It’s officially draft week, and the Falcons are just days away from making a potentially franchise-altering decision. Yet, while the #4 pick has been dominating the discussion, the totality of the draft will ultimately determine Atlanta’s success down the road.
A good draft class can alter the direction of a franchise. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot is well aware of this fact, having seen what the Saints’ staggering haul in the 2017 NFL Draft did for their roster. Coming out of this draft with good players is the end goal, but there are many different paths the Falcons could take to get there.
So, with the draft on the horizon, what should the Falcons’ plan of attack actually be? Here are our recommendations.
Embrace taking the players you love
Nothing would truly surprise me with the #4 pick, but based on everything we’ve heard to this point, Atlanta’s selection seems likely to be either a tight end (not strictly a need, though a welcome upgrade) and quarterback (a long-term potential need but not an immediate one). From there, the draft can unspool in any number of directions, but I’d like to see the Falcons embrace that same ethos throughout this class: If you see a potentially great player that doesn’t address one of the truck-sized holes on your roster, do it anyways.
After all, otherwise what was this offseason about? The Falcons are a team that would like to contend this year but has a longer roadmap to follow, one that involves replacing stars and starters alike with affordable, talented young players to return to long-term relevance. They signed a ton of low-priced free agents to give them fallback options for 2021, and realistically they’re going to need several of them to start. I’d love to see some of the team’s picks align with immediate, urgent needs like safety and guard, but I genuinely think this team will be best-served by trying to snag the brightest lights on their board, even if we’re left with a frustrating hole or two.
After all, the seemingly inevitable Grady Jarrett extension ought to give them enough cash to chase a couple of free agents this summer if it breaks that way, anyways. I’m choosing to ignore the possibility that the cash could come from a Julio Jones trade. -Dave Choate
Trade down again and again and fully embrace best player available
Terry Fontenot has preached his mantra early, saying over and over again that he is a proponent of going best player available. When you aren’t drafting for need, you have less of a need to trade up to grab what you hope will be an immediate, impact starter. Thomas Dimitroff did that a number of times, however, his success rate was definitely below 50%. You have so much less margin for error considering those picks he gave up to make those selections.
All I am asking is for us to go full George Costanza and do the complete opposite of what got us here. Look at teams like the Baltimore Ravens, with its historic general manager Ozzie Newsome saying they tried trading back frequently because it gave the Ravens a better chance of hitting on good players. Even the best admit part of the equation of building a great team is simply a numbers game.
Fontenot is not drafting for 2021. He should be drafting for 2021 through 2026. The Falcons need young, cheap players. The best way to add those is through the draft. The more Fontenot can add through the draft, and the more he can stick to adding the best player available, the better this team will be down the road. - Matt Chambers
Try building for future while, somehow, helping Matt Ryan win now
Trying to pinpoint what exactly the new-look Atlanta Falcons will do is like trying to play mini-golf on the moon. Everything feels so precarious and unable to settle as your golf ball and club won’t stay down due to the lack of gravity. None of us knows exactly what this team will do, but should can be reasoned with now.
If I was hired as the general manager, I’d stay at four and try to decipher between taking QBs Justin Fields and Trey Lance or TE Kyle Pitts, since I buy that the Niners will draft Mac Jones. I’m going to draft Pitts, if only because I trust more his ceiling than I do the two QBs. It’s a risk to let them go, but it’s taking advantage of what you have to give Matt Ryan potentially his best tight end since Tony Gonzalez.
In the later rounds, I’d try to find a steady running back to pair with Mike Davis, a good corner to pair with A.J. Terrell, a mid-round OL to compete for left guard and some sort of developmental pass rusher with my first couple of picks. In what order? No idea, but that’s why I don’t make the big bucks. - Cory Woodroof
Let’s go all in!
I completely understand the mindset of looking years down the road, and I’m sure when you get years down the road, you’ll appreciate it. But unlike a lot of teams that actually need to strictly rebuild, the Falcons can play to win now while also rebuilding. The NFL is very “What have you done for me lately?” type league, to where coaches don’t get 5+ years unless they are competitive as soon as possible. I think a lot of folks underestimate the importance of having good coaches and game plans in place. The Falcons were awful last year, right? Going 4-12 usually screams “we aren’t good.” The team lost 8 games where the point differential was 7 or fewer points. We saw what coaching did when Dan Quinn was removed, the then 0-5 Falcons immediately won three of their next four games. Now you insert a great offensive mind in Arthur Smith and defensive genius in Dean Pees? I’m optimistic.
I think you take the generational tight end in Kyle Pitts, pair him with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst and see what happens with a quality offensive game plan. If the team wants to take a mid-round quarterback like Kellen Mond, Davis Mills, etc. and hope that they turn out to be a potential starter in a few years, I’m also okay with that. You can rebuild while also trying to win a Super Bowl. – Evan Birchfield
Trading down and stockpile talent, no matter the position
Sure, drafting at the top half of each round is sure to provide a better pool of talent, and with nine selections in this year’s draft, the Falcons can load up a bit on the roster. However, I will forever be a proponent of trading down, adding selections in the present draft will also loading up for future drafts. It was not a tactic that the previous regime showed often which can be a solid case to why the team has not had great depth over the years.
This year, the Falcons should truly consider this plan of action. At this point, we all know what the draft needs are, but as I watched the 2020 season play out, I often said to myself that the Falcons are in need of difference making talent in general. With a draft approach that focuses on BPA by their new general manager, Terry Fontenot, it will be interesting to see if he sticks close to that strategy and build a better all-around roster. - Eric Robinson
Prepare for the future
Regardless of who the selection is at 4th overall—Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Kyle Pitts, or even a trade down—this draft will be about setting up the Falcons for the future. A new era is beginning now with Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot, and the duo must first decide whether that era will feature Matt Ryan or a new QB at the helm. I’m sure everyone knows my preference is Justin Fields, should he be available at 4, but Kyle Pitts would also be a forward-thinking selection.
At the end of the day, the team isn’t likely to be a major contender in 2021. The focus must be on 2022 and beyond, and nailing this draft class will be the key to making Atlanta competitive in both the long and short term. I’d focus on adding the top player on my board at 4 and then bolstering the rest of the team through “best player at a position of need” picks on Day 2. The Falcons need a lot of help on defense and still have some holes to patch on offense, but with 9 draft selections and 3 picks in the top-75, they can go a long way in fixing the major personnel issues on this team. At the end of the day, the biggest improvement—at least in 2021—is likely to come from the coaching upgrades. - Kevin Knight
Talent should be all that matters
This is obviously a very general statement, but let’s dig into a bit. Terry Fontenot has said he won’t pass on a player they believe will have a good NFL career because he doesn’t fill a specific need. I think that’s the right mindset to take. NFL rosters change much more frequently and much more quickly that people realize, but the draft still offers the best opportunity to get a good player cheaply. It’s also inherently a gamble, with players failing to pan out more frequently than turning into a Pro Bowler.
That gamble makes it riskier to put the draft at the center of a roster-building strategy. Again, I agree with Fontenot in the importance of addressing team needs through free agency with players that have proven it at the NFL level. Therefore, the draft should be approached with the sole intention of landing potential difference-makers. Teams will have an entire season to chart a new plan forward and adjust the roster with the resources at hand.
A good example of how this strategy can be beneficial to addressing team needs as well is the Calvin Ridley selection in 2018. Wide receiver was far from Atlanta’s biggest need in the first round, but Ridley was very high on the team’s board. Selecting Ridley made it easier for the Falcons to trade Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots for a second-round pick. Atlanta then flipped that second-round pick to get Hayden Hurst, addressing a key need at tight end with a good player. Ridley has proven to be an excellent addition, and it doesn’t matter that the Falcons didn’t need a wide receiver. Add talent, regardless of the position. - Will McFadden