While Clowney projects as a top-flight talent, the team may decide that making a significant investment at offensive tackle is more important to its long-term success.
In fact, the Falcons would actually be justified if they spent a top-five draft pick on an offensive tackle like Texas A&M's Jake Matthews—whether Clowney's on the board or not.
Here's why I think this scenario could play out in May.
Why Offensive Tackle Is a Need for Atlanta
While wide receiver Julio Jones is probably the most talented player on Atlanta's roster, quarterback Matt Ryan is the key to this franchise's success next year and beyond because he's playing the most important position in football.
You can have all the pass-rush you want on defense in this league, but you're still going to lose if you can't protect your own quarterback.
Atlanta hasn't done a good job of protecting Ryan in 2013. The team was also pedestrian up front when it won 13 games in 2012 after a lukewarm campaign in 2011.
Second-year man Lamar Holmes began the year starting at right tackle, but had to move to the left side—where he played in college—once veteran left tackle Sam Baker went down for year.
Since then, there's been a revolving door at right tackle and right guard for Atlanta, and neither position is settled at this point.
Despite Atlanta's problems with protecting Ryan this season, many Falcons fans are already making the case that the team shouldn't spend its first-round pick on an offensive tackle.
To support their case, proponents of that position argue that Atlanta ought to be able solve its major issue at right tackle by adding a mid-level draft prospect or veteran free agent for depth and moving Holmes back to the right side once Baker returns from his knee injury.
However, the problem with that logic is that Baker will be two years removed from his best season when he comes back. After six seasons, the Falcons know that he is an average NFL left tackle at best when he's healthy.
In addition, while Holmes has gotten better as the season goes along, it's premature to suggest that he's earned the right to go into 2014 without a legitimate challenger for his starting spot.
Indeed, based on the play we've seen this season from Atlanta, every returning starter on this team without "Ryan," "Jones" (Julio, not Terren) or "White" on the back of his jersey probably ought to go into training camp looking over his shoulder.
Put yourself in Falcons owner Arthur Blank's shoes.
You're a businessman, and you have $105 million invested in your quarterback whom you've watched take a beating under constant duress this season. Would you be willing to entrust the protection of that prized asset to a player who's merely "average" at left tackle as you move forward?
Would you put your faith in Holmes based on his entire body of work this season?
Let's take it a step further and look at things from the perspective of Falcons head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. If you were in their shoes, would you be willing to bet your job on Baker and Holmes?
That has to be the question you ask because it's highly unlikely that Blank will tolerate a losing season next year even if Ryan is hurt for an extended period.
Drafting an Offensive Tackle at the Top of the 1st Round Makes Sense
Let's not forget that a big part of the reason this team finds itself at 3-10 is because it made too many significant roster investments from the outside in as opposed to the inside out.
In the past, Atlanta has relied on average or competent play along the offensive line, but its blockbuster trade in the 2011 draft to acquire Jones seemed to be motivated by a desire to be elite at wide receiver.
Why demand elite talent from the players who catch from your quarterback, but be content with average ability from the men charged with protecting him?
Yes, Atlanta was able to win 13 games and come close to a Super Bowl with Baker playing at his best in 2012, but as we've learned this year, the old financial adage that "prior results do not guarantee future performance" applies to the NFL too.
Baker was already off to a shaky start this season before he went on injured reserve.
Even if Baker returns to his 2012 form next year, and even if Holmes becomes everything that Dimitroff hoped he'd be when he shocked everyone by picking him in the third round of the 2012 draft, an elite tackle prospect—whomever Atlanta deems that to be—could still push both men for playing time.
Imagine a three-man offensive tackle rotation featuring the 2012 version of Baker, an experienced Holmes and a plug-and-play guy like Matthews. The best two players would start at left and right tackle, and you'd have a strong backup if either of them went down with an injury.
Under that scenario, you wouldn't have to worry about bringing in journeymen like Jeremy Trueblood and Sean Locklear to put a Band-Aid on your leaky protection next year.
Most importantly, that scenario would go a long way towards keeping Ryan healthy and clean next season.
Moreover, the team could eventually phase Baker out and move forward with Holmes and its newly drafted tackle as the cornerstones of its rebuilt offensive line.
The Kansas City Chiefs could see a scenario like that play out this offseason a year after they spent the No. 1 pick in the draft on Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher—who's currently playing at right tackle—when they knew they had left tackle Branden Albert coming back.
If the Falcons do end up with a top-five draft pick—which is still a bigger if than a lot of Falcons fans would like to admit right now—they may have to make a decision between a pass-rusher like Clowney and a blue-blood tackle prospect like Matthews or Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio.
While there's no doubt that Atlanta could use a significant upgrade to its pass rush, the team's desire to protect its own franchise quarterback may win out because not even Clowney would overtake Ryan as the most important player on this squad.
With that in mind, don't be shocked if Atlanta chooses to go with an offensive tackle in May.
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