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What do we actually know about the Falcons’ 2021 NFL Draft plans?

Our opinions are strong, the rumors are flying, but our known knowns are very limited.

NFL Draft Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

tWe are a little more than two weeks away from the start of perhaps the most critical draft class since 2008 for the Atlanta Falcons. This is the first time since that year that Atlanta’s selecting in the top 5, and whether they select a potential generational tight end or top-rated tackle, their next franchise quarterback, or trade down for a bevy of additional future picks, they have an opportunity to change the trajectory of the franchise for the better. No matter what they do, they’re also sitting on eight selections they need to maximize to build up this roster both now and in the future. That makes this a truly exciting time to be a Falcons fan.

The question that has consumed this fanbase, predictably, is what Atlanta’s going to do with their first-round pick. Fans have split into multiple camps, which today essentially align with what we perceive to be the team’s three big paths: Draft a quarterback, pick the best player available at another position, or make a move down. All of those camps are passionate, can (and sometimes even do) marshal compelling arguments, and are often convinced that path is the only right one for the Falcons, which is going to lead to some traditional draft night fury. What all those groups have in common is that they—we, I’m not going to pretend I don’t care deeply about this—are operating without any concrete promises or knowledge of what this front office plans to do with the No. 4 pick.

Given all these swirling questions, I thought it would be worth reviewing what we actually, definitively know about Atlanta’s plans. Spoiler alert: It’s not a lot.

Facts

  • The Falcons hired Terry Fontenot, a longtime Saints executive with a background in pro personnel. Fontenot, in turn, brought aboard executives like former Washington draft guru Kyle Smith and highly regarded Saints scout Dwaune Jones who have strong draft backgrounds. We know their backgrounds and track records, but little about how they will work together and prioritize in April.

There are a few breadcrumbs the new general manager has dropped along the way. Fontenot has talked, over and over again, about acquiring the best player available in the draft, as well as the importance of “stacking” quarterback talent and ensuring the team has been diligent in evaluating top options at “the most important position” on their roster. They did re-work Matt Ryan’s contract, but reporting indicates that’s not necessarily wedding the team to their quarterback over the long haul. They have all but promised they’ll draft a quarterback, just not necessarily at No. 4, and The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney has reported just that.

Atlanta’s been visible at every big quarterback’s pro days so far—Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones—and Arthur Smith showed up to tight end Kyle Pitts’ Pro Day to watch with what we assume was unrestrained glee, while the team’s brass has also made appearances at Oregon’s pro day for tackle Penei Sewell, Penn State’s for linebacker Micah Parsons, and may well have been in Alabama partly to drool over top cornerback prospect Patrick Surtain II. They have checked in on everyone you would think might be an option at No. 4, and it would be more noteworthy if they had not done so.

  • Atlanta has tried to fill its needs through free agency as affordably as possible. The Falcons have signed depth or potential starters at running back (Mike Davis), guard/center (Josh Andrews), defensive line (Jonathan Bullard, re-signing Steven Means) linebacker (Brandon Copeland, Barkevious Mingo), cornerback (Fabian Moreau), safety (Erik Harris) and punter (Dom Maggio). They also traded for a blocking tight end in Lee Smith, and brought back key reserves including Christian Blake, Jaeden Graham, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and Tyler Hall and re-signed Pro Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo.

The team now has a few critical needs after all that activity. They still look shaky at left guard and center, because though Matt Hennessy will likely start at center and Matt Gono and Andrews will compete at left guard, I’ve repeatedly expressed some discomfort with the prospect of that happening without more competition. They need help at defensive end/more generally with their shaky group of pass rushers at linebacker and defensive end, definitely at safety, and that curious empty backup quarterback spot behind Matt Ryan. This team has pledged to draft the best player available, but it’s worth noting that this team will have to add talent to those groups before the season lest their weaknesses there sink them entirely. They are not in a position where the intersection of draft board and need is so dire that they will have to take, say, a pass rusher at No. 4. We can’t totally rule out this team pulling the surprise of recent history and snagging one there, but I think that hasn’t been brought up as a possibility of late because those reporters with even a passing idea of what Atlanta’s planning to do are not hearing anything about it.

  • The Falcons are in a sweet, sweet spot. Seriously, this team hasn’t had an opportunity like this in forever, and while we always worry they’ll blow it, it’s a fact that it’s a rare and thrilling opportunity.

That is the extent of what we know about this team’s draft plans. We can add rumors about the team’s interest in Kyle Pitts, their appreciation for Trey Lance, and other teams being willing to risk it all to get their quarterback via a trade up, as well as reporting concerning what Fontenot and Smith think of drafting a quarterback themselves. All of those rumors provide fuel and fodder for the months-long argument going on here and everywhere Falcons fans gather, but none of them are concrete.

That’s not shocking in the least. We knew Thomas Dimitroff’s tendencies and were still sometimes caught off guard by his first round selections, with the most notable example being Chris Lindstrom and then the trade up for Kaleb McGary back in 2019. With Fontenot, who did not really cut his teeth with the draft and is entering his first NFL Draft as the team’s general manager, we really only have statements and minor leaks of questionable origin to go off of. Anyone who feels extremely confident they know what this team is going to do right now may well be right, but it’s not because they actually know what this team is going to do.

As someone who has been pretty convinced this team either gets the quarterback they want at No. 4 or trades down for a while now given the heat and light around those two avenues, I’m sharing this only as a useful reminder of the limitations of our knowledge at the moment. Chances are a huge swath of the fanbase will be surprised—angered, even—by what happens on the draft’s first night with our Atlanta Falcons.

The biggest favor you can do yourself right now is acknowledge that minus a major leak in the days ahead or the team simply announcing their plans for some unfathomable reason, we all have no idea what Atlanta’s plans are for the No. 4 pick, and what best player available means to them when all but three quarterbacks will be available. Be ready for anything.