When the 2014 NFL draft moves to the sixth-overall pick on May 8, it’s expected that the Atlanta Falcons will address their needs along the offensive line or add a pass-rusher. Two factors make it more likely that the Falcons will pick either a defensive end or an outside linebacker to enhance Atlanta’s pass rush.
The first reason Atlanta might look at a pass-rusher instead of an offensive lineman is the fact that a guy wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks might make a bigger impact quicker than a tackle protecting quarterback Matt Ryan on the offensive line. The Falcons were 4-12 last season and need a jolt to get back to the playoffs.
In addition to a bigger instant impact, this year’s draft is extremely deep at the offensive tackle position. The Falcons may be able to pick up a pass-rusher in the first round and then turn around and grab an offensive tackle in the second round. Since this draft is deep, Atlanta’s second-round tackle might still be ready to start in the NFL from Week 1, something the Falcons desperately need.
If the Falcons are going to draft a pass-rusher at No. 6, who should it be? There are three popular options: South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, UCLA Bruins outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Buffalo Bulls outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
If the Falcons choose not to trade up or move back in the draft and stay at No. 6, Clowney isn’t likely going to be there. After examining 13 mock drafts, Clowney never made it past the third pick, oftentimes going No. 1 to the Houston Texans. Since I’m on record saying the Falcons should not trade up to draft Clowney, let’s focus on Barr versus Mack.
Barr vs. Mack
You talk about a kid like [Jadeveon] Clowney, who's just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid, and if I had a choice between the two, I think I'm taking Mack.
He’s one of the best two or three players in this draft. I’m going to tell you right now, I’d take him with the first pick.
That was Mayock comparing Mack to Clowney. D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported from the scouting combine on Feb. 25 that the Falcons, at least from what he was hearing, had Mack rated higher than Barr on their draft board.
|Combine: Khalil Mack vs. Anthony Barr|
|Khalil Mack||Anthony Barr|
|4.65 seconds||40-yard Dash||4.66 seconds|
|23 reps||Bench Press||15 reps|
|40.0 inches||Vertical Jump||34.5 inches|
|128.0 inches||Broad Jump||119.0 inches|
|7.08 seconds||3-Cone Drill||6.82 seconds|
|4.18 seconds||20-yard Shuttle||4.19 seconds|
Mack, at 6’3” and 251 pounds, looks like the prototypical pass-rusher and has numbers to back it up. He posted 100 tackles to go along with 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. And before you bang on those numbers because of Mack’s level of competition in the Mid-American Conference, look at his game log.
Mack’s best game of the 2013 season arguably came against Buffalo’s best competition, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Mack had nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception that he returned for a 45-yard touchdown on Aug. 31.
In that game against Ohio State, just like he did all season, Mack showed he could attack the quarterback, effectively drop into coverage and be a playmaker all over the field. The Falcons could definitely use his three-down capability, and his versatility shows that he can play in the 3-4 as a linebacker or in the 4-3 as a defensive end. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan uses a number of hybrid looks from a 4-3 scheme and a 3-4; versatility is key for Mack.
When it comes to being able to plug a guy in and reap instant benefits, Mack looks like a guy who can start from Week 1 of the 2014 season.
On the flip side of the instantly effective coin, Barr might be more of a project. At 6’5” and 255 pounds, Barr looks and feels like a stud pass-rusher and has very similar attack-the-quarterback upside as Mack.
But Barr, even with his top-10 talent, may not be able to make as much of an impact in 2014 as Mack.
Coming out of high school Barr was an All-State running back who also shined as a track star. He signed with UCLA as a running back. But he only started 11 of his first 24 games during his first two seasons and accumulated just 15 rushing attempts and 12 receptions.
Barr was moved to outside linebacker for his junior season and instantly emerged. He followed up his 13.5-sack junior season with a 10-sack senior campaign with 20 tackles for loss.
Barr told CBSSports.com at the combine that he was still learning to play on defense. "The position is still new to me in a sense. It's exciting. If I continue to work, the sky's the limit."
Another portion of the CBSSports.com analysis revealed scouts feel that Barr could play in a 4-3 as a strong-side end but is better suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Even though Atlanta’s defense is a hybrid with multiple looks, it’s still a base 4-3.
Barr is more of a speed-blitz guy than a pass-rusher. He can attack a quarterback and even chase down running plays that move away from him, but he still needs to develop more pass-rush moves to get better at disengaging from blocks.
Barr also needs to improve his skills against the run and his ability to drop into coverage. It’s because of this that Barr may be best suited for situational pass-rush duties instead of being on the field all the time on defense.
The Falcons have a number of situational defensive linemen already, what they need is an every-down pass-rusher who only comes off the field when Atlanta has the football.
That said, Mack is the best option for the Falcons with their sixth pick in the draft.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.