- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.