The Falcons have taken us on a little bit of a roller coaster ride this offseason. We expected a relatively quiet offseason, given the team’s again-limited cap space, and instead we got Calvin Ridley’s suspension, the ill-fated Deshaun Watson pursuit, and a Matt Ryan trade. The free agency moves to this point have been what you’d expect, but not much else has been.
Now we’re just days away from the 2022 NFL Draft, and there may still be a few twists and turns to come, given that nobody’s really certain where the team is going at No. 8. Atlanta has five picks in the draft’s first two days, a ton of needs, and a need for more talent, period. By the time the dust settles sometime Saturday evening, we’ll know a lot more about this team’s short-term and long-term plans, and some of our lingering questions from this topsy turvy offseason may well be answered.
Let’s look at a few of those questions now.
What’s the plan at quarterback?
This is the big one. You can win in this league without an elite quarterback—the Rams did it for a while, the Titans have made a recent habit of it, and the Saints dragged Drew Brees’ ancient arm along for a few seasons—but you have to have a great team around them and it’s hard to get over the Super Bowl hump without one. The list of so-so quarterbacks who have won one over the past two decades is Nick Foles, old Peyton manning, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning if you’re a certified hater like me, and Brad Johnson.
This isn’t to say the Falcons have to solve quarterback over the long haul in this class or they’re doomed, because I’d rather they not have that mindset if they don’t love this group of signal callers. It’s just that having a plan to get a great quarterback is essential, and the draft will help clarify what that plan is.
If the Falcons pick a player this year, they’re going to get a real shot to be the next franchise quarterback for Atlanta, whether they make that pick at No. 8, by trading back up into the first round, or in the second round or later. If they pass on a quarterback—especially if they also trade 2022 draft assets for 2023 picks—it’s a safe bet they’re going to make their big investment at the position a year from now instead in what’s generally regarded as a stronger class. Marcus Mariota will hold down the fort for at least the first part of the 2022 season regardless, but we’ll know a lot more about what the team is thinking about the future of quarterback by the end of this week.
How heavily will the team depend on the 2021 draft class?
Everything is pretty fluid in late April, but I’d argue that today the Falcons haven’t added any significant competition for Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy along the offensive line, given that neither Elijah Wilkinson nor Germain Ifedi have any significant experience at center or left guard. They haven’t done anything to push Ta’Quon Graham and Ade Ogundeji out of their likely significant roles, and while they have competition at safety, Richie Grant should coast into a starting job with a solid spring.
Right now, then, you’d look at Grant, Mayfield, Ogundeji, and Graham at minimum stepping into major 2022 roles, with Darren Hall, Drew Dalman, Avery Williams and Frank Darby all having opportunities to at least carve out roles as key reserves. The only thing that’s likely to change that is the draft, where the team might invest early capital into selecting a player who could steal a starting job away.
If that doesn’t happen, you’re looking at an oft-maligned 2021 draft class potentially having a huge opportunity to prove themselves in 2022.
What happens next for Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones?
On one hand, a front office that sticks to a true best player philosophy might pick an inside linebacker or defensive tackle in the first or second round and it may very well mean that was just the best guy on the board. You will have to take a selection like Nakobe Dean or Devonte Wyatt with a slight grain of salt given the team’s stated preferences.
That said, it’ll be difficult not to give into the temptation to view those moves as a sign of what the team is planning to do with Jarrett and/or Jones, and I don’t think it’s wrong to view it through that lens. At inside linebacker, it’s Jones, Mykal Walker and Rashaan Evans, a fine group for 2022 but not necessarily beyond. An early selection would be a strong indicator that the team will explore a post-June 1 trade for Jones, in my humble opinion, given that he and Walker are still under contract in 2023 and you’d have a mild logjam at the position adding a potential stud.
Defensive tackle is much the same. Jarrett’s status beyond 2022 is up in the air, with reports that the Falcons are trying to extend his contract but no indication there’s been any significant movement on that front, and beyond Ta’Quon Graham there are no long-term compelling options at the position group. You could add a star in the making here even if you were going to keep Jarrett—the need is pretty acute even if Graham makes the leap—but if a player of Jarrett’s caliber is out the door after this year and there’s a great defensive tackle available, I can’t imagine the team will pass.
Again, we won’t be able to make any sweeping conclusions based on these picks if they happen owing to the team’s stated BPA preference, but the team has to address Jarrett or Jones’ contracts just to sign their draft class this summer. If they’re not confident they can get an extension done with the former and/or want to get a restructure done with the latter, you might see the team prioritize their replacements in the coming days.
What are the team’s strongest draft preferences?
The Falcons prized long-term upside and youth last year in the draft, with Richie Grant and Frank Darby the only two rookies who were 23 or older in the group. While it didn’t translate into immediate stardom for anyone but Pitts, the Falcons were banking on guys like Grant, Mayfield and Ogundeji rounding into form and becoming big-time contributors in the years to come.
Whether that was circumstance, accident, or a long-term trend for the Falcons under Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith is an unknown at the moment. We saw with Thomas Dimitroff that certain moves were consequential—dipping into the third day well for pass rush help, trading up in the first round—and others certainly were not. With this front office, we may see a focus on players the Falcons believe can be immediate contributors with their window to contend likely opening next year.
Two drafts may not be enough to give us a full sense of this front office’s preferences, but between what they’ve told us and potentially what we glean from 18 draft picks over two seasons, we should have a better idea.