The 2021 NFL Draft is fast approaching, which means it’s time to discuss some priority targets for the Falcons. Atlanta has been carefully adding veterans in free agency to bolster several major roster holes, but the team still has significant gaps in the roster. Up until the draft, I’ll be detailing some of my top prospects for the Falcons at several positions of need.
We kick things off with EDGE, where the Falcons managed to retain 2020 free agent bust Dante Fowler after he agreed to a significant pay cut. The team added a few depth pieces in Brandon Copeland and Barkevious Mingo, but they’re still in desperate need of a high-end talent to complement a—hopefully improved—Fowler. Luckily, the 2021 draft class features a deep edge rushing group, and Atlanta will have ample to add a quality prospect or two.
Athletic testing numbers are taken from Kent Le Platte’s Relative Athletic Scores. Be sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter (@Mathbomb) for updates on athletic testing!
Jaelan Phillips, Miami
Projection: Mid-1st Round
2020 Stats: 45 total tackles, 21 solo, 15.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PD
My EDGE rankings have evolved quite a bit over the course of the offseason, but I’ve finally settled on Miami pass rusher Jaelan Phillips as my top player in the class. While there are legitimate concerns surrounding Phillips’ health and longevity in the league, his talent is undeniable and he had an excellent 2020 season. In an EDGE class lacking true star power at the top, Phillips takes the crown. That being said, the Falcons shouldn’t consider Phillips at 4—the move is far too risky, and as good as he is, Phillips is not worth a top-5 pick. If Atlanta trades down, however, Phillips could be an ideal target in the teens. Here’s how I described Phillips’ skills in a previous mock draft:
Phillips is a well-rounded prospect who is capable of making plays on all 3 downs and as both a traditional 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB. This is an ideal fit for a Falcons team that may be making schematic changes on the defensive side of the ball, and simply needs playmakers wherever they can fit in. He’s explosive off the snap, offers excellent power in bull rushing situations, and has the length and bend to make plays off the edge. A one-season sample size as a starter and some injury concerns from his days at UCLA probably keep Phillips from beings the first EDGE taken, but he’s certainly worth a shot for the Falcons. On a roster in desperate need of help at EDGE, Phillips can contribute immediately and in any situation.
Kwity Paye, Michigan
Projection: Mid-1st Round
2020 Stats: 16 total tackles, 12 solo, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks (4 games played)
It seems like Kwity Paye’s stock has fluctuated a ton over the course of the offseason. Originally, some mocks had Paye as a top-5 selection, but he’s now settled in to a draft slot somewhere in the teens or perhaps even early 20s. Paye’s value probably comes down to what you want from your EDGE players: he’s tremendous against the run and can play on base downs from day one, but he’s still got a lot of room to grow as a pass rusher. His athletic testing was very impressive—although he notably skipped the agility drills, which is an area of concern for him—which gives him a very high NFL ceiling.
Paye is the opposite of the rushers typically favored under Dan Quinn: he’s a power player, pure and simple. He’s capable of blowing lighter or weaker tackles off the ball and is a dominant run defender already. Paye has good explosiveness off the snap and is capable of some impressive bull rushes to create instant pressure. He’s not particularly bendy and isn’t likely to be a truly elite pass rusher, but Paye is the type of player who will dependably get around 10 sacks a year and provide shutdown run defense. For a Falcons team with almost nothing at EDGE, a 10-sack-a-year player would be a gigantic upgrade.
Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
Projection: Late 1st Round
2020 Stats: 31 total tackles, 22 solo, 12.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 2 PD, 4 FF
Somehow, I’ve never mocked Georgia EDGE Azeez Ojulari to the Falcons over the course of the offseason. He’s simply not worth the 4th overall pick—or even the 9th pick, in the event of a small trade-down—and he’s always off the board before Atlanta picks in the second round. However, should the team find themselves trading into the teens, or should Ojulari somehow fall into the second, he’d be an enticing target for a Dean Pees defense.
Ojulari is not a traditional EDGE player due to his lack of size. At 6’2, 249 and without ideal length, he is forced to win in different ways. He can rush standing up and with his hand in the dirt, and he’s got the explosiveness and agility to cause problems for offensive tackles. Ojulari is also an excellent run defender despite his lack of ideal size, playing with plenty of physicality and nastiness. He’ll need to go to a team that’s willing to move him around and possibly even play him as an off-ball LB at times, but Ojulari is one of the most intriguing edge prospects for teams with creative defensive coordinators.
Projection: 2nd Round
2020 Stats: 28 total tackles, 20 solo, 4.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 PD, 4 FF (6 games played)
If the Falcons choose to target a QB or TE Kyle Pitts at 4, they’ll need to solve their pass rushing woes later in the draft. Luckily, Day 2 is chock full off quality EDGE talent, and one of my favorites is Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. While Basham is not a versatile 3-4/4-3 rusher, he’s good enough at what he does to overcome this lack of flexibility. Basham is a traditional hand-in-the-dirt EDGE only—you don’t want him standing up and dropping in coverage—but he’s got tremendous power and advanced pass rushing moves.
Basham actually tested out better than I thought he would. On tape, he appears a little stiff at times, but his testing reveals that he’s got a higher athletic ceiling. Notably, Basham slimmed down into the 270s from a playing weight in the 280s—a further drop in weight could help Basham play with more explosiveness and mobility. The Falcons could also elect to keep Basham at his current size and deploy him as an inside/outside rusher, similar to what they’ve done with players like John Cominsky.
Quincy Roche, Miami
Projection: 3rd Round
2020 Stats: 45 total tackles, 27 solo, 14.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 PD, 2 FF
One of my favorite EDGE players for the Falcons later on Day 2, Miami’s Quincy Roche is a versatile pass rusher who excels with effort and technique instead of overwhelming athleticism or size. After lighting up the AAC for 19.0 TFL and 13.0 sacks in his 2019 season at Temple, Roche transferred to Miami and continued his domination at a higher level of competition. At 6’2, 245, Roche is a better fit for a role as a stand-up 3-4 OLB as opposed to a hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 DE—although he has experience at both positions and was successful in college.
The strongest aspect of his game is his hand usage and deep repertoire of pass rush moves. His technical strength and football IQ allow him to win consistently despite possessing only above-average athleticism. Roche is not necessarily a high-ceiling player in the NFL, but he’s likely an instant starter who can contribute immediately as both a reliable run defender and consistent pass rushing threat.
Projection: 3rd-4th Round
2020 Stats: 23 total tackles, 15 solo, 2.0 TFL, 1 PD (7 games played)
One of the most polarizing edge rushers in the 2021 class and coincidentally the player that I’ve mocked to the Falcons more than any other this offseason, Oregon State’s Hamilcar Rashed Jr. is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, Rashed is a high-end athlete with excellent explosiveness, speed, and competitiveness. On the other, he lacks ideal size and length, needs a lot of technical refinement, and has inconsistent production. In 2019, he put together an incredible season with 22.5 TFL (!!) and 14.0 sacks, only to follow it with 2.0 TFL and 0 sacks in an injury-plagued 2020.
With Rashed’s value seemingly falling from early-Day 2 to late-Day 2 or even the early part of Day 3, he’s an even more enticing pick. He’ll need time to acclimate to the NFL, but his level of effort and athletic traits give me hope that Rashed can develop into a future impact player. Here’s how I described Rashed’s skillset in my latest mock draft:
Rashed Jr. has good size at 6’3, 254 and is a natural fit as a 3-4 OLB in a Dean Pees defense. He’s capable of lining up and rushing from multiple spots, including as a stand-up rusher and with his hand in the dirt. Rashed Jr. has excellent athletic upside and explosiveness—he’s a pass rusher who can win with both speed and power. He needs a lot of technical refinement and doesn’t have many moves in his repertoire, but his “hair-on-fire” style of play could make him an early contributor as a pass rushing specialist.
Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina
Projection: 4th-5th Round
2020 Stats: 54 total tackles, 25 solo, 14.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 4 FF (12 games played)
If the Falcons are looking to bolster their pass rushing depth later in the draft, there are a variety of good targets on Day 3. Coastal Carolina’s Tarron Jackson has been a consistent producer in the Sun Belt, with at least 11.0 TFL in each of the past three seasons and 18.0 sacks over the past two. While Jackson measured in a little smaller than expected and tested out about average, he’s still a quality developmental prospect. Here’s how I described Jackson’s talents in a previous mock:
Jackson certainly looks the part of an NFL EDGE at 6’2, 260, with a surprisingly lengthy frame despite his height. Jackson’s strength at the point of attack stands out immediately. He’s got an inherent advantage in leverage due to his height and uses it well against the run and pass. Jackson also has surprisingly well-developed hand usage for a small school prospect, which could help him earn meaningful reps earlier in his career. He isn’t a particularly bendy athlete and is still quite raw in many aspects of his game, but he’s got starting upside—particularly in base packages. I think Jackson can begin his career making plays against the run and potentially develop into a #3 pass rusher in time.
Malcolm Koonce, Buffalo
Projection: 5th-6th Round
2020 Stats: 30 total tackles, 16 solo, 6.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 2 PD (6 games played)
Another developmental option for the Falcons who might be available even later in the draft, Buffalo’s Malcolm Koonce offers versatility, explosiveness, and length. Koonce spent time at both stand-up OLB and 4-3 DE and has the size to survive at both spots in the NFL. His overall athleticism is a bit of a question mark, as he didn’t participate in testing at his Pro Day, but he appears to have excellent explosiveness off the snap.
Koonce is capable of rushing from a variety of positions and also offers strong lateral agility. He has plenty of long speed to make plays from the back side and gives high effort on every play. The issues with Koonce have to do with experience and technique, as he has very few developed pass rushing moves and struggles to disengage as a run defender. He’ll need time to develop at the NFL level, but Koonce has the potential to turn into a quality third EDGE in a rotation who can play on any down and distance.
What are your thoughts on the EDGE class in the 2021 NFL Draft? Are there any other prospects you’ll be watching for the Falcons when the draft arrives?