Trade or not, Falcons can't afford first-round miss in 2020 NFL draft

2020 NFL draft: The year of the defense (2:17)

Kevin Negandhi dives into the careers of the top four defensive prospects of the 2020 draft, including Ohio State's Chase Young and Clemson's Isaiah Simmons. (2:17)

No matter what the Atlanta Falcons’ plan is for Round 1 of Thursday’s 2020 NFL draft, they can’t afford to miss on their first pick.

Everyone knows the stakes for the Falcons coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons. Owner Arthur Blank expects the playoffs and nothing less. He retained coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff with a postseason push in mind.

The Falcons aren’t just one player away from being a Super Bowl contender, but they certainly need their top draft pick to make an immediate impact. He can't be a developmental project, an extreme character risk or injury prone. It's already going to be challenging enough to get a rookie up to speed based on how the coronavirus pandemic has altered the offseason workout schedule.

There have been plenty of rumblings about the Falcons possibly trading up from the 16th overall pick into the top 5, perhaps to secure either a top cornerback such as Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah or a defensive tackle such as Auburn’s Derrick Brown.

Dimitroff, who called the current group of NFL general managers a “very active” trading group, hasn’t tipped his hand -- at least not publicly -- about which player the Falcons covet most. Dimitroff has orchestrated 17 draft trades with the Falcons, five in the first round, since taking over in 2008. His most memorable was trading five picks -- two first-rounders, two fourth-rounders and a second-rounder -- to move from 27th overall to No. 6 in order to select superstar receiver Julio Jones in 2011.

With Washington in rebuilding mode and listening to offers for the No. 2 overall pick, there's a school of thought that the desperate Falcons should risk it all and surrender their higher picks this season and a future first-rounder for a "can’t-miss" prospect such as Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young. The Falcons currently have their first-round pick, a second-rounder (47th), a third-rounder (78th), two fourth-rounders (119th and 143rd) and a seventh-rounder (228th). The last time a team made a comparable jump into the top 5 was 2016, when the Rams moved up from No. 15 to No. 1 to take quarterback Jared Goff. But the price was steep: The Rams traded the Tennessee Titans two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and two third-rounders over two years. (The Rams also received the Titans' 2016 fourth- and sixth-round picks.)

If the Falcons are not willing to make the bold move for Young, is it really worth trading into the top 5?

“Chase Young is the only special guy," one NFC executive said, referring to the defensive prospects in this draft. “Okudah is really good, but corners aren’t that valuable. If you’re really good up front, your corners don’t have to be that good.

Isaiah Simmons is a freak, but he doesn’t have a natural position. Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? I wouldn’t want to pick a guy in the top 5 if I wasn’t 100 percent sure what role he is gonna play."

Most assume the Falcons will target a defender, although Quinn made sure to mention how impressed he is with the offensive tackles and defensive tackles in this draft. Cornerback is a primary need because the Falcons released former Pro Bowler Desmond Trufant and are relying on youngsters Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield moving forward. Although Quinn said Sheffield has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback, he certainly wasn’t going to tout the speedy former fourth-round pick as anything less. Regardless of where Sheffield plays, the Falcons need to add a starting-caliber cornerback considering all the nickel played these days and the amount of offensive talent in the NFC South.

ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said the cornerback class goes seven deep in terms of players capable of starting immediately. While he ranks Okudah as the best of the bunch, Bowen said CJ Henderson would be a hit with the Falcons. Dimitroff called Henderson a “confident cover guy" who will get a lot of draft-day attention. Some of the other cornerbacks are Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, TCU’s Jeff Gladney, LSU's Kristian Fulton, Ohio State's Damon Arnette and Utah’s Jaylon Johnson, who is coming off right shoulder surgery.

The question for the Falcons might be whether to stay put at No. 16, where they still can get a solid starter at cornerback or defensive tackle, or make that move up and lose their second-round pick (47th overall) and perhaps a starting-caliber prospect for 2020 they could couple with the 16th pick.

Some have linked the Falcons to LSU pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson at No. 16. That might not be a bad pick, but several executives have compared him to former Falcons pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr., the eighth overall pick in 2015 who ended up being more of a one-year wonder before the Falcons let him walk to Tennessee this offseason. Quinn sounded more inclined to target an interior lineman with pass-rush ability than another edge rusher after signing Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency. South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw might be that guy after Brown, who is a likely top-5 pick.

“The one up the middle is the hardest to find," Quinn said. “So I would say you always kind of would think that space first -- guys who have pass-rush ability in tight quarters. That’s a hard thing to do inside. Just for me, not just for our own team where we’re at, but overall, I think those are the hardest guys to find."

The Falcons need to find somebody ready to help them make a postseason run this season.