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The Falcons should strongly consider stocking receiver through the draft

They can’t just spend their way out of their current situation.

NFL: Scouting Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver marketplace is nuts. Tyreek Hill just went to the Dolphins for a package that included multiple premium draft picks and a new contract that will give him $72.2 million in guarantees and $120 million total over four years. Christian Kirk got $72 million with $37 million in guarantees over four years after a good but not spectacular first contract in Arizona. Hell, Russell Gage got three years, $30 million in $20 million in guarantees. It’s a very good time to be a capable NFL receiver.

If you have an elite player, you had better expect to pay up to keep him, especially in 2023 after some of the market-setting deals this year. That’s not a situation the Falcons are facing right now—Julio Jones is out there in free agency and Calvin Ridley is suspended for the entire year, and Olamide Zaccheaus is currently getting ready for his star turn in Atlanta—but it underscores how important it’s going to be for this team to avoid having to rely heavily on spending to get top options in free agency. That’s true even with the major cap windfall heading this team’s way in 2023, because Terry Fontenot does not strike me as someone who likes to overpay to fill needs regardless of how much cash this franchise has on hand.

That means turning to the draft. Atlanta shouldn’t feel boxed in to a first round pick at wide receiver—they shouldn’t feel boxed in to any position, given the front office’s stance on that—but this is thought of as a deep class and the Falcons may be able to pick up multiple players who can play significant roles. That plus Frank Darby, Olamide Zaccheaus and a couple of free agents gives you a solid (if deeply unspectacular) group in 2022 and sets you up to add more talent in 2023 to go with your rookies, someone like Tre’Quan Smith, and Darby.

Don’t, however, expect anyone the Falcons get to be the next Julio Jones, no matter what Dan Orlovsky says.

Again, the upside here is readily evident. We’ve been waiting aeons for this team to upgrade their trenches in a meaningful way, and being able to invest significant money into a handful of high-end starters on both sides of the ball will help them get there more quickly. That’s easier to do when you’re not paying a quarterback—hello, rookie, whoever you are—and it’s a lot easier when you aren’t paying through the nose for skill position players on offense. The Falcons have taken pains to re-stock their front office and scouting department with well-regarded executives and scouts, and their ability to nail positions like receiver in April (and slightly beyond, in the case of undrafted free agents) will help determine how quickly this team gets back on their feet.

The Falcons don’t need to sink pick No. 8 into a wide receiver to improve their current corps. As a team that has pledged to find value in free agency and with contracts more generally, the Falcons would be wise to invest heavily in the position over the next couple of drafts so they can focus their free agent dollars on positions that aren’t experiencing rampant salary inflation right now. Expect them to come out of this draft with at least one such option, and hopefully this team can turn out a good receiving corps by 2023 even if the heyday of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage is well into the rearview.