We’re about two weeks away from the rest of our lives, so to speak, if you’re an Atlanta Falcons fan.
Night one of the 2021 NFL Draft has the potential for Falcons fans to be the most consequential night for the franchise since Keanu Neal’s knee bounced off an NFC Championship berth (give or take), perhaps since that one night in February 2017 that I am not legally, ethically or safely able to describe or say in name.
Drafting in the top four picks of any NFL Draft means that your franchise, in one way or another, has reached some sort of crossroads, either from being very bad or somehow lucking out with a traded pick. Perhaps you lost your star quarterback for the year, or perhaps you just kind of stunk and will now see a new coach and general manager leading your team. No matter what, things have gotten serious.
This is the section of the draft where your potential pick is in those fancy ESPN commercials; it means you’re going to take a player people know, people are excited about and people think could, in some way, change your franchise. It’s no small place to be in this time of year.
The Falcons’ terrible 2020 has given them a chance at a fresh start with a new coach and GM, and they might very well take a quarterback to cap this process of renewal. As Dave Choate noted earlier today, we have no idea what direction they’re going to embark upon, but quarterback has consistently come up as a path they could take this April at #4. If it turns out what they don’t truly love one of their options, though, what then?
Trading down might be a popular option in that scenario and could yield plenty of draft capital for the years to come. But what if they don’t take a quarterback and don’t see any team get desperate and throw them the farm in a trade package?
It’s a pretty logical place for the team to find themselves in for that fateful Thursday night. The team has been connected to just about every rumor out there as to what they could do, which either means they’re putting on a heck of a misinformation campaign or even they genuinely don’t know what to expect two weeks from now. Taking a quarterback still seems like a strong potential avenue for them to follow, and maybe a team like Denver, New England, Chicago or Washington makes the right kind of offer to move the pick.
But it’s very possible neither of those things materialize. Perhaps the front office decides to run with Matt Ryan for the next couple of seasons and grab an elite talent while they’re in the position to do so.
If you’re there, it’s time to push all the chips in on the incumbent quarterback.
As much as Terry Fontenot might want to think about his porous defense, he might also want to realize that the iron might be starting to heat up on offense and that explosive draft investment on that side of the ball could be the best route to go if you’re buying into the idea Ryan can win you a Super Bowl.
Think about it. If the team doesn’t take a quarterback and doesn’t trade down, you’re taking a player on offense, full stop. There are no Chase Youngs or Nick Bosas in this draft; no defensive player can really be justifiable at Pick 4 unless you really, truly, just have to have Patrick Surtain II or Micah Parsons. In that case, you know the options: tight end Kyle Pitts, offensive tackle Penei Sewell, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, maybe offensive tackle Rashawn Slater if that whole “Slater is better than Sewell” thing holds water.
If you don’t take the quarterback or trade the pick, you are making a direct investment in whatever Super Bowl potential the combination of Ryan’s play and Arthur Smith’s play calling will give you. Either you pair Pitts with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to create legitimate nightmares for defenses, you give Ryan the best protection he’s ever had with Sewell (or Slater?) probably at left guard for a year or two or pair Chase with Jones and Ridley to create the de-facto best receiving trio in the NFL. That’s a legitimate, discernible boost no matter how you slice it.
Don’t stop there! Rather than tossing early picks the defense’s way, let Dean Pees and his coaching staff sort out the guys on the roster and spent good draft capital later in the rounds to help out there. Use your top three picks on the offensive side of the ball and really give that side of the ball a chance to be special rather than balancing out what you’ve got.
In round two, you could grab a really nice, plug-in left guard or a running back like Javonte Williams. In round three, you could still land a pretty respectable interior offensive lineman or a running back like Kenneth Gainwell or Michael Carter. Basically, you have three top picks to address the top three issues on the offense: left guard, running back, another dynamic pass-catcher (assuming Matt Hennessy can play center). Sort out the first two and you sleep better. Sort out all three, and you’re having a hard time getting to sleep because you’re so excited.
If the Falcons are going to be serious threats to the NFC South anytime soon, they have to figure out how to score on Tampa Bay’s defense. Father Time will eventually come for Tom Brady, but the defense will be what it is until Todd Bowles gets a head coaching job or a cap crunch arrives. Carolina’s offense is starting Sam Darnold, might lose Joe Brady after this year and its defense is still a work in progress but getting there sooner than expected. New Orleans has lost some talent and is now figuring out life-post Drew Brees. The gap is open for some team to seize some real estate, and it’s past time the Falcons do so.
If the Falcons really aren’t going to take a quarterback this year, it’s probably not because “their guy” isn’t available. With players like Trey Lance or Justin Fields (or maybe both) available at pick 4, not taking one is a conscious decision. It’s a vote of confidence Ryan’s way to the extent that you believe a Lombardi is possible with his quarterbacking. If that’s the door you choose, you need to secure the foundation of your offense to give him every chance possible to live up to that faith.
Using three early draft picks on offense would, basically, give the defense a longer time table for recovery, but Pees’ hiring buys you some time and prevents that side of the ball being a complete liability, if he’s up to the task. If the Falcons can get by with the ceiling of a respectable, if not special, defense, they might thrive by pumping 2021 draft resources into the offense and seeing if that’s enough baking soda to make this volcano erupt once again.
This isn’t to suggest this plan is sealed in bronze. If they don’t take a quarterback, draft Pitts and then take a secondary player or defensive lineman in the second and/or third rounds, you will not find any complaints here. They need some help on defense! They’re probably going to go Best Player Available (TM) with Fontenot’s public sentiment on the process, and if they use most of their picks on shoring up that side of the ball, it’d be all too welcome.
No matter what, not drafting a quarterback at #4 this year is a statement as much as drafting one would be. It’s a sign that Ryan is the guy here for the foreseeable future and that the team might want to give him the best possible situation for the next couple of years to see if their confidence in him will pay off with a Super Bowl. If that’s the course they choose, they should do everything they can to ensure his success, and hope they can make the offense thrive again while the defense does enough to make this team a contender.