The Falcons have turned the keys over to an entirely new front office, one with a first-time general manager but a ton of experienced evaluators, including Terry Fontenot himself. What we don’t know is whether that experience is going to translate into better results in the draft.
Remember, the pretty consistent knock on former general manager Thomas Dimitroff was not that he didn’t know his way around a draft class, but that the team too often squandered late round picks and whiffed on the lines. That reputation was somewhat dented by Dimitroff nailing the Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom selections and scooping up late round contributors like Foye Oluokun and Russell Gage in recent years, but on balance I think Dimitroff’s legacy in Atlanta should be that he was a good drafter who gambled freely with picks and was undone more by his consistent inability to land impact free agents than what he did in April.
But as the Falcons gear up for a new era, can we reasonably expect them to do better than Dimitroff out of the gate in the draft? That’s unclear, but one study suggests if they’re better-than-average at finding contributors, they’ll be ahead of the curve over the past few seasons.
At Pro Football Focus, Timo Riske took a closer look at draft classes leaguewide using Wins Above Replacement (or WAR), a popular baseball statistic that has wormed its way into NFL analysis, from 2017-2020. It turns out no matter how you slice things, the Falcons rank around the middle of the pack over the last four seasons. They’re 17th in WAR above what was expected from their picks, with the Chiefs obviously leading the way because Patrick Mahomes has been that much better than just about any 10th pick in history. The Falcons are 13th in terms of how consistently their picks exceeded those expectations, 14th when you weight classes by draft round, and 16th if you weigh things by both draft round and expected outcomes per position. They’ve been very close to league average, in other words.
The 2017 class drags things down. No one from that year is currently on the active roster, with Takk McKinley talking his way out of town, Duke Riley traded to the Eagles, Sean Harlow signing with the Cardinals, Damontae Kazee and Brian Hill heading for free agency, and Eric Saubert on the Jaguars. The 2018 class has delivered a lot more value and all those players are still with the team, but 2019 has been hurt by the release of 5th rounder Jordan Miller and 6th rounder Marcus Green, as well as Qadree Ollison being completely mothballed up to this point. The jury is still out on 2020, but the projected WAR for that class is no doubt being lifted by fine rookie seasons for A.J. Terrell, Mykal Walker, and Sterling Hofrichter.
Atlanta’s front office will not be able to build through the draft alone, or even come close to doing so, given the number of holes on the roster and the number of picks they’ll wield even if they trade down in the first round. For this team to come close to returning to the salad days of 2016, however, they’ll need to be great at both ferreting out value in free agency and better than the last front office at drafting. That’ll be easier said than done even with the roughly average results of the past four years, so we’ll see what the Falcons have in store for us in April.