Arguably no prospect had more tantalizing appeal in the 2021 NFL Draft than Kyle Pitts, but the qualities second-round pick Richie Grant brought to the table had fans strongly anticipating his first season. Atlanta traded down five spots before taking Grant – ultimately netting the team offensive lineman Drew Dalman – but the UCF prospect fit a clear need and looked to have a high ceiling as a playmaker at the next level.
In a Dean Pees defense that has traditionally made wide use of its safeties, the possibilities were enticing. Let’s see how Grant’s rookie year unfolded.
16 games (0 starts)
35 combined tackles & 2 tackles for a loss
2 pass defenses
1 forced fumble & 1 fumble recovery
Rookie Year Highlights
Week 10 at Dallas - First career forced fumble
Week 12 at Jacksonville - 2 tackles for a loss in the same game
Week 15 at San Francisco - First career fumble recovery
Week 7 at Miami & Week 16 vs. Detroit – 6 combined tackles (career-high)
It took some time for Grant to see much action on defense. The free-agent additions of Erik Harris and Duron Harmon provided the Falcons with trusted, veteran options and what they must have felt was the best chance to win. Learning from such players while cutting his teeth on special teams may prove beneficial for Grant in the future, but it means fans didn’t see as much as they wanted to from him this year.
“It’s a long journey,” Arthur Smith said when asked about Grant late in the season. “We had two veteran safeties, and we understood that going into this thing. That’s why we played these guys, again, strategy going into the preseason, why we needed to play all these guys that never played a snap in the NFL because you’re going to get in the season and this is what happens. That’s where Richie is. He made a big impact early in the season on special teams, now he’s starting to make an impact on defense. His journey is beginning, too.”
What they did see was an inconsistent player early on who progressed slightly as the year wore along. The Falcons didn’t paint with a broad brush when it came to their rookies in 2021, and Grant is a prime example. While Kyle Pitts stepped into the starting lineup immediately – for reasons that were abundantly clear – Atlanta mostly wanted its rookies to earn their roles and grow into them. Some, like sixth-round pick Ade Ogundeji, earned that trust from the coaching staff early on. Grant took a bit longer.
Grant’s early mistakes might have been easy to miss, but they were the kind that drive coaches crazy. In multiple games, Grant misplayed an angle too far inside and gave up contain on an opposing running back, who gained the edge for a big gain. Such plays erode trust and make it difficult to play team football. They are also to be expected from rookies, and Grant showed flashes of his immense upside to make some of those mistakes more palatable.
One reason to expect those flashes will occur more frequently could be a more stable assignment within the Falcons’ defense. Atlanta went through a bit of a trial-and-error period at its nickel corner spot following Isaiah Oliver’s season-ending injury, and Grant became part of the rotational fix. The team insists he’s still in their plans at safety, however, so returning to a more familiar role with the lessons he learned in the slot could have a positive impact.
While getting his feet under him on defense, Grant was a featured player on special teams. His 320 special teams snaps led all Falcons players, and he finished second on the team with five special teams tackles. Grant earned a Pro Football Focus of 75 for his play on special teams, which ranked fifth among all Falcons.
It still remains to be seen what the Falcons will have in Grant, but the reasons why his first year played out the way it did are understandable. His peak rookie-year moment is probably the fumble recovery on the opening kickoff against San Francisco. I’m still betting he will have plenty of plays that top it in his future.
Final Grade: C+