Two major trades shook up the NFL yesterday. The first saw the Dolphins picking up a haul in exchange for moving down to #12, allowing the 49ers to soar to #3 and get their quarterback of the future in about a month. The second also involved the Dolphins, who decided to move back up to #6, sending the Eagles down to #12 and likely confirming that Philadelphia will roll with Jalen Hurts in 2021.
Both of those trades had implications for the Falcons, at least on paper. The 49ers moving up means another quarterback will go in the top three, while the Dolphins pulling back up to #6 means there are now two teams immediately behind the Falcons who have no interest in a quarterback. If Atlanta was hoping to get their own quarterback of the future, one of their top options could disappear at #3, and if they were hoping to swap down, their options in that regard may also be impacted.
That make this a good time to take a closer look at what this all mean for Atlanta. Let’s start with a couple of important qualifiers:
- We genuinely have no idea what the Falcons are planning to do at #4. The best reporting we’ve seen to this point, from The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz and Tori McElhaney in particular, has indicated that Atlanta has a standing level of interest in drafting their future quarterback. They’ve backed that up by sending a full contingent to pro days for Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Zach Wilson, and they even showed up in force for Trevor Lawrence. It’s safe to assume the team is mulling a quarterback, but not that they’re a lock to get one.
- The Falcons are not technically finished with free agency, and could paper over a major need entirely if they free up some space via a Grady Jarrett extension or restructure. This is less relevant—I doubt that happens anytime soon and that the players they pick up will be impactful enough to change draft plans in a meaningful way—but hey, just in case.
Now, there are essentially four routes the Falcons could take at this point, in no particular order.
Staying at #4, picking a QB
We know the Jaguars are taking Trevor Lawrence at #1. We feel pretty confident that the Jets are taking Zach Wilson at #2. We know the 49ers just traded up for a quarterback, but we don’t know whether it’s Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Mac Jones at this juncture.
Either way, the Falcons are going to be sitting there at #4 with two of the top five quarterbacks in this class available to them. If there is not a huge dropoff from the third quarterback on Atlanta’s board to their fourth—or second to third, if things fall the right way—then Atlanta may well make it four quarterbacks in a row.
This move will split an already fractured fanbase, but that was going to be true regardless of who went #3. The selection won’t play much in 2021 if Matt Ryan stays healthy, but a post-June 1 trade in 2022 could put them in play for the starting job in 2022. It would be a move the Falcons would be inclined to make if they are planning for a post-Ryan future for reasons that concern salary cap and a desire to build around a much younger quarterback with a different skillset, as a new head coach and front office might be wont to do. Considering Mac Jones, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields are all rumored/reported to be in play for the 49ers at #3, it’s quite possible a player the Falcons love will still get to them. If they’re truly in on a quarterback, expect them to pounce.
Of course, if they truly covet a quarterback going in the top three and now know San Francisco intends to
I genuinely view this as the least likely scenario, simply because I think the Falcons know damn well they’re not good enough to shed a whole bunch of draft picks they could use to stock their roster. If they truly, truly must have a quarterback expected to go in the top three picks—let’s just toss out Zach Wilson and Justin Fields—they might have to swap up to #2 to get that done.
It takes two to tango, and the Jets are probably not going to be eager to move away from their own chance to replace a partially ruined Sam Darnold for Wilson. That means this might be more expensive than the average two spot jump, and for a quarterback Atlanta would be expected to sit at least one year. At the very least, their chances of contending in 2021 would be further dented, if indeed they’re as concerned as Arthur Blank and Rich McKay have claimed to be about contending this year. I think ultimately the Jets will have little interest in moving and this is a dead end, but since we know very little about this new regime, at least we’ve covered it off.
Staying at #4, picking someone else
If Atlanta’s quarterback interest is not sincere or the last one they truly love is gone at #3, they will likely pivot to simply picking the best player on their board at #4. The possibilities there are extremely wide—we have no idea who Terry Fontenot and company truly covet—but there are some candidates that seem more likely than others.
The first is Kyle Pitts, the freakishly athletic tight end who Arthur Smith probably dreams about every time he closes his eyes. Pitts would give Atlanta a potentially lethal supporting cast—and they already have a very good one—and given Matt Ryan the kind of option over the middle he hasn’t had since the first couple of years of Tony Gonzalez. Pitts would be a killer short-term option for Ryan, a terrific long-term fit for this offense even if they switch quarterbacks, and a lethal combination with Hayden Hurst in at least the near-term.
The second is Penei Sewell. The tackle is being hyped as one of the better prospects at the position in years, and even if that’s hyperbole, he could start somewhere on this line immediately and make an impact. Atlanta’s curiously quiet free agency period along the offensive line—they let go of James Carpenter, re-signed Matt Gono, and otherwise haven’t touched the group to this point—might suggest they feel confident about their chances of landing Sewell. If Kaleb McGary continues his upward trajectory, Atlanta would have four out of five spots along their offensive line nailed down, an ideal outcome for an offense that wants to be physical on the ground and effectively protect their quarterback.
Finally, Atlanta could address defense. That could mean Micah Parsons at linebacker, Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain II at cornerback, or...I guess someone else entirely. Nobody else seems like they should really be in the conversation, but again, we don’t know what Atlanta thinks of this draft class just yet. This would be the most surprising move of the bunch, but would give Atlanta a potential playmaker on a defense that admittedly needs one badly.
Of course, if none of those options seem appealing, they could...
Did Atlanta’s chances of moving down improve or get worse after yesterday? Opinions varied.
Wouldn’t shock me one bit if Falcons GM Terry Fontenot is getting texts and phone calls at this very moment. That 4th overall pick is valued commodity right now.— Eric Robinson (@_Eric_Robinson) March 26, 2021
For the past week I've thought trading back was the #Falcons Plan A, but questioned if it'd happen.— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) March 26, 2021
My initial reaction = I think their ability to trade back got a lot harder today. Which means figuring out Plan B i.e. who they'll take at 4 becomes the focus for next 34 days
I tend to think any team nervous about sliding by the Panthers is going to want to move up, and the question concerns whether they’ll view a simple hop past 8 sufficient or whether they think they need to get all the way to #4 to beat out a Carolina team chasing their quarterback. That’s especially true with the knowledge that the Panthers probably can’t make a deal with the division rival Falcons barring a truly blockbuster offer, and even then Terry Fontenot may not be in the mood to help hand Carolina a potential franchise player.
Teams that are champing at the bit to get Kyle Pitts or Penei Sewell may also be tempted to move up, and there is no shortage of teams picking in the top 15 or so picks that could use a a blindside protector. That just feels less likely than a quarterback-needy team feeling desperate.
I don’t want to steal any more thunder from Matt Chambers, who will have a piece at 3 p.m. about the trading down scenario, so suffice to say the likelihood of this depends on how badly Atlanta wants a quarterback versus how badly teams looking to ensure they get their quarterback want to get a deal done.
With the big 49ers trade, though, the Falcons are likely going to be left to mull the right player at #4 unless a team blows them away with an offer to move down. All the information available to us indicates they’ll at least mull a quarterback there, but whether that’s true or not, It’s too bad we have to wait more than a month to find out who that right player is.