With five draft picks in the first three rounds, the Falcons are going to have plenty of opportunities to select highly-regarded prospects and address significant positional needs. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have to get it right with all these picks in the top 100. They should be looking closely at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, offensive guard, edge rusher, defensive tackle, and linebacker. That’s quite the list of needs for a team, yet it’s where the Falcons currently stand going into the draft.
The added draft picks give them opportunities to get creative at specific positions. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them add a pair of players at two particular positions. The idea of drafting two edge rushers would be likely the highlight of an otherwise dark off-season for fans, given how long Falcons fans have waited for a killer pass rush. There is the other—and in my opinion, more likely—option of drafting two wide receivers in the first three rounds.
Given how depleted the team is at the position, there could be a strong emphasis on selecting two wide receivers to get more explosive and help rebuild the passing attack for the long haul. It’s a decision that would be both very exciting and highly questionable.
Here are the pros and cons if the Falcons decide to take two wide receivers with their first five picks.
The position needs a major injection of top-tier talent
Losing Calvin Ridley for the season and Russell Gage to free agency puts the Falcons in a precarious position at wide receiver. They lost two of their most productive pass-catchers not named Kyle Pitts. While Pitts can slide outside and be prolific, his position is tight end for a reason. Using him on the outside on every down wouldn’t be the most effective way to utilize him. The Falcons need legitimate wide receivers that can create separation, make contested catches, and stretch the field.
None of the current wide receivers on the roster can do all three of those things. Although Damiere Byrd and Auden Tate are intriguing complementary pieces, it would be troubling if either player was relied upon as a full-time starter. The offense was severely hindered by the lack of receiving weapons on the outside just a year ago. Smith and Fontenot can’t afford to allow that to happen for a second straight season.
This is the draft class to load it up
Despite not having a can’t-miss prospect, this wide receiver draft class is filled with playmakers that can make an immediate impact. Several of them will be selected in the first round. Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm wrote about how it’s likely a plethora of wide receivers will be taken in the first round. This doesn’t mean the Falcons must select a wide receiver with the eighth pick. When having a top ten pick, the organization shouldn’t select a player purely on positional need. When the organization is in as rough shape as the Falcons currently are, they should also seriously consider trading down.
Pro Football Focus’ Trevor Sikkema examined how beneficial it could be for the Falcons to trade down and build for the future. Losing out on potentially using a top-ten pick on Garrett Wilson or Jameson Williams won’t be a great miss if the return in the trade is worth it. They will have opportunities to draft exciting prospects such as Jahan Dotson and Jalen Tolbert.
A vertical threat would do wonders for the offense
It’s become more evident how the best offenses have at least one if not two vertical threats at wide receiver. These are players that can get behind the secondary and make game-changing plays. They also command extra attention from opposing defenses. To have this type of player allows your offense to open up and gives your quarterback high-percentage looks in the short and intermediate areas of the field.
Once Ridley stepped away from the sport last season, the Falcons didn’t have that type of player on their roster. Olamide Zaccheaus wasn’t consistent enough to be the vertical threat they needed him to be in a featured role. Whether the Falcons draft one or two wide receivers, they must have a player who has breakaway speed and proven ability to make plays downfield. Regardless of how limited Marcus Mariota or the potential rookie quarterback may be as a deep-ball passer, a vertical threat is a necessity to create more explosive plays and open up space for other playmakers like Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Falcons have so many needs
When you look at the roster, the Falcons are the last team that should be overloading at a specific position. It’s understandable to draft two offensive linemen or two defensive linemen, given that those selections can be spread out in multiple ways across the lines, where the need is always acute. Selecting two players in one particular position group could be damaging for roster-building purposes.
Despite having an abundance of picks in the top 100, the Falcons have to be calculated in what they do. Let’s not forget they have two extra draft picks because they traded away the greatest player (Matt Ryan) and greatest wide receiver (Julio Jones) in franchise history. The Falcons need difference-makers.
It would be hard for two wide receivers to help the team win games when the offensive line can’t block anyone and the defensive line can’t generate pressure. It’s also difficult to take two players at a position known for being home to exceptional talent in the later rounds.
Wide receivers can emerge from the later rounds
Outside of running back, there isn’t a position that produces more stars in the later rounds than wide receiver. A lesser-known wide receiver develops into a star practically every season. Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar put together a tremendous breakdown of how often late-round wide receivers have breakout seasons. It showcases how late-round prospects can blossom into becoming number one wide receivers.
Most Super Bowl-wining teams in the past decade didn’t use a first-round pick on a wide receiver. They made major investments elsewhere to become champions and establish themselves as perennial contenders. Smith and Fontenot will have to seriously consider that, especially looking at this draft class. Per NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, the best positional group in this draft class is edge defender. The Falcons could use multiple edge defenders, to say the least.
Arthur Smith isn’t dependent on 11 personnel usage
Smith built a bruising ground game, heavy play-action style offense in Tennessee. As offenses across the league were spreading out the field, he was using his superhuman running back Derrick Henry and scheming up big-play opportunities for Ryan Tannehill in stacked formations. There was plenty of 12 personnel usage, using two tight ends to overpower defenses and catch them slipping with A.J. Brown running wild in the open field. Smith appears to have a strong preference for using two tight ends.
The Falcons ran the second-fewest plays with three wide receivers on the field last season. Some of it can obviously be attributed to a lack of wide receiver talent, along with the excellence of Pitts and Patterson. The other major aspect is Smith wants to make running the ball a priority. Pitts and Patterson are going to have significant roles in the offense this upcoming season. Why select two wide receivers in the early rounds in an offense not predicated on utilizing different formations with three pure wide receivers? If the head coach prefers using two tight ends and wants to run the ball, it makes taking two wide receivers in the early rounds less sensible.