NFC South: Jake Matthews

The New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, a pair of 2013 disappointments with identical 2-2 records and hopes of factoring into their respective division races, play at MetLife Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure present their preview:

Graziano: Vaughn, I'm going to get to the Falcons' defense in a minute, because I have a ton of questions about that. But I'd be remiss if I didn't start by asking: What was tight end Levine Toilolo doing at right tackle in the loss to Minnesota, and are they going to have five real offensive linemen to suit up for them Sunday?

McClure: The Falcons really had no other choice at the end of the Vikings game after three starting offensive linemen -- center Joe Hawley (ACL), left guard Justin Blalock (back) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) -- exited with injuries. Two other linemen were inactive for the game. So, yes, depth is an issue with Hawley and Holmes on season-ending injured reserve. The good thing for the Falcons is that linemen Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and rookie James Stone are capable of playing multiple positions. The Falcons also promoted guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad and signed tackle Cameron Bradfield. Konz's performance will be key as he steps in for Hawley, and the Falcons better hope Blalock's back responds well in preparation for Sunday.

I watched the Giants-Redskins game and was impressed with what the Giants were able to accomplish offensively. Can they sustain such momentum, particularly coming off a couple of extra days of rest?

Graziano: They're hoping so. What the Giants are saying is that the way the offense has looked the past two games represents progress in the new system, and that's why they think it has a chance to be more "real" than what they showed in the first two games. We will see.

What has surprised me is the way the offensive line has held up in pass protection the past two games after looking like a liability in preseason and once the regular season started. If that continues, then Eli Manning -- who's releasing the ball about a half-second faster on average this season due to the shorter drops and quicker reads on which the new system is built -- should be in a strong position to succeed. But since they're not a quick-strike downfield offense right now, I wonder what happens if they fall behind in a game and have to get into a shootout with a high-powered offensive team. The Texans aren't that, and Washington didn't put up a fight. Atlanta has all the weapons, but is the passing game where it needs to be right now in order to take advantage of the talent?

McClure: I think that goes back to our first question, Dan. If quarterback Matt Ryan gets adequate protection, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. But it's hard to get that type of protection when you're using tight ends at right tackle.

Ryan actually has done a marvelous job extending plays with his feet, partly due to increased protection up front in the form of veteran right guard Jon Asamoah and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. If Ryan can overcome whatever changes are made up front for the Giants, then maybe he’ll get the offense back in high gear. That’s something the Falcons haven’t been able to do on the road, where they’ve dropped four straight. Ryan needs time to find a playmaker such as Julio Jones down the field.

I saw a few unheralded Giants make some plays in the last game. It seems like the Falcons' defense lets no-name players have career games every time out. What do you expect out of some of the Giants' role players?

Graziano: My guess is that you're referring to tight end Larry Donnell, who caught three touchdown passes in Washington. The Giants always believe they can find productivity at tight end on the cheap, so they didn't flinch when everybody was getting on them all offseason for not having one. Donnell runs good routes and can jump high to catch the ball (he's a 6-foot-6 former basketball player), and it's to the coaching staff's credit that that's exactly what they're using him to do. He's not much of a blocker and can't do anything after the catch, but the thing he's good at, he's very good at, and as long as other teams aren't defending it well, they Gians will keep going back to it.

Fundamentally, this offense is built to operate through the run game, and it will continue to do so with an emphasis on Rashad Jennings as the lead back. He and rookie Andre Williams split carries Thursday because Jennings had 34 carries in the game just four days earlier, and they got a big lead and could ease off the gas. But it'll be Jennings to run the ball and set up play-action, and then it'll be Donnell, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle or whoever's open when they throw it. Short stuff, timing-based stuff, and stuff designed to minimize mistakes and put the unimpressive names they have in the best possible positions to succeed.

Which brings me to this: The Falcons' defense seems to be quite good at putting opposing offenses in position to succeed. Any hope of things getting any better, or is this a defense that's going to struggle all year?

McClure: It's going to be a struggle unless they magically come up with some way to trade for J.J. Watt. There are not enough playmakers on the Falcons' defense, with no elite pass-rusher and no ball hawking defensive back who will create a lot of turnovers. Throw in their defensive leader, strong safety William Moore, being placed on short-term IR with a shoulder injury, and you have the recipe for disaster.

The defense actually looked respectable against Tampa Bay, but that was because the offense got off to a hot start and the Buccaneers were in desperation mode early. There is no excuse for giving up 558 yards to a Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson and with a rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons continue to struggle with their third-down defense and continue to give up explosive plays. Manning and Jennings, among others, should be itching to put up big numbers against this pathetic defense that gives up a league-worst 8.37 yards passing per play and yields 429.8 yards per game, which is second-to-last in the league.

Defensively, how do you expect the Giants to contend with Jones, Devin Hester and Antone Smith?

Graziano: The Giants made a change at free safety last week, benching Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner and has good speed on the back end. That change was made because Brown was struggling, but also with an eye toward the speed matchups they had coming up on the schedule -- DeSean Jackson last week, the guys you mention this week, and Jeremy Maclin and the Eagles next week.

Demps will play in the post while Antrel Rolle can move up in the box, and they'll likely plaster cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Jones and use Prince Amukamara on whoever the second receiver is. Trumaine McBride, who was a starter last season, has replaced the injured Walter Thurmond as the nickel. McBride is a high-effort guy, but you can win physical matchups against him. The Giants rely on Rodgers-Cromartie's and Amukamara's ability to hold up in man coverage, but they believe they have enough speed with Demps and weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams to help supplement that as needed. If Rodgers-Cromartie is limited this week with his thigh injury, that could affect things. But as of now, that's the plan.

Good stuff, Vaughn, thanks. Travel safe, and I'll see you Sunday.

Bucs' Mike Evans has a deal

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have agreed to contract terms with first-round pick Mike Evans, the team announced Thursday afternoon.

Terms of the deal weren't immediately available, but it's not hard to figure out. First-round picks sign four-year deals with the team holding an option for a fifth year.

It's likely Evans got something similar to what Atlanta tackle Jake Matthews got. Matthews was the sixth overall pick and Evans was the seventh. Matthews signed a deal worth $16.5 million (all guaranteed) that included a $10.3 million signing bonus.

Evans is expected to start right away at wide receiver opposite Vincent Jackson.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A wrap-up of the Atlanta Falcons' draft. Click here for a full list of Falcons draftees.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons will likely have Jake Matthews start at right tackle this season.
The Falcons stuck to their offseason theme of getting tougher up front while also filling pressing needs with their nine draft picks. The team selected six players on the final day of the draft: Florida State running back Devonta Freeman (fourth round), Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo (fourth), Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen (fifth), Syracuse linebacker Marquis Spruill (fifth), Connecticut linebacker Yawin Smallwood (seventh), and South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr (seventh).

Best move: Offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 pick. The Falcons had to resist the temptation to move up and really focus on getting an NFL-ready pass protector with the ability to clear holes in the run game. Matthews was no question the most technically sound of the top three tackles, and the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews should be solid for years to come. Matthews will start off at right tackle, but expect him to be the team's left tackle of the future. He should provide immediate results for quarterback Matt Ryan, who was the league's most pressured quarterback last season.

Riskiest move: Safety Dez Southward. The third-round pick from Wisconsin doesn't appear to be too spectacular and even admitted his strength isn't his hands. The Falcons needed to find a playmaker at free safety next to strong safety William Moore, so they need someone with range capable of snatching balls out of the air. Southward also was kept from participating in the NFL combine by wrist and spine concerns, but the Falcons seem content with his medical outlook. But the team takes a chance of not having a solid player next to Moore, with veteran Dwight Lowery unknown and Southward unproven. Southward was projected as a fourth- or fifth-rounder.

Most surprising move: Defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round. This was more of a shock because most believed Hageman would be gone at the end of the first round. He started his college career at a tight end at Minnesota, then transformed into a versatile defensive lineman capable of playing end or tackle. The Falcons view him as a defensive end as they are set to go more toward a 3-4 look. The havoc 6-foot-5, 310-pound Hageman could create up front next to nose tackle Paul Soliai (6-4, 340) and defensive end Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296) could be devastating.

File it away: Most folks believed the Falcons would secure a top pass-rusher at some point in the draft, but it never occurred. Trading up for Clowney or Khalil Mack was never going to happen, but the Falcons at least attempted to trade back into the first round for Dee Ford (Kansas City). Then the Dallas Cowboys jumped ahead of the Falcons in the second round to take Boise State pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence. It could bite the Falcons in the end, considering they sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on just 22.4 percent of dropbacks last season, second worst in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It's no secret that new Atlanta Falcons starting right tackle Jake Matthews, the sixth-overall pick in this year's NFL draft, has strong bloodlines.

Matthews' father, Bruce, is a Hall of Fame offensive guard. His cousin, Clay, is a four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers. In fact, Jake is the latest in a line of Matthews boys to make it to the NFL, following his grandfather, father, uncle, brother and two cousins.

And Jake, 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, is the highest pick of them all . His father was the No. 9 overall pick in 1983 by the Houston Oilers.

"I'm definitely going to take those (bragging) rights," Jake said. "We have a great reputation in the NFL. And I'm just going to try and keep that same reputation going: a bunch of guys who work hard and do things the right way."

Jake might having bragging rights, but he'll never discount what it meant growing up the son of such a great offensive lineman and coming from such a strong football background. He comes from a family that has played in 753 NFL games in 54 seasons and made 22 Pro Bowls.

"From Day 1, I've had a second offensive line coach as a father," Jake said. "Not only a great football player, but a Hall of Famer at that. I've always been able to come home and talk to him, and getting his opinion was something I always took advantage of.

"In my opinion, he's the greatest offensive lineman to ever play the game. I'd be happy to do half the things he did. He's such a great player, someone I really look up to and I'm real proud to call my dad."

On Dec. 8, Jake gets to square off against his cousin when the Falcons travel to Green Bay for "Monday Night Football" on ESPN.

"I'm fired up," Jake said. "Talking to my dad, some of his greatest memories of play in the NFL was going against his brother. I finally get the opportunity to play against my cousin who's All-Pro and a stud. That's going to be a huge challenge. I'm looking forward to it.

"I know that's the reason why Atlanta picked me: They think I'm a guy that can go in and take care of Matt Ryan. And I'm going to go out and prove that I can."

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a plan all along, and the plan worked out in the end.

For all the talk about possibly trading up to the No. 1 overall selection to pick coveted pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, I don't believe that was truly ever in play. Of course the team wouldn't admit it because general manager Thomas Dimitroff never wants to proclaim himself closed for business, but the Falcons knew what the priority was.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews is ready to step in to a Falcons offensive line that was constantly under attack last season.
They knew they needed to get tougher along the offensive line. They knew protecting Matt Ryan and improving the league-worst rushing offense had to be the focus of their attention.

So I have no doubt the Falcons went into Thursday night's NFL draft intent on drafting an offensive tackle, and they might have secured the best of the bunch. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and the cousin of Green Bay Packers pass-rush demon Clay Matthews, is now a member of the Falcons family. He was available at No. 6 as the Falcons stayed put.

"We talked throughout this process about improving our team with tough, rugged football players and Jake Matthews epitomizes exactly what we were looking for," Dimitroff said. "He is a solid finisher and has good pass protection skills. He is the type of player that we are always looking for here in Atlanta -- guys who are willing to work and those who come in and embrace the team concept."

The Falcons, with an offseason theme of getting bigger and stronger, made it a point to address some of their offensive line concerns via free agency, bringing in Jon Asamoah to start at right guard. Now bringing in a tackle capable of playing on either side should help the offense flow a little more smoothly.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times last season and was banged up a lot more than he let on by season's end. The deep ball was missing because Ryan never had much time to throw and he lost top receiver Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury five games into the campaign. Turning to the run game wasn't an option, as Steven Jackson was slowed out the gate with a hamstring injury and the Falcons, as a team, averaged just 77.9 rushing yards per game.

Matthews is known as a technician, so it shouldn't take him long to adapt to the NFL. Of course, he'll go up against speedy and powerful pass-rushers in the NFC South with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from Carolina, Michael Johnson from Tampa Bay, and Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette from New Orleans. But he already vowed to work on some aspects of his game, including getting stronger in the weight room.

"As a coach, you always want to work with guys who love football and Jake Matthews loves football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "As we were doing our due diligence, we had a number of people tell us about Jake's work ethic, his study habits and his passion for the game. He fits the bill for the kind of player we want on our team.”
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The pick: Jake Matthews, offensive tackle, Texas A&M

My take: This was a great pickup for the Falcons, who needed more protection for quarterback Matt Ryan and needed better blocking in the run game. Matthews played both right and left tackle in college, so he's flexible. And he's known as a technician. Matthews has the potential to be the team's best offensive lineman for the next 10 years.

Can't go wrong: The Falcons targeted the top three tackles in the draft: Matthews, Auburn's Greg Robinson, and Michigan's Taylor Lewan. Robinson went No. 2 to the St. Louis Rams. The Falcons would have upgraded no matter which of the three they drafted. They might have gotten the one who will be the best for years to come.

What's next: The Falcons still need a pass-rusher and could essentially trade up, maybe even back into the first round, to land Auburn's Dee Ford. Also keep an eye Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, who could be available early in the second round. If a top safety is available in the second round, that could make things interesting.
It’s hard to find statistics on offensive linemen. But, thanks to STATS, we’ve got some.

It’s possible the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could take an offensive lineman with their first-round draft pick. So let’s take a look at the top three linemen in the draft.

You can make a numerical case that Michigan’s Taylor Lewan is the draft's best pass blocker. The Wolverines had 371 pass plays last year and Lewan allowed just two sacks, according to STATS. Lewan also allowed 10 pressures.

Auburn’s Greg Robinson allowed four sacks and eight pressures on 273 pass plays. Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews allowed six sacks and 21 pressures. But it's important to note the Aggies passed on 52.7 percent (473) of their offensive plays.

I don't think there's much difference among Robinson, Matthews and Lewan, and the Bucs would be happy if they end up with any of the three. The Bucs could use the rookie at guard to start off with. Or they could move left tackle Anthony Collins to guard and start a rookie on the outside.

Mock draft on the way

May, 6, 2014
May 6
The NFL Nation mock draft starts at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday and I'll be picking for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Much is going to depend on what happens with the six picks ahead of me, but I'm confident one of the scenarios listed below will play out.

If quarterback Johnny Manziel is there, I'm taking him. The Bucs need a quarterback for the long term and Josh McCown is only a short-term answer. Manziel might be a franchise quarterback and Johnny Football would create some excitement for a fan base that needs something to get excited about.

If Manziel is gone before Tampa Bay's pick, I probably will go with his college teammate, wide receiver Mike Evans. The Bucs have a glaring need opposite Vincent Jackson. I'd prefer Sammy Watkins because he's more of a speed receiver than Evans, but it's likely Watkins will be gone. Evans is a clone of Jackson in a lot of ways. That's not a bad thing. Jackson already is over 30 and Evans eventually can replace him as the No. 1 receiver.

What if Manziel and Evans both are gone? I've got a plan for that. I'd take an offensive lineman. Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan -- in that order -- would be my fallback options. They're all tackles, but the Bucs' big need is at guard. Maybe a rookie could slide inside or maybe Anthony Collins, who has played some guard in the past, can make the move from left tackles.

Please join us for the mock draft.

Plan B for the Buccaneers?

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
Virtually every mock draft I’ve seen recently has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking either a wide receiver or a quarterback.

Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is the popular pick among receivers, and his college teammate, quarterback Johnny Manziel, has been frequently tied to the Bucs.

But let’s turn hypothetical here. Let’s say that Evans and Manziel are drafted before Tampa Bay picks at No. 7. Or let’s say the hidden reality is that the Bucs don’t like Evans or Manziel as much as everyone seems to think.

Is there a Plan B in place?

Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht are bright guys, and you can bet they have contingency plans ready. Licht has made it abundantly clear that the Bucs would be willing to trade down, which I think is a real possibility.

But let’s stick with our hypothetical here and say the Bucs stay at No. 7 and either can’t or don’t want to draft Manziel or Evans. What direction does Tampa Bay go in that scenario?

This is just a hunch, but I wouldn’t rule out the offensive line. Yeah, the Bucs spent good money to get left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. But there still is uncertainty on the offensive line.

The job at right guard is wide open, and it's unclear if guard Carl Nicks can fully recover from a toe injury. Nicks has said there is nerve damage and he might have to play in pain for the rest of his career.

That is why I’m thinking there is a real chance the Bucs select an offensive lineman at No. 7. There aren’t any true guards worthy of that pick. But there are three tackles that could be available, and none of them would be a bad choice.
Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan all could be available when Tampa Bay picks. The consensus is that Robinson is slightly ahead of Matthews and Lewan, but some mocks have all three going in the top 10 picks.

I can see the Bucs taking any one of the three. They could plug that player in at guard for the short term and eventually move him to tackle. That would give Tampa Bay’s offensive line a big boost and firm up one of the few glaring weaknesses.

It’s just a thought, but going with an offensive lineman might not be a bad option for the Bucs.
Let's say Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is right and there are only a combined nine or 10 offensive tackles and wide receivers worthy of going in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft.

Now let's say there are about 12 (at least by my count) teams interested in drafting a player at one of those positions ahead of Carolina at No. 28. And one or two teams without a primary need at those spots might go there because the player is too good to pass up among the top five.

Do the math.

[+] EnlargeKyle Fuller
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIDon't be surprised if the Panthers draft a defender like Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller rather than reach to fill a need on offense.
There is a very good chance a first-round worthy wide receiver or tackle -- both great needs for the reigning NFC South champion -- won't be around when Carolina picks.

This is why Gettleman isn't married to a position with his first pick. This is why the man who introduced us to "hog mollies" a year ago when he drafted defensive tackles in the first two rounds, introduced us on Tuesday to the term "blue goose" when referring to pass-rushers and defensive tackles with a talent as rare as the bird.

Gettleman didn't spend the past few months sending his scouts all over the country looking at players and racking up frequent flier points just so he could select in the first round a player the staff rated as a second- or third-rounder.

So when he says he'll take the best player available, bank on it.

To reach for a player at a position just because you have a need to fill, Gettleman reminded over and over, "more often than not you're going to make a mistake." General managers that make mistakes, particularly with first-round picks, often lose their jobs.

What we don't know is how many of those nine to 10 players Gettleman has at tackle or wide receiver. Does he have six wide receivers and four tackles, or five of each?

What if it's really a combined nine and not 10?

For the sake of argument, let's go on the conservative side and say five wide receivers and four tackles. Based on what most of the so-called draft experts project, the surefire first-rounders at wide receiver would be: Sammy Watkins, Clemson; Mike Evans, Texas A&M; Odell Beckham Jr., LSU; Marqise Lee, Southern Cal; and Brandin Cooks, Oregon State.

The surefire offensive tackles would be: Greg Robinson, Auburn; Jake Matthews, Texas A&M; Taylor Lewan, Michigan; and Zack Martin, Notre Dame.

And many project Martin as a guard.

If you want to stretch it to five each, add Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, whose stock has been downgraded by many because of medical reports on his knees.

Now let's look at the competition. Among the teams that appear to be looking at wide receiver: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New York Jets, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Philadelphia. Those interested in tackle help: Baltimore, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati.

There is overlap here as you can see.

But if each of those teams goes for a tackle or receiver, where do the Panthers turn? They could get a top cornerback. Gettleman said he wouldn't be "sad" to see one of those fall to him.

Among the possibilities could be Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech or Jason Verrett of Texas Christian.

Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy could be there if Carolina decides to go with a "blue goose" defensive end. There is no guarantee the Panthers sign Greg Hardy to a long-term deal, and Charles Johnson is going into his eighth season. Johnson also had knee issues last season.

You never can have too many great pass-rushers.

Or what if there is a top defensive tackle on the board such as Notre Dame's Louis Nix III? Or Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman? Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole both are getting up there in age and have deals that expire after this season.

"If there's a great player there [defensive tackle] were going to take him," Gettleman said. "Everybody's got a philosophy of how they're going to construct their team, and you guys have figured out that we believe in defense."

They also believe in taking the best player available in the draft, and this one will be no different, no matter how great the needs are at tackle and wide receiver.

Bank on it.
Jake MatthewsDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDraft prospect Jake Matthews of Texas A&M has experience at both left and right tackle.
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 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.

Analyzing Kiper 3.0: Falcons

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. went exactly in the direction I expect the Atlanta Falcons to go in the first round of this year's NFL draft: offensive tackle.

Kiper has the Falcons taking Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in his latest mock draft. He has Matthews as the second offensive tackle to be drafted, following Auburn's Greg Robinson at No. 2 to the Rams.

The Falcons are destined to take a close look at Matthews, Robinson and Michigan's Taylor Lewan as they try to fix the line going into the 2014 season. A lot of folks would say a pass-rusher is a more pressing need after the Falcons decided to add nose tackle Paul Soliai and run-stuffing defensive end Tyson Jackson via free agency. True, adding a pass-rusher is a great need, but maybe the Falcons can gamble on getting one in the second round. The trading-down scenario always is in play, too.

Among the top three tackles, Robinson would be the best fit for the Falcons in terms of bringing that gritty nature the Falcons need up front. But Matthews could be the most NFL-ready of the three.

While Matthews could be a safe pick, he might underwhelm. One scout I talked to said Matthews was "a little overrated" and would lean toward Lewan between the two. Kiper even mentioned on a conference call Thursday how Matthews sometimes gets in trouble facing quick defenders. At the same time, Kiper praised Matthews, Robinson and Lewan as a trio.

"Right now, I would have Robinson as having the most upside," Kiper said. "He's a tremendously gifted player. He's got some work to do in pass protection. Obviously, he came out of a run-oriented attack. But he's an incredibly gifted football player. That's why he's going to go in the top 2-6.

"I think you look at Jake Matthews, the bloodlines [Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews' son], the fact that he plays right tackle so effectively. He played left tackle very well. Now, he had some trouble with the quick guys, the explosive guys in a couple games when you watch him. But he's a guy who's going to be solid, consistent, and reliable. ... Taylor Lewan had a really good year. I think people were critical of Lewan based on the line play at Michigan. But if they watched the games -- which some people were making comments about Lewan that were inaccurate -- he played well. ... I think he's deserving of being in the top seven. Probably won't go that high just because we get into needs again."

The bottom line is, the Falcons need to protect Matt Ryan. Matthews might not be my first choice, but he certainly would be a tremendous upgrade.

Analyzing Kiper 3.0: Buccaneers

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest mock draft is out and he has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

I like the pick and I think the chances of it happening are better than they were a few days ago. The Bucs added defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner in free agency, so they have narrowed their needs. I still think the Bucs might consider an offensive lineman (Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews) with the No. 7 overall pick.

But Watkins, who might be the most dynamic offensive player in the draft, is starting to make more and more sense to me. The Bucs could use another playmaker on offense. They have Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams as their starting receivers. Williams might be in some hot water with the coaching staff and front office because of some off-field trouble.

Even if Williams is going to stick around, I still think Watkins makes sense. The Bucs have very little depth after Jackson and Williams. In the modern game, a third receiver can play as much as a starter.

The Bucs have to get deeper and better at receiver, and Watkins would bring more speed to a passing game that needs some spicing up.

Kiper's Mock 3.0: Buccaneers

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
After a 4-12 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold the seventh overall pick in the draft.

It's hard to predict what the new regime of general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith will do with that pick. But the Bucs definitely have options as they start a new era.

Even after signing veteran quarterback Josh McCown, Smith said it remains possible the Bucs could use their first-round pick on the position. That could come into play if Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr remain on the board when the Bucs pick.

If the Bucs don't go with a quarterback, there are other options on offense. Tampa Bay is overhauling its offensive line and tackles Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson could be options. If the Bucs really want to spice up their offense, wide receiver Sammy Watkins could be a possibility.

But Smith is a defensive coach and he might go with what he knows best. Outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr have been tied to the Bucs in some mock drafts.

Check out ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's latest mock draft to see which players he thinks Buccaneers should target with their first pick.
Todd McShay’s latest Insider mock draft is out and he has the Buccaneers taking Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

That's been a trendy pick in a lot of mock drafts. But McShay acknowledges that the strongside linebacker position isn’t a premium spot in coach Lovie Smith’s defense. Still, McShay says Mack is a special talent that the Bucs could maximize.

Mack can rush the passer and drop in coverage. I’d rather see the Bucs get a pure defensive end. But there’s not going to be one of any great value at No. 7 overall.

In McShay’s scenario, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is available to the Bucs and so is his college teammate, wide receiver Mike Evans. Either of those players would make plenty of sense for the Bucs.

But let’s keep in mind that Smith is a defensive coach and McShay may end up being right with Mack as the pick.