Falcons use draft to rebuild substandard defense

ATLANTA (AP) — After back-to-back losing seasons, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn know they’re under pressure in 2020.

They used the NFL draft to remake a defense that drew much of the blame for two straight 7-9 finishes.

The Falcons used four of their six picks on defensive players, including cornerback A.J. Terrell of Clemson in the first round.

The focus on defense continued Saturday, when the Falcons had three picks. Atlanta took linebacker Mykal Walker of Fresno State and safety Jaylinn Hawkins of California in the fourth round and Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh and final round.

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Terrell, Walker and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson of Auburn, who was taken in the second round, could win starting jobs. The rookies join Atlanta’s prized free-agent addition, edge rusher Dante Fowler, as the biggest names in its defensive makeover.

Matt Hennessy of Temple, a third-round pick, will have an opportunity to win a starting job at left guard.

MORE VERSATILITY

For the second straight day, the Falcons found a player who can play more than one position. Just as Davidson can shuffle around the defensive line and Hennessy could play guard or center, Walker says he’s comfortable at any linebacker spot.

Walker (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) is similar in size to the player he may replace, De’Vondre Campbell, who signed as a free agent with Arizona. Walker said he played 60 to 65% of plays at inside linebacker at Fresno State. He said he’s just as comfortable on the outside.

NO TRADE

For the first time in his 13 years in Atlanta, Dimitroff did not complete a trade during the draft. He made 17 trades in his first 12 drafts, including five to move up or into the first round. He said he was happy to find the players he targeted without having to trade away any of his six picks.

CHIPPER JONES FAN

Hofrichter, from Valrico, Florida, said he grew up cheering for Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves.

“That’s why I wear No. 10,” he said.

ATLANTA CONNECTION

Hennessy played for Geoff Collins for two seasons at Temple before Collins was hired by Georgia Tech in 2019. Collins gave the Falcons a strong endorsement of Hennessey.

“He was very, very positive about him and so was some of his staff,” Dimitroff said.

Quinn said he received a text from Collins on Friday night about “how excited he was to have Matt coming down. He knew what a special competitor he is.”

MACK THE MENTOR

Hennessey’s long-term home may be at center, but his first position will be left guard — the one opening on the offensive line. Quinn expects Hennessy will compete with veterans James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Matt Gono. Two 2019 first-round picks, Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom, are expected to start at right tackle and right guard, respectively..

Hennessey’s future may rest on center Alex Mack’s status. The 34-year-old Mack can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season. For now, Quinn expects Mack to serve as Hennessey’s mentor.

“If you are a player walking in to play offensive line in the NFL, this is the type of person that you would want to ask questions to,” Quinn said of Mack. “This is the type of person that you would want to sit next to in meetings.”

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