Atlanta Falcons coaches and scouts have turned their eyes 329 miles south of Atlanta. The Senior Bowl practices are well underway for Saturday's NFL audition. The Falcons have moved past what might have been, and now focus on what might be. Will the player who can get those last four yards be playing on Saturday? Or maybe a linebacker who can cover a tight end?
No matter what position a team focuses on, the Senior Bowl will have plenty of talent on display.
For the Falcons, it might be the next Tony Gonzalez. Or possibly that defensive end to finally complement John Abraham. More likely, the Falcons will seek role-players who have the potential to be special.
Scout Like a Falcon
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has established a pattern in his drafts. Outside of the measurable statistics, Dimitroff looks for players who are smart, tough, team-first guys. His forward-thinking approach sometimes goes against the grain.
In Dimitroff's first Falcons draft, he made the unpopular choice by using the first pick on a quarterback from Boston College. That has seemed to work out fine. Or how about the time Dimitroff ruined the franchise by trading six picks just to get a wide receiver? Julio Jones seems worth it to many now.
As hard as it might be to pin Dimitroff down, there are certainly areas of need.
Positions of Need
The quickest way to scout a game is to recognize the positions of need. There might be quarterbacks and wide receivers stealing the show, but those are certainly not needs. So let's break down the holes the Falcons need to fill.
Having established his own drafting logic, Dimitroff can be unpredictable. He might see something in a player that others do not. He might draft a player who seems superfluous merely as insurance. Or, he might draft with an eye toward the future rather than a quick fix.
With that in mind, a player to watch might be Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo.
Rambo has decent coverage skills and loves to hit hard—very reminiscent of the Falcons' William Moore. With Moore and his counterpart Thomas DeCoud headed to the Pro Bowl, safety would not seem like a position of need. But Rambo has the skills and mindset to fit right in with the Falcons.
There is a key position missing from this preview. Offensive linemen were not highlighted for a reason. Any lineman special enough to detail will most likely be gone before the Falcons select in the first round. The Falcons have seen as much success with former practice-squad player Tyson Clabo as they have with first-round selection Sam Baker.
There will be talented players who might slip. Dallas Thomas of Tennessee shows potential as an offensive tackle/guard hybrid. But there would not be enough evidence in a single game to prove otherwise.
The Falcons struggled with an inconsistent rushing attack in 2012. Once the focus of the Falcons offense, Michael Turner's future with the franchise has become cloudy. The gloomy outlook is deceiving, though.
The Falcons already have Jacquizz Rodgers and an underrated Jason Snelling on the roster. Someone to block for them would certainly be a high priority. The Falcons might look to bolster the run game with the right player for the right value.
Here is the running back to watch in the Senior Bowl:
Robbie Rouse, Fresno State, North Team: Rouse is extremely similar to Jacquizz Rodgers in stature. Rouse is only 5'6" but very durable. Rouse exhibits good hands when called upon in the passing game. Because of his size, Rouse would most likely be available in the mid-to-late rounds.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Rouse has one very interesting distinction from Rodgers. Rodgers overcomes his size while Rouse exploits it. In the video above, you can see how Rouse handles himself even when his team is vastly overmatched. Despite Oregon seeming to have at least 17 players on defense, Rouse is rarely dropped behind the line.
Rouse uses his blockers as camouflage and then slips through the crease. This shows a caginess indicative of a high football IQ. Rouse avoids contact to gain additional yards, but can take the hard hits as well. Rouse's intelligence and toughness could entice Dimitroff to pull the trigger when the time is right.
There are other running backs who might garner interest. Johnathan Franklin of UCLA is an interesting prospect with suspect hands. Suspect hands could spell doom in the pass-heavy offense of the Falcons.
Mike Gillislee of Florida is sure to draw attention. Gillislee's highlight reel is exciting. What is left on the cutting room floor should terrify anyone who has followed the Falcons over the past decade.
Two words: Twinkle toes.
Gillislee does not have the size of T.J. Duckett or Michael Turner, but he occasionally does the "please tackle me" tap dance at the line of scrimmage.
Tony Gonzalez is not coming through that door.
Or maybe he will. Only Gonzalez knows.
The one thing that is certain is that Tony Gonzalez is not available in the 2013 draft. Even if his replacement is, what are the chances he would ever measure up to the greatest tight end to ever play the game?
This is why tight end comes in at fourth in positions of need.
Here are the tight ends to watch:
Mychal Rivera, Tennessee, South Team: Rivera might be one of the most underrated players in the draft. Rivera is a capable blocker and athletic receiver. At 6'3" and 237 lbs, Rivera has adequate size to play at the next level. Rivera managed to shine on a Tennessee team that did not showcase tight ends. Rivera has good hands and fights for the ball.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Rivera never complained about the lack of opportunity while at Tennessee. With Rivera's potential, this is an excellent sign of maturity. Rivera faced SEC defenses, so he is prepared for a pro-style game. Rivera's lack of eye-popping stats might intrigue Dimitroff further. At a "State of the Falcons" meeting with season ticket holders, Dimitroff stated he looked for good players in the wrong system.
Rivera's best quality is his ability to pull in awkwardly thrown passes in coverage. This is a skill that can not be taught. Rivera would be hard to pass up if available in later rounds.
Ryan Otten, San Jose State, North Team: Otten is more of an additional receiver than an additional offensive lineman. He shows more willingness to block than aptitude. Otten is striving to hone his blocking skills. Otten is tall at 6'5" and has room on his frame to add to his 235 lbs. Otten is quick off the line and can beat a linebacker over the middle or deep.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Otten shows flashes of innate physical ability and skills that translate well to the NFL. Matt Ryan prefers taller targets, so Otten would be a visible outlet for the franchise quarterback. Dimitroff might be drawn to Otten's intent of improving his blocking skills. This exhibits coachability and a team-first attitude that the coaching staff can build upon.
The rest of the tight ends have issues that the Falcons might not have the patience for. Michael Williams of Alabama has the size to block, but his receiving skills are questionable at best. Vance McDonald of Rice has decent receiving skills, but his blocking needs more work than a 1987 Yugo.
The Falcons have added new schemes and roles to the defensive line since the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. These have had varying degrees of success, but the one thing that has not changed is the need for heavy rotation.
The Falcons have a serviceable group of defensive tackles, but could always use more. The biggest need is an additional wide body to help clog the running lanes. In this draft, the Falcons will have to hope for a diamond in the rough. The biggest names at the position should be gone by the time the Falcons pick.
Here are the defensive tackle to watch:
Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern, North Team: Williams is a capable tackler. For his size, Williams has excellent footwork and technique. Playing for a Division II team, Williams has not been consistently tested. Williams weighs in at 341 lbs and eats space with the best of them.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Williams told the Joplin Globe, "I knew what I had to do when I got here." This shows his mind is in the right place. Williams is the type who will set out to prove he is the best every day. Dimitroff is known to take a chance on small-school standouts like Kroy Biermann. Williams has the size to either line up over center or fill the gap. His footwork is a plus, but if he were to fall down, most running backs would have to go around him anyway.
There are several quality defensive tackles at the Senior Bowl. The issue is finding one at the right time for the right value. Kawann Short is an intriguing prospect. Short has first-round potential, but an ankle injury that has already healed might hurt his stock. It is very doubtful that he would fall far enough for it to make sense for the Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons have one of the best linebackers in the NFL in Sean Weatherspoon. And that is where the top-tier talent ends. Akeem Dent is serviceable, but still learning. Stephen Nicholas is a bigger question mark after the San Francisco 49ers exposed him in the NFC Championship Game.
The Falcons must find a complementary linebacker for Weatherspoon. The Senior Bowl might have some options.
Here are the linebackers to watch:
Khaseem Greene, Rutgers, North Team: Greene is a converted safety. Greene bulked up to play linebacker and works hard to keep it. Greene has good speed and coverage skills and flies around the field. He exhibits good tackling technique without sacrificing the hard hit.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Greene's hard work shows maturity and a lack of entitlement. Greene's versatility would make him an excellent addition to Nolan's most exotic schemes.
Jamie Collins, Southern Mississippi, South Team: Collins is another converted defensive back. Collins is extremely strong. He uses his strength to overcome his mechanics occasionally. Despite Southern Mississippi failing to win a single game, Collins' talent still showed. Collins is still raw.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Collins has all of the physical tools. What might draw Dimitroff, though, is the way Collins handled being the best player on a very bad team. Despite a few hiccups in his motivation, Collins powered his way through the season as he would a blocker.
There will several good linebackers at the Senior Bowl. The Falcons might prefer to stick with a converted safety for versatility, much like the Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis.
The Falcons have struggled with rushing the passer for years. Other than John Abraham, no other Falcon has been able to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. And Abraham is not getting any younger.
The lack of pressure often undermines the entire defense. Pocket-passers can simply wait until someone becomes open. Mobile quarterbacks, well, they can either wait or run with the ball. The Falcons need help. That help might come in this year's draft.
Here are the defensive ends to watch:
Margus Hunt, Southern Methodist, North Team: Margus Hunt is the thing nightmares are made of. While possibly not the most gifted defensive end in the draft, the way Hunt plays is scary. At 6'8" and 277 lbs, Hunt is an imposing figure. He has good speed. Hunt is extremely aggressive. He shows good instincts but is unrefined.
Scout Like Dimitroff: This might be the easiest of them all. Kroy Biermann piqued Dimitroff's interest enough to be drafted. Biermann has finally excelled in Nolan's defense. Now imagine Biermann if he were bigger, stronger and meaner. Congratulations, you have just drafted Margus Hunt.
Alex Okafor, Texas, North Team: Okafor exhibits good technique. He has played at defensive tackle as well as his more natural spot of defensive end. Okafor lacks explosiveness, but overcomes this with strength and technique.
Scout Like Dimitroff: Okafor has versatility to accomplish anything Nolan requires. Okafor flourished rather than wilting when moved inside. This shows the type of maturity and determination that Dimitroff looks for.