lows in yards per carry. 

One of the best running backs in this year’s class is Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin. He ran a blistering 4.39 40-yard dash, which is faster than all other running backs in the Combine and faster than Julio Jones’ 40-yard dash. J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, Cam Akers of Florida State, and Clyde-Edwards Helaire of LSU are also all on the Falcon’s radar. All of these running backs met with the Falcons at the combine and look to be a viable options in the second or third round.

One of the more notable standouts from this year’s combine is Missouri tight end, Albert Okwuegbunam. The 6’5” 258-pound tight end ran a 4.49 40-yard dash, catching most of the media and even scouts off guard. In a league predicated so much on matchups, a tight end of this size and speed could be a nightmare for defensive coordinators. The Falcons recently allowed star tight end Austin Hooper to enter free agency, so they could choose to address this position in the draft. If they do, Okwuegbunam would be a solid choice. 

The Falcons have many needs to fill in order to be playoff contenders in the upcoming season. All of the needs will not be able to be met in this year’s draft, but the combine did provide some hope, as it showed depth at the positions of need for the Falcons, which will give them many options in the draft and hopefully allow them to add multiple players who can make a positive impact on the organization.