Falcons need to take tackle with first pick

Draft prospect Jake Matthews of Texas A&M has experience at both left and right tackle. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

In February, it seemed logical to raise the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons trading up to draft South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

But opinions can be altered. Such is the case for me in this particular scenario.

As of today, a little more than a month away from the NFL draft, the Falcons still need to add a game-changing pass-rusher. Yet shoring up the offensive line has to be the primary emphasis going into the draft.

True, the Falcons took a positive step by adding a stout pass protector in offensive guard Jon Asamoah. However, one single player can't make up for how atrocious Atlanta's line was in 2013.

If the Falcons stand pat with the sixth overall pick, they would be smart to target one of the top three offensive tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or Michigan's Taylor Lewan. I'd even be somewhat tempted to trade up for Robinson, considering his tremendous upside.

Solidifying the line will be critical for the Falcons' worst-to-first aspirations in the NFC South, following last year's 4-12 implosion. Matt Ryan looked far from a $100 million quarterback because he was under extreme duress more often than not, and Atlanta couldn't rely on the line to clear holes in the run game to establish offensive balance.

The Falcons certainly believe Ryan would be among the league's best if given the time to throw. Former NFL executive Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, told me he thinks Ryan is a Super Bowl win away from being labeled elite. But Ryan won't even lead his team to the playoffs playing behind the same tackles from last season.

In all fairness to left tackle Sam Baker, his sudden decline was primarily attributed to a lingering knee issue he had surgically repaired. Now the question is whether or not he'll regain the form he displayed during the 2012 season, when he played more like a first-round pick.

As for Lamar Holmes, it's hard to imagine the Falcons still sticking with him and touting him as a player with Pro Bowl potential, as they did last season. He could be a decent backup if he keeps working on his game and remains in shape.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith talked about this draft being deep at offensive tackle. But the Falcons can't gamble on a later pick stepping in and contributing immediately to a team that should be in win-now mode, not the rebuilding phase.

Matthews seems like the most NFL-ready of the draft trio mentioned above. He certainly has the bloodlines, being the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.

Folks wonder how Robinson will transition into pass protecting at the next level after coming from an Auburn program built around the run. Anyone who has stood next to the mammoth Robinson in a room would say he should have no problem keeping defenders off a quarterback.

Then there's Lewan, a guy with the kind of mean streak the Falcons are looking for up front. But is he too nasty, as his recent misdemeanor assault charges might suggest? Honestly, that shouldn't affect his draft status. Lewan reportedly worked out for the Falcons this week, according to NFL.com senior analyst and long-time NFL executive Gil Brandt

When I look at the Falcons going into 2014, I see a team that won't have it easy against a strong group of pass-rushers in the NFC South. I see a menacing duo in Carolina with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. I see a dangerous tandem in Tampa with Michael Johnson off the edge and Gerald McCoy through the middle. And I see pressure coming from every which direction in Rob Ryan's scheme down in New Orleans.

Eighteen of Matt Ryan's career-high 44 sacks last season came at the hands of the Panthers and Saints. Pressure contributed to Ryan throwing a career-high 17 interceptions, though he also attempted a career-high 651 passes.

No matter if the Falcons stick with a pass-happy offense or move toward a more grounded attack, they need to find a balance along the offensive line. Adding a tough line coach, Mike Tice, should have a tremendous impact, but Tice needs more talent to shape and mold.

The argument for the Falcons to draft a pass-rusher in the first round is understandable, particularly when you recall how the Falcons made Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith look like an All-Pro last season. I'm confident defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will make do, even without Khalil Mack or Clowney.

But Ryan won't make it through the season without better protection. That's why the Falcons need to tackle the issue with their first draft pick.