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With the 2021 NFL Draft in the books, it’s worth remembering the 2020 class will be key for Atlanta this year

The Falcons put together a small but intriguing class in Thomas Dimitroff’s final year on the job, and their ability to contribute in 2021 will matter a lot.

NFL Combine - Day 3 Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Terry Fontenot’s first draft class with the Falcons is in the books, and it’s a class that offers intriguing upside and at least a couple of players who should be immediately impactful for this roster. The rest of the class beyond Kyle Pitts and Richie Grant should compete for significant roles right away, but guys like center Drew Dalman and wide receiver Frank Darby figure to carve out bigger roles down the line. It was, as Fontenot all but promised it would be, the kind of class that addresses the here and now but is at least as focused on setting this team up for the long haul despite their many needs today.

It’s worth remembering that Thomas Dimitroff’s swan song draft class in 2020 was the same sort of effort on a smaller scale, as the team wound up with just six picks when the dust settled. Dimitroff targeted a cornerback to shore up one of the team’s biggest needs and got a day one starter in A.J. Terrell, but the rest of the class was surprisingly light on immediate impact players for a front office and coaching staff straining to keep their jobs, something I felt at the time and still feel was to his credit. Fans here gave that class a B grade on balance, similar to where they landed on this year’s effort.

With this year’s draft class hopefully set to make a major impact in 2021 and the years ahead, it’s worth remembering that last year’s class is going to prove to be critical to this team’s success, as well. Let’s take a look back at that class:

Round 1, #16: A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson

Round 2, #47: Marlon Davidson, DE, Auburn

Round 3, #78: Matt Hennessy, C, Temple

Round 4, #119: Mykal Walker, LB, Fresno State

Round 4, #134: Jaylinn Hawkins, S, California

Round 7, #228: Sterling Hofrichter, P, Syracuse

Only about half of this draft class contributed in 2020, which was probably one less than by design. Terrell was an immediate starter and is one of the few young Falcons defenders I am reasonably sure can be a star and Hofrichter was the team’s punter, putting together a solid but unspectacular rookie season. Walker was the pleasant surprise, playing about 35% of the defensive snaps and looking extremely comfortable at linebacker, making him a guy to watch for this new defense. For this defense to be terrific in 2021, it goes without saying that Terrell needs to be very good, and Walker’s ability in coverage and potential as a pass rusher will likely have to be utilized as well.

The remaining three players don’t all need to be great for Atlanta to succeed this coming season and beyond, but it would obviously help a great deal if they did. Marlon Davidson tops the list here because he was, in my mind, the single most exciting selection of the 2020 draft class as a potential wrecker of offensive lines. Injury and COVID conspired to rob him of a lot of his rookie season, but Davidson really kicking it up a notch this year would help improve this defensive line a great deal. Hawkins being at least quality depth and special teams help is important, of course, but Matt Hennessy’s ability to start at center or guard over the long haul is open for debate after the Falcons selected a left guard candidate in Jaylen Mayfield and a talented center in Dalman. Hennessy improving on his rookie performance and snagging the center job would make a huge difference for this line.

In short, despite the size of last year’s draft class, it figures to be critical for at least this team’s immediate future. Having Terrell, Davidson and Hennessy starting and playing at a high level would help shore up three of the bigger weaknesses on this football team at the moment, and having Walker in particular play a legitimate role as a versatile contributor for the defense would help Dean Pees as he looks to squeeze the most out of what is objectively a still-rebuilding D.

Obviously Dimitroff is no longer here, as he’s currently on a media tour as one of the most sought-after podcast and show guest of the moment. I have little doubt he’ll find a permanent media gig if he doesn’t want to land in another front office in 2022, which means the Falcons will either be facing a team he builds at some point or seeing him weigh in on the team he built over the past decade-plus. For good and for ill, his cap management, draft classes, and approach to the roster will be a big part of the Falcons’ immediate future, and the 2020 draft class is perhaps the most intriguing piece of that. I’m hopeful most of these guys will be major contributors in 2021, and alongside what looks like a promising 2021 class, will help turn this Falcons team around.