In just a few days, the 2021 NFL Draft will be here, and it won’t take all that long before we’ll know who the Falcons intend to take with the #4 overall pick. It’s been a nervy, argumentative few months for fans wondering who the first huge splash of the Terry Fontenot era is going to prove to be, and whether the decision will prove to be one that sets the franchise on a prosperous course or a level of constant failure we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.
That should be making me plenty nervous, and yet I’m genuinely not. With days to go until we get some clarity, I’ve made peace with the warring options Atlanta’s considering, regardless of which one they choose.
I have not gone into an NFL Draft with less stress since...maybe 2010? That was the year the Falcons picked Sean Weatherspoon and I was almost positive they were going to select him, and the team was fresh off their first back-to-back winning seasons ever. Times were good at that moment, which led to rare good feelings, even if they didn’t exactly last.
Times in 2021 are decidedly not good, not with a cap-strapped team with major holes coming off three straight losing seasons. There’s also very little reason to feel particularly certain about the course Atlanta’s going to take, because there are three obvious routes in the form of best non-quarterback available (which is commonly mocked to be either Kyle Pitts or Penei Sewell but could be a defender like Patrick Surtain if the Falcons talk themselves into him), best quarterback available (likely to be either Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or both), or a trade down to collect additional picks. Frankly, we haven’t gotten a single concrete clue about what this team intends to do to this point, and into the vacuum we’ve pumped our particular hopes, dreams and fears.
So why not worry? Even with a new regime in place, history tells us the Falcons are prone to failing in unintended and unfortunate ways, so confidence should be harder to come by than it often is. But there are some good reasons to not freak out about the #4 pick in the final days before it happens.
- Because these are all good options. My preference is that Atlanta either snags a quarterback they love for the future, given the rumblings that they may not keep Matt Ryan around for the long term, or take a short hop down in the top 12 to pick up additional selections and start attacking their varied needs with as much vigor as possible. A drop down in the top ten could mean snagging a player like Patrick Surtain, a potentially difference-making corner for a team that certainly needs one, and a shot at another top 15 pick in 2022 if all goes well, while snagging a player with the upside of Justin Fields or Trey Lance could result in a rare orderly transition from one franchise quarterback or another.
Both of those are good options, but even if you’re adamant about one of those courses of action, I think you have to admit that the other options are strong on paper. Kyle Pitts and Ja’Marr Chase could be massive difference makers for this offense, especially with Julio Jones potentially exiting in the next year or two, while Penei Sewell could be an impact addition to an offensive line that still needs more help. Hell, while we’ve gotten no indications Atlanta’s leaning this way, a Surtain or Micah Parsons could be a true game changer for a defense in desperate need of improvement, if the Falcons want to throw a curve ball. Regardless of the road, the Falcons will land one of the very best players in this class, an opportunity that just doesn’t come along that often.
- Because the Falcons have vowed to prioritize the best players available. While I’m not going to be 100% in love with all of them, I believe they’re sincere about that, or as sincere as you can be recognizing that need will always be a factor. Their pressing need for a pass rusher is not going to drive them to focus on moving down to get one, or forcing one at #4 just because they haven’t come close to effectively scratching that itch in free agency. Their best player may not be the draft community’s consensus best player, but until we see otherwise, it seems like a safe assumption the Falcons will truly pushing for the most gifted player in front of them and won’t be scared off by, say, the fact that they already have a bunch of tight ends on the roster.
- Because the #4 pick isn’t the final word. Atlanta has eight picks (and with a trade down, more) following the #4 pick. It’s been hard to talk about those with so much buzz and so much potential with that top pick, but the Falcons can stack talent and potentially acquire 2-3 more 2021 starters with those selections if they play their cards right. The #4 pick does not, in other words, entirely define this draft class anymore than (hopefully) Keanu Neal defined the 2016 class, where the Falcons would go on to scoop up Deion Jones, Austin Hooper, De’Vondre Campbell, and Wes Schweitzer. That’s absolutely a best case scenario, but the point is that the offseason is not over on Thursday night.
The bottom line is that the Falcons will have to try very hard not to come out of Thursday night without either one of the very best players in this draft class or a bevy of new draft selections and a potentially terrific player. For me, at least, it’s not hard to be excited about that outcome, regardless of who they wind up with.