It’s the question keeping many of us on our toes, wondering if all this excitement and anticipation is all for naught in regard to our beloved Atlanta Falcons.
“Is there a wrong answer to what the Falcons could do with the fourth-overall pick?”
The blunt answer to give right now is, “nobody knows,” but there’s more to dissect. Right now, there are three horses jockeying for support in the fanbase: pick a quarterback, pick an elite prospect that’s not a quarterback, trade down and amass picks. Trading up would seem to be off the table, and we hope it is.
You’re not wrong for wanting any of these outcomes, necessarily. In drafting a quarterback, the Falcons could solidify their future at the field’s most important position for the next decade-plus in one of the more intriguing classes in a while. In drafting a guy like Kyle Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell, they could bolster this offense with a potential Canton-bound prospect and give Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith the best chance to rev up an elite offense right now. In trading down, you could fill out the gaps on this roster over the next two years and bank on that helping you engineer a turnaround over the long haul.
Picking at four isn’t something this regime wants to do again anytime soon, but it’s not something you want to screw up, either. There is a lot of worry and hand-wringing about this backfiring on the Falcons (when your muscle memory is this dire, it happens), so let’s try and figure out how each of these scenarios could go wrong.
Drafting a quarterback
The clear answer to the dangers in drafting a quarterback are that you quite simply pick the wrong guy.
While we all try to do our couch scouting in guessing who these players will become, the Jets trading 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold to the Panthers for a handful of draft picks is proof enough you never really know how any of this goes, and how dependent success is on the quality of the landing spot. Not even Andrew Luck had the type of career folks thought he would when drafted as an assumed 100% guarantee in 2012.
The Falcons are studying these quarterback prospects closely, for certain, if picking one is even a remote possibility. You don’t want to mess this up given how franchise-altering a great quarterback can be. While we’ve seen our fair share of misses in recent memory in the draft when picking a quarterback, hitting on one can change your franchise: ask the Kansas City Chiefs what wonders the right QB draft pick can do for you.
The other hazard to drafting a quarterback this year is Matt Ryan’s viability. If he’s really got plenty of football left in him and plays extraordinarily well in Arthur Smith’s offense this year and gets the team back on track, the team will find itself where the Green Bay Packers do right now. Can you really trade or cut a guy who just got you this many wins? Fontenot might say yes—he’s shown early on that he’s looking to the future—but the rest of the organization is a larger question mark.
If you draft a quarterback and sit him more than a year, you risk that quarterback getting stale and missing key reps for his development. We don’t know how Jordan Love will do in Green Bay sitting another year. Ryan is still a very good quarterback in the right situation and hasn’t seemed to dramatically decline, but what happens if you both whiff on your next franchise quarterback and Ryan falls off a cliff? If you’re lucky, you’re back in the top 10 with another bite at the apple, but that’s not a good place to be in.
While drafting a quarterback can change your team’s future dramatically, drafting the wrong one is the risk here, full stop.
Drafting a non-QB at four
Hey, let’s be honest: Kyle Pitts seems pretty great.
You can’t guarantee he’s definitely the next Tony Gonzalez, but you can guess with his body of work and talent that he should have an excellent career. Adding him to this offense with a head coach who loves utilizing tight ends could give Atlanta its most lethal attack since 2016, bar none.
Drafting a guy like Penei Sewell could, eventually, give Atlanta’s quarterback the best left tackle protection in the business if his potential lives up. Drafting a player like Ja’Marr Chase could keep the team right where it wants to be in hitting defenses with scary talent at the wideout position, even if Julio Jones is entering the final phase of his career in Atlanta.
The risk here, besides the obvious one of one of these guys not panning out (which is true for every player, as we outlined above with quarterback), is focusing on positions that may not bring as much value.
If you pass on one of these quarterbacks and they turn into a game-changing, franchise talent, you will regret it for the rest of your tenure. Ryan is awesome, but the older he gets, the more at risk he is of Father Time paying a visit. Plus, what if Ryan ends up wanting to retire earlier than expected, or simply wants to pull a Tom Brady or Phillip Rivers and try something new at the end of his career? Is this not the time to go ahead and draft his replacement in such an intriguing class?
Having quarterback FOMO for the next decade is a very legitimate possibility if the Falcons pass on taking one now and a Super Bowl doesn’t come in the next two-to-three years with Ryan at the helm. As good as Pitts, Chase, and Sewell are, they likely won’t make the impact a franchise quarterback would. They might contribute more right away, but are any of them going to lift this franchise to new heights on their own?
The Dolphins landed a treasure trove of picks (No. 12 this year, a first and third next year, a first in 2023) with the move, and the Falcons, hypothetically, could get something similar, if not maybe even more if a team like New England or Chicago is really that desperate to get a franchise quarterback this year. The Falcons hold the keys.
The obvious risk to this is missing out on elite talent. The quarterback situation won’t get any better with this move unless you move down, grab Mac Jones or a freefalling Lance or Fields, and they pan out. If you trade down (particularly into the double digits), you’re essentially punting the quarterback conversation to later down the road. Ryan will be the starter here through 2022 at least in this scenario; it’s a big decision to make when indications are that Terry Fontenot would like to get this franchise’s option of the future.
The other risk comes with sliding down the draft board and into riskier prospects. If Denver moves up, they can still get a really good, relatively safe player at pick 9, likely on defense (Micah Parsons, Patrick Surtain, Jaycee Horn, basically any defensive lineman you want all possible). They could pad the future of the roster this way, but you venture into more hit-and-miss potential here. And, if Ryan retires early or begins to show signs of regression, you may have to leverage these draft picks later to grab a quarterback in 2022 or 2023, undoing any future roster planning.
It won’t matter if they trade down this year if they don’t get any additional picks in the 2021 draft. Some say next year’s quarterback group isn’t as enticing as this one, so you’re basically betting on Fontenot’s drafting savvy, Ryan’s maximized talent in Smith’s scheme and Pees’ defensive turnaround effort on being your best chance at a Super Bowl if you don’t take an elite prospect high this year. That could prove risky.
No right or wrong answer
The answer to today’s lesson is basically “we have no idea,” which should underscore why you really can’t cross out or absolutely dread any option the team has this year. There are obvious benefits and real risks to any of these avenues.
Personally, I’m more inclined to invest in elite talent than pad roster holes, but I don’t blame those who are wanting to fill out the team with what we’ve got than stake a claim in a quarterback right now, given the sheer number of holes.
Go easy on your fellow Falcons fans who want X, Y or Z. There just isn’t a “wrong” answer to what the team could do, and we won’t know whether the choice was the right one on April 30 of 2021, and probably not even April 30, 2022.
We’ll get to the end of the month soon enough and see if the team makes the right call. Just don’t automatically assume there’s a “wrong” one right now.