Vaughn McClure breaks down the Atlanta Falcons' 2017 draft class.
Round 1, No. 26 overall: Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA
My take: The Falcons' primary focus going into the draft was finding an edge rusher for a team with reigning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. The Falcons got quite a talent in McKinley, who referred to himself as "relentless" in his ability to rush the passer. McKinley had 10 sacks for the Bruins during the 2016 season and ranked 10th in the nation with 1.6 tackles for loss per game. The additions of McKinley, plus defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency, significantly improves the Falcons' pass rush, especially against a team such as NFC South foe Tampa Bay, which got better with the additions of veteran DeSean Jackson and rookie first-round draft pick O.J. Howard, the tight end from Alabama.
Health factor: It was well-documented that McKinley underwent major right shoulder surgery in March and couldn't work out for the Falcons during the pre-draft process. McKinley initially said the timetable for recovery was four to six months. But as he explained Thursday, he was supposed to wear a sling for five weeks but wore it for only three and was back rehabbing twice a day Monday through Saturday almost immediately after surgery. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he anticipates that McKinley will be ready by training camp, but the Falcons won't force the issue. McKinley basically played through the injury for two seasons. "Ain't no excuses," he said. "If you can play, you can play." Here's how McKinley described the specifics behind the injury: "They started using all these big words. I was like, 'I don't know what a glenoid is. Just tell me it's a bone socket.' I'm just ready to get it healthy and produce."
Caught up in emotion: McKinley took a moment to explain the emotion he showed immediately after he was drafted, as he held a framed picture of his grandmother, Myrtle Collins. McKinley said he fulfilled a promise made to Collins -- who died in 2011 due to heart complications -- and his emotions led to his dropping the F-word while being interviewed by Falcons Hall of Famer Deion Sanders at the draft. Sanders immediately provided McKinley with his first NFL lesson by telling him to control his emotions and channel them the right way. As Quinn said, "Maybe we need a cool-down period at the draft." The Falcons certainly want McKinley to use all that energy and emotion to track down opposing quarterbacks.
Round 3, No. 75: Duke Riley, LB, LSU
My take: When the Falcons not only conducted a private workout with the 6-foot, 250-pound Riley but also brought him in for a private visit, you knew there was some serious interest between the two sides. Riley has the run-and-hit factor Quinn looks for out of his defenders. Depth at linebacker was a concern leading into the draft, as backup Paul Worrilow left for Detroit via free agency and the Falcons opted to not re-sign veterans Philip Wheeler and Sean Weatherspoon. The Falcons not only addressed depth but also got younger and faster in the process. Plus, they were able to trade out of the second round and pick up some fifth-round picks for depth while snagging a quality player in Riley.
How he fits: Riley told the Atlanta media that he’s willing to play anywhere. "If they want me to be a deep-snapper, I’ll be the best deep-snapper on the team," he said. "I know that’s not the ideal position, but I’m just saying it doesn’t matter where I’m at. I’m just ready to compete." Riley will start off playing weakside linebacker with his old college teammate, Deion Jones, manning the middle. But don’t get too tied in labeling Riley at one specific spot. He’s an inside linebacker with the versatility to move around, and Quinn will find a way to showcase Riley’s speed. Getting Jones, Riley and De’Vondre Campbell on the field at the same time will only make the defense that much faster and more physical. Not to mention, Riley brings value on special teams, which was his forte at LSU before he became a starter his final season.
Round 4, No. 136: Sean Harlow, OG, Oregon State
My take: The Falcons needed to look at guard at some point in Day 3, with the retirement of Chris Chester leaving a starting void at right guard. Addressing this position in the fourth round was a much wiser decision than picking a guy early in what was said to be a weak class of offensive linemen. The early word on Harlow (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) is that his short arms (32 inch) don’t give him much punch, and his lack of length is the reason he won’t continue as a tackle after 37 starts there in college (23 left, 14 right). But Harlow, who threw up 26 bench-press reps, has some upper-body strength. He has the bloodlines with his father, Pat, a former All-American offensive tackle at USC who went on to be the No. 11 overall pick of the Patriots in the 1991 NFL draft. It will be interesting to see how he develops.
How he fits: Again, the Falcons have a void at right guard after Chester started there the previous two seasons. Quinn has plenty of faith in returning players Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland, but Schweitzer wasn’t active for a single game last year, and Garland made his best contribution at defensive tackle. That means Harlow probably has a legitimate shot to compete or at least add depth. The transition from tackle to guard might be tough, though, as Schweitzer discovered last year as a rookie. Harlow feels confident in his ability to get out and run in the outside zone-blocking scheme. Plus, he was recruited out of high school by current Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, formerly the head coach at USC. Certainly Sarkisian wouldn’t have recruited Harlow back then if he didn’t believe he could fit his scheme.
Round 5, No. 149: Damontae Kazee, DB, San Diego State
My take: Quinn said coming in that the draft was deep at defensive back, so the pick of Kazee isn’t a surprise. He was rated as a fourth-round pick by some, so the Falcons might have gotten good value out of him. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Kazee has some ball-hawking skills, obviously, being San Diego State’s career record-holder with 17 interceptions. He doesn’t have the size to play outside, but Quinn can find a place for a guy who knows how to play the ball.
How he fits: Kazee said the Falcons told him he’d play safety or nickel back in their defense. The Falcons have a solid crew of defensive backs. Kazee would add depth potentially at free safety, with Ricardo Allen the starter and Brian Poole expected to get an audition at free safety as well. Poole was the primary nickel back last year, but that could change with Desmond Trufant coming back from injury and Robert Alford having the ability to kick inside in the nickel, with Jalen Collins strictly an outside guy. Again, Kazee is a guy who can provide depth if he shows the versatility to play both safety and nickel. Plus, he can make an immediate impression by carving out a role on special teams.
Round 5, No. 156: Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming
My take: The Falcons filled their biggest needs with a pass-rusher in the first round, a linebacker in the third round and a guard in the fourth round. The fifth round allowed them to look at the best players available to increase competition. On paper, Hill’s impressive résumé included 1,860 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns this past season and another 1,631 rushing yards the previous year. Hill didn’t expect to go to the Falcons, based on what the team already had at the position. But he also said the Falcons "got the best running back in the draft in the fifth round." You always like a kid with such confidence.
How he fits: The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Hill seems to run through defenders rather than around them, though he isn't just a power back. That adds another element behind Pro Bowl starter Devonta Freeman with his great vision and backup Tevin Coleman and his explosive speed. In short-yardage situations, such as a third-and-1 with the game on the line, Hill might be a guy the Falcons can run between the tackles. The Falcons had three backs on the roster last season, but diminutive Terron Ward was the third. We’ll see what the Falcons make of Hill’s ability to pass protect. Of course, Hill would have to prove himself on special teams, but his running style could be an asset for new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Round 5, No. 174: Eric Saubert, TE, Drake
My take: There's nothing too spectacular about this pick by the Falcons, and Saubert will have to make the transition from a smaller school that is not exactly known as a football powerhouse. But the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Saubert was a productive pass-catcher, with 56 receptions for 776 yards last season and 30-plus catches in all four seasons at Drake. He’s worth taking a look at to see what type of value he brings as a receiver because he isn't a blocking tight end by any means.
How he fits: The Falcons have their top two tight ends in Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo after not re-signing veteran Jacob Tamme, who remains a free agent. The third tight end role was big for the Falcons last season, thanks to a slew of injuries. Saubert could come in and compete for that role against second-year player Joshua Perkins. One would think Perkins has the advantage, having played for new Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington. Saubert has size and strength and is smart, which will help him. But he’ll have to work on his blocking if he hopes to make the team.