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The progress of the 2021 draft class is going to be instrumental to Atlanta’s 2022 success

NFL: OCT 24 Falcons at Dolphins Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Dragon Ball Z, the villain Frieza declares at one point “you fool, this isn’t even my final form” before transforming into something even more powerful. The Falcons aren’t literally hoping that Kyle Pitts and the rest of this 2021 draft class transform into stronger forms—I think—but they are certainly hoping they have dramatic improvement in them.

It’s easy to focus on the additions the Falcons need this offseason, because they need so many and those additions more or less have to be impactful for this team to take a step forward. The progress of last year’s rookies, who as Terry Fontenot noted in his postseason press conference played more than any other rookie class in the NFL this year, is also going to be instrumental.

Let’s look at why, briefly.

  • Kyle Pitts can clearly be even better than he was in 2021, and he needs to be for this team to take another step forward. Pitts simply wasn’t much of a red zone factor this year, and the sooner he becomes a player teams are terrified of inside the 20, the better.
  • Richie Grant was not much of a factor on defense outside of a handful of games, but he came into the NFL billed as a potentially game-changing, aggressive safety. Again, the sooner he gets there, the sooner this defense can take a step forward.
  • Jalen Mayfield was one of the worst guards in football, and the Falcons passed up some quality players to make him their “BPA” pick in the third round. If he can take a year’s worth of lessons and become even a competent starting left guard, it will help stabilize a line that has been a liability for years.
  • Drew Dalman being at least a high end reserve, if not someone who can legitimately push Matt Hennessy for the starting center job, would be a difference maker.
  • Darren Hall showed flashes in coverage and certainly as a tackler, and if he becomes a more consistent player he’s going to at least be a reserve this team can count on.
  • Adetokunbo Ogundeji was a player outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino referred to as a future “bellcow,” which is one of the reasons he’s being written about so much this offseason. As the sole experienced outside linebacker left on the roster heading into 2022 and as a player this staff is clearly excited about, Ogundeji’s ability to become a dependable rotational pass rusher or more will help determine how much this defense can improve this season and beyond.
  • Ta’Quon Graham looks like a really good run stopper already, and with time and work he should become a dependable 30 snap a game presence on the interior of this defensive line.
  • Avery Williams showed signs of being the kind of returner he was in college, which is to say lethal. He’ll need to make strides as a cornerback and a returner to really deliver on his promise, but the talent is there.
  • Frank Darby barely got to play, especially on offense, but is one of just a couple of receivers under contract heading into 2022. The Falcons need him to be at least a reliable reserve given that re-building this receiving corps in one offseason is going to be nigh impossible, especially if Calvin Ridley is headed elsewhere.

What you’ll notice with all these notes is that these players either have roles carved out and just need to take steps forward to get better at them, or can carve out those roles with improvement. It’s probably fair to say that the Falcons would like four of these second-year players—Pitts, Grant, Mayfield and Ogundeji—to be starters, and the rest to be at least capable and dependable reserves.

This team lacked high-end starters and depth basically everywhere in 2021, and they have neither the money nor the draft capital to sweep everything away and start over. If the Falcons of 2022 are going to be better than they were in 2021 against what is on paper a tougher schedule, they need these players to step up. If the bulk of the 2021 draft class were throwaway players or deep reserves, it would be an indictment of Terry Fontenot’s professed best player available approach, but more than that it would be a significant setback for this team’s prospects in the short term. It’s no exaggeration to say the progress of these nine players, who represent nearly a fifth of the prospective 2022 roster, will be absolutely critical for the Falcons.

We’ll be continuing to review seasons for the 2021 draft class in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, how are you feeling about the class and their potential impact in Atlanta going forward?