Tuesday June 18th, 2024 11:06PM

Falcons looking for explosive players in draft

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Thomas Dimitroff is looking at more than just defensive ends as the Falcons' general manager considers his options for the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night.

Sure, defensive end looks like a top need for the Falcons, who had only 31 sacks last season. That's only eight more than Denver's last-place total of 23.

Most mock drafts have Dimitroff picking an end, but that also was the prediction a year ago, when instead he chose linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round.

Dimitroff could provide an even bigger surprise this year.

"We need more explosiveness on both sides of the ball," Dimitroff told The Associated Press. "I can suggest everyone reading between the lines on that. People that are going to make big-time plays, both offensively and defensively."

The Falcons need another big-play receiver to join Roddy White. Kentucky's Randall Cobb and Maryland's Torrey Smith are receivers who could be available late in the first round.

The team also lacks speed at running back.

Starter Michael Turner and backup Jason Snelling are productive, powerful runners. Jerious Norwood, who is supposed to be the speedy complement to Turner, has been slowed by injuries two straight years. Norwood played in only two games in 2010 due to a knee injury and was limited by head and hip injuries to only 10 games in 2009.

Dimitroff's first draft pick three years ago was quarterback Matt Ryan, who is coming off his best year and has led the team to three straight winning seasons. The Falcons won the NFC South at 13-3 last year to land a first-round bye in the playoffs before losing to Green Bay.

"We obviously have a quarterback in place, so that's not one we're going to be focused on," Dimitroff said. "I really believe offensively we have a lot of pieces in place and we need to just tweak a couple of areas that can provide us with big plays and big explosive plays. We think there's a really good opportunity to do that in the draft and potentially if there was free agency, there as well."

The Falcons' top pass-rushing end, John Abraham, will be 33 in two weeks. Abraham had 13 sacks to lead Atlanta last year, but a replacement must be groomed. Plus, Kroy Biermann had only three sacks at the other end.

There should be first-round talent at defensive end at the Falcons' No. 27 overall selection. Among the ends who may be available: Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, Georgia's Justin Houston, Arizona's Brooks Reed, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and UCLA's Akeem Ayers.

Dimitroff said he expects to see many teams look for defensive ends high in the draft.

"This year's defensive end class is a very solid class as far as numbers and there are some very talented football players out there," he said. "I think there will be a good focus toward that position by a lot of teams. We realize there will be a lot of teams focusing on defensive tackles and defensive ends and rush-type linebackers."

The lockout has kept Dimitroff from talking with his players, including three starting free agents on the offensive line: guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo, who made the Pro Bowl last season.

Center is another question as starter Todd McClure is 34.

The Falcons drafted guard Mike Johnson from Alabama in the third round last year. Joe Hawley, a fourth-round pick from UNLV last year, can play center or guard.

"Obviously last year we had planned for some of the moves that could possibly happen if we lost some players in free agency," Dimitroff said. "We pointed our arrow toward a couple spots along the offensive line to make sure we had some depth there in case we lost a couple players."

Another position to watch may be tight end. Tony Gonzalez, 35, has said a long lockout could affect his plans to play another year.

The Falcons' playoff loss to Green Bay highlighted the team's lack of depth in the secondary. Cornerback Brian Williams was held out with an injury, leaving the Falcons more vulnerable to the Packers' formations with four or more receivers. Aaron Rodgers passed for 366 yards and three touchdowns against Atlanta.

"We know we need to continue to strengthen our secondary," Dimitroff said.

"I think as the dust settles a little more, you realize as a team that it's not like we need to make drastic wholesale changes, obviously. Does it bring to light some of the shortcomings we do have? No question about it."

Dimitroff said he'll be open to trading the first-round pick.

"At 27, I've always said it's a good value area to be in because it gives you a chance to move up or back, which is attractive," he said. "If you see someone you truly like and you want to jump up 10 or 12 spots, you can do that. Or if you determine there are a number of players you still like with a good value, you can move back."
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