Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank made his thoughts very clear when asked what his team's focus should be heading into this year's draft.
“I think the needs in the draft are exactly the same as going into free agency: I think we've got to get younger on the offensive line,” Blank told ESPN. “We made some improvements, in that regard, in free agency, but we're looking at that in the draft.
"I think the defensive line continues to be a need for us. And we'll look at other particular positions both on defense and, selectively, on offense as well.”
The owner mentioned the offensive line first and then the defensive line. That shouldn't be ignored. It emphasizes how focused the Falcons are on improving at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, an aspect coach Dan Quinn has harped on since taking over in 2015. Losing the battles up front proved costly during last season's 7-9 implosion.
Now it's a matter of selecting the right offensive and defensive linemen to help enhance the roster heading into a critical 2019 season, one where Blank surely won't tolerate mediocrity. Salary-cap issues meant splurging in free agency wasn't an option. Instead, the Falcons shopped for bargains and added a trio of new offensive linemen in Jamon Brown (age 26), James Carpenter (30), and Adam Gettis (30) -- plus they re-signed Ty Sambrailo (27) -- for a combined $11.1 million against the '19 cap. The $11.1 million happens to be similar to the same '19 cap charges carried by both Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (33) and Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Matthews (27) this season.
“I think the moves that we made in free agency, the players we acquired -- starting with the two guards [Brown, Carpenter] -- these are very good players,” Blank said. “They are both fairly young, so we're excited about that.”
But Blank wants to see the offensive line get even younger. Wes Schweitzer, at 25, is the youngest Falcons offensive lineman with extensive playing experience, but he's better suited for a backup role. And although the Falcons re-signed Sambrailo to a three-year extension, coaches and executives familiar with his play believe he's best as a backup as well, leaving the right tackle spot as a question mark. The Falcons released former starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder, one of four 30-something offensive linemen not immediately kept -- along with Andy Levitre (32), Zane Beadles (32), and Ben Garland (31).
Whether the Falcons target an offensive lineman with the 14th overall pick remains a mystery, but it wouldn't be a far-fetched idea. It's no secret the Falcons have interest in Oklahoma's Cody Ford (6-foot-4, 329), a tough, versatile lineman who started at right tackle for the Sooners last season. Ford, who met with the Falcons at the NFL combine, could be taken in the first round, although ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. had Ford taken at No. 33 overall (first pick in the second round) in his latest three-round mock draft.
A source told ESPN a Falcons contingent of Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and assistant general manager Scott Pioli plans to conduct private workouts at Boston College this Saturday. The school boasts one of this year's top offensive line prospects in Chris Lindstrom (6-4, 308). Kiper had Lindstrom going 21st overall to Seattle in his mock draft.
The Falcons aren't just dissecting top-tier offensive line prospects, of course. They are bringing in Charlotte offensive lineman Nate Davis (6-3, 316) for a visit next week. Davis is projected as a Day 2 pick. They've already hosted Tulsa's Willie Wright (6-3, 296), an offensive tackle who started his college career at defensive tackle.
“The beauty of this year's draft is that we have nine picks,” Blank said. “We're excited about that. We're able to do a lot of the things we need to do to improve the roster.”
Since Quinn took over as coach in 2015, the Falcons have drafted three offensive linemen: tackle Jake Rodgers in the seventh round of 2015, Schweitzer in the sixth round of 2016, and Sean Harlow in the fourth round of 2017. Only Schweitzer has played in an NFL game among the three.
Many draft experts, including Kiper, believe the Falcons will target the interior of the defensive line rather than the offensive line with the 14th overall selection. Kiper had the Falcons going after Clemson's Christian Wilkins in his latest mock, while Houston DT Ed Oliver has been a popular choice to draft and pair next to Grady Jarrett. If a top-caliber pass-rusher such as Mississippi State's Montez Sweat is available, it might be hard to pass on him despite the faith the Falcons have shown in Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley as edge-rushers.
The team just re-signed Adrian Clayborn to add another veteran pass-rusher to the mix. The team is reportedly interested in bringing back former second-round draft pick Ra'Shede Hageman, who was released in 2017 after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Hageman was also arrested in 2018 on a fourth-degree misdemeanor charge of driving while impaired. Even if the Falcons bring Hageman back, that wouldn't necessarily erase the need for a strong defensive tackle next to Jarrett.