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2021 NFL Draft: Atlanta Falcons options in the first round

How might this go, exactly?

Butler v North Dakota State Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons will be on the clock here soon, something a lot of us have been waiting months to be able to say and are ready to have over with already.

It’s an exciting day for Falcons fans, if only because you might either have a new quarterback, a new, generational tight end or a boatload of picks to play with in the future should a trade go off for the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Whatever they do, it’s going to have seismic ramifications for the future of this team. Let’s break down exactly what our options are for the pick and what the consequences will be for all the big scenarios.

Draft a quarterback

This is the biggie. If the Falcons draft a quarterback, you are ushering in a new face of the franchise, albeit not with the intent to start him right away. With the San Francisco 49ers likely to take Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, it leaves two guys — Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — as viable picks to succeed Matt Ryan. It’s possible that Jones, who has not been linked to the team at all, could also be an option at No. 4 if he doesn’t go to the 49ers. If you take a quarterback at Pick 4, he’s your starter one day, full-stop. Backups don’t come from the first round of the draft unless they’re catastrophic busts.

If the Falcons take Lance, they are betting on his elite potential and ignoring only one game played since the 2019 season. People love Lance’s athleticism, his toughness, his intellect and his toolbox to play the position and play it well. He’d undoubtedly sit behind Ryan for a year or two and learn the position inside and out before starting in either 2022 or 2023. Some feel there are legitimate accuray concerns with Lance’s throwing ability and say he’s more of a boom/bust potential than you might hope picking this high, but others feel he might be, in the end, the best QB in this class with the right situation.

We’ve heard rumblings new general manager Terry Fontenot likes him a lot, and the team have been in lockstep with his pro day showings to scout him. He ran Arthur Smith’s offense at one of those sessions.

If they take Fields, they go with a guy some feel might unjustly slip out of the top-5 picks after a stellar college career. Some of the critiques of Fields’ play feel lazy and short-sighted; he proved on the tape why he should be an early pick. He might be the next undervalued QB who turns it right back around on the league with a heck of a career. He’s not flawless, but no prospect ever is. If the team takes him, it’ll return the Kennesaw, Ga., native to his home state to play for Atlanta. It’d be a great narrative, and would give the team a prospect who is more pro-ready and could push Ryan out of his job sooner than Lance would. He’d also most likely sit for a year to really get ready for the gig.

The Falcons have attended all of Fields’ pro days, though we’ve got no real juicy rumors linking him as the pick to surface just yet.

The team picking a quarterback means that Ryan’s not going to finish his career in Atlanta unless he retires within the next two seasons, which seems unlikely given that he has not significantly declined as a passer.

Draft Kyle Pitts

The sirens are ablaze with news of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. We’ve heard a bunch of rumors this week about the Falcons taking Pitts, and you can guess why some folks ‘round these parts to be a little skeptical about whether that actually happens.

He’s been the most popular name linked to the Falcons this offseason besides Lance, and his drafting would be a gigantic vote of confidence in Ryan’s ability to lead this team out of its three-year slump. Pitts would transform this from a very good arsenal into—on paper, at least—one of the very best offensive arsenals in the NFL, as long as Julio Jones is still on the roster in the fall. Ryan is a savvy veteran who loves to throw to the tight end, and Pitts would be a joy ride once he ultimately found his pro-level footing. It’d be a signal the team is going to try and make the most of Ryan’s remaining tenure with the team, however long that ultimately is.

Pitts publicly said he thinks Pick 4 is a quarterback, but of course he’d say that. A guy who really feels he’s going somewhere won’t show his hand on NFL Network before draft day. Pitts is the logical pick if the team wants to hold on drafting a quarterback right now and would be a huge, huge boost to this offense once he settled. A lot of folks out there, especially in the national media, think this is where the team goes Thursday night.

Draft Penei Sewell

The Oregon tackle has had curiously muted buzz of late, but is still considered the best offensive lineman in this class by most everyone you talk to. Sewell would be the pick if the Falcons are really intent on giving Ryan his best protection possible, which is hard to argue with given how many sacks he has absorbed in recent years. The lack of buzz for this selection has

Where would Sewell play? In year one, likely left guard, shoring up what looks today to be a huge hole in this offensive line. Long-term, he’d displace either Matthews or McGary at tackle, in all likelihood.

Draft a defender

For posterity’s sake, we have to mention this. What if the Falcons were truly enamored with a Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain, or Micah Parsons? Would they shock the world and select one at No. 4, despite no indication they’d do so and despite the obvious heat they’d take for such a selection?

Well, if they’re committed to the best player available philosophy and the best player on their board is somehow a defender, certainly. We view this as easily the least likely outcome on this list, but given that is technically a possibility, it belongs here.

Trade down

Though it’s the least likely of the three big scenarios (drafting a QB, drafting Pitts/Sewell, trading down) a QB-desperate team or a mid-singles team looking for an elite prospect could swap picks with Atlanta, giving the latter a nice treasure trove of return. There’s no buzz right now this is likely, though we know the team is interested, at least hypothetically.

With Denver trading for QB Teddy Bridgewater, it feels less certain they’d want to move up this year. We’ve heard a rumor about the Lions feeling the price was too steep to jump up a couple of spots for WR Ja’Marr Chase, so don’t be surprised if Terry Fontenot isn’t willing to send the pick elsewhere unless he gets a bunch of great picks in return. A first next year and a second this year feels like the starting offer.

If some team does want to jump up, the Falcons might try to grab a defender and really invest in the overall talent of this roster. It’s not nearly as exciting, but it could prove smart with the salary cap realities what they are right now to add good, inexpensive talent going ahead.

Potential suitors include the Dolphins, the Lions, the Patriots (who are reportedly sniffing around Jimmy Garoppolo), the Bears and the Washington Football Team. Others could surface in the final frantic hours before the draft.

Trade back up?

Though it’s not likely a new regime would want to expend draft assets, it’s more than possible the Falcons could trade back up into the first round to grab a guy and secure that fifth-year option.

The position of curiosity could be running back if one of the top guys like Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne started to slip low, or a really promising defender or offensive lineman was in reach. The compensation could be as high as a third-round pick, so don’t get your hopes up for late-night draft action. It’s certainly possible, though!

Whether it’s a QB, Pitts or a trade of some sort, the team is about to make a big move that we’ll be talking about for years to come. It’ll just be so nice to be able, finally, to discuss what that move is rather than speculate about it. Buckle up; we’re close to the finish line.