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Falcons, Dan Quinn trying to fix defense without Seahawks’ blueprint

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Every draft selection goes something like this: Team drafts player. Player celebrates. Team says it can’t believe the player fell because the team had been targeting him since middle school, and he’s going to be special, and he’s perfect for the system, and he has the perfect attitude, and on the team’s draft board, he was supposed to be taken much, much, earlier, like a week ago Tuesday.

Somehow, things still go wrong. Draft bliss has a limited freshness date.

So let’s start with this: By all appearances, the Falcons had a really good first two days of the draft. They appeared to fill three important needs in the first three rounds, and even without Thomas “Itchy Triggerfinger” Dimitroff making a trade: They took cornerback A.J. Terrell (Clemson) in the first round, defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (Auburn) in the second and center Matt Hennessy (Temple) in the third. Hennessy is Alex Mack’s heir apparent at center but will start out at left guard. All three draft picks may start next season.

It all looks great today. But temper your glee (or outrage). Even game tape, analytics, background checks and Jedi mind tricks in pre-draft interviews can’t elevate most drafts to much more than a refined game of drunk darts. Nobody can predict how players respond to NFL paychecks or pressure. Nobody knows if they peaked in college or if they just won’t care anymore.

But Falcons head coach Dan Quinn needs immediate impact from this class, particularly on defense. He needs edge rusher Dante Fowler, a free agent import, to replicate what he did a year ago with the Los Angeles Rams and Terrell and Davidson to have fast learning curves. The Falcons are painfully young and generally unproven at cornerback after the release of Desmond Trufant in a salary-cap move, and their defensive line play last year was uneven. The defense’s entire personality was as split as the season: from 1-7 to 6-2.

Quinn believes Terrell and Davidson can have an immediate impact, pointing to the fact both have played in big games at major programs. “Those are usually the guys who transfer well at the NFL level,” he said.

With Tom Brady joining Drew Brees in the NFC South, secondary play is crucial. Quinn is largely perceived as a line coach, but he clearly has embraced using early picks on cornerbacks. Why?

“It’s really become a passing league first,” he said. “So you better have, on the defensive side, a way to match up.”

Here’s the strange part. Remember when Quinn was hired in 2015? He was coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Seahawks’ starting secondary included two players drafted in the fifth round (Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor), one in the sixth (Byron Maxwell) and one not drafted at all (Brandon Browner) to go with first-round pick Earl Thomas at free safety.

That might’ve been an aberration, but it didn’t stop the narrative: If the Seahawks can do that, the Falcons can do that. Don’t use early picks on cornerbacks, spend your resources elsewhere. A case could be made it would clash with Dimitroff’s history of drafting a ton of defensive backs, including several in the first two rounds. Terrell is the ninth defensive back the Falcons have drafted since 2015, including four in the first two rounds: cornerback Jalen Collins (second round, 2015, a bust), safety Keanu Neal (first, 2016, solid when healthy), cornerback Isaiah Oliver (second, 2018, struggled until the second half last season) and now Terrell. He’s actually the seventh DB taken by the Falcons in the first two rounds since 2008.

There has been no DB drop-off since Quinn replaced Mike Smith. So was the narrative false or did Quinn’s philosophy change?

“I don’t think you had it wrong,” Quinn said. “Even now when I think of some of the players in different rounds, there’s names like (Grady) Jarrett and (Ricardo) Allen and (Demontae) Kazee and (Kendall) Sheffield who weren’t always on the first-day picks. It really also involves the rush. So throwing a guy like Marlon into that group, (with an) attacking front, that’s a part of it. Having that connection between the front and the secondary is important.”

Was it an overstatement to assume you could build a starting secondary with late-rounders?

“That’s fair. The reason (Seattle) played so well is there were good players everywhere — linebacker, in the front and the secondary,” Quinn said. “There was a connection with one another. It wasn’t just one piece.”

In 12 drafts from 2008 to 2019, the Falcons drafted 87 players, including 23 defensive backs. So make that 24 defensive backs out of 90 players now (26.7 percent). The Falcons have taken at least one DB in 12 of the 13 drafts and as many as four in 2013 when Trufant and Robert Alford were the first two picks.

The draft position breakdown from 2008 through three rounds in 2020: 24 defensive backs, 15 defensive linemen, 14 linebackers, 14 offensive linemen, eight running backs, eight receivers, four tight ends, two quarterbacks and one punter.

There’s an argument to support this: Offenses have become increasingly wide open, and the ripple effect is defenses are in nickel a majority of the snaps. But Dimitroff and Quinn valued Terrell so much that they were willing to trade up from 16th in the first round to a pick in the nine to 12 range to ensure they would get him (even apparently ahead of South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and far higher than most mock drafts had Terrell going).

Dimitroff maintains he had only “loose” and hypothetical trade discussions, denying he ever made an actual trade offer. A behind-the-scenes story on NFL.com about Jacksonville’s draft painted a more specific picture, saying Dimitroff “proposed a potential trade” that would’ve sent the No. 16 pick, as well as third- and fourth-rounders, to the Jaguars for the No. 9 selection. But Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, a former Falcons assistant GM, said no, fearing Dimitroff would take one of his preferred players (notably defensive back C.J. Henderson or edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson). That the deal never happened and Dimitroff landed his preferred target regardless doesn’t change how highly the Falcons coveted a cornerback.

“Corner was one of the spots that was going to be a big one for us this offseason,” Quinn said.

So much for the perceived Seattle blueprint.

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ButDimitroff and Quinn valued Terrell so much that they were willing to trade up from 16th in the first round to a pick in the nine to 12 range to ensure they would get him (even apparently ahead of South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and far higher than most mock drafts had Terrell going).”

Umm what? Kinda wish this would have happened just to see the mental gymnastics Ovie, firedup, etc would have to go through to justify the pick.

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Disagree. If anything, this draft signaled a return to the Pete Carrol Seahawks blueprint. Which I think is a good thing. 

As usual, Schultz is full of crapola. Quinn/TD’s continual drafting of tall corners ...Collins, Oliver, now Terrell...most certainly is their attempt to duplicate Seattle’s corners.

See also Debo at  LBer, Davison/Grady even Takk at DL (and now Marlon)  and Neal at SS. It’s almost a carbo copy Personnel-wise of what he had in Seattle. They may not be as good but they all fit the same scheme.

Now that free safety, I’m not sure what their thinking is there. But everywhere else defensively, it’s a replicate.

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