They’ve heavily invested on the defensive side of the ball in free agency and through trades, but that shouldn’t prevent them from drafting one of the top defenders in this year’s draft. In fact, if you look at most available big boards, the Falcons are in a prime position to add a notable defensive prospect. Of course, the work they’ve done already could mean they are free to continue to draft for the offense – something they’ve done in the first round each year under Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith.
There are two different draft options that could be in play for Atlanta, although they might be considered longshots at this point.
The first I’ll mention is by far one of the most popular among the fan base: Selecting Texas running back Bijan Robinson. Remove positional value and Robinson is widely considered one of the most talented players in this draft. During his final two collegiate seasons, Robinson carried the ball 453 times for 2,707 yards and caught 45 passes for 609 yards. He scored 35 total touchdowns.
Atlanta is a team that has demonstrated the value of a quality rushing attack, and Smith had arguably the league’s top back in Derrick Henry for two years while he was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. The Falcons gained 160 rushing yards per game last season, which was the third-most in the league. Rookie running back Tyler Allgeier led the way with 1,035 yards, and he has a promising future ahead of him.
But Robinson’s talent may be too much for the Falcons to ignore.
“He’s a capable inside/outside runner with unique footwork to stack moves and reset pathways, but can plow into tacklers at a moment’s notice using elite contact balance to keep the run rolling,” NFL analyst Lance Zierlein wrote in his profile of Robinson. “He might need to dial back efforts to search out big runs so frequently and take what is there a little more often to keep from getting bogged down. His pass-catching talent ensures the opportunity for Robinson to see a high number of touches. He has a chance to become one of the more productive runners in the league very quickly.”
Because the Falcons have done so much work on the defense, this is the kind of move it now feels they are free to make. This would give Desmond Ridder arguably the best backfield in the league to work with in his first year as a starter – and we all remember how valuable Michael Turner was for Matt Ryan early on. Now, that’s not to say Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson can’t shoulder the load once again, but this would be a different deal, altogether.
If the Falcons feel there is still work left to be done on defense, there’s one player in this draft who could fill the biggest hole remaining on that side of that ball: the 1A pass rusher.
Prior to the inevitable rise of the quarterbacks in this class, Alabama star Will Anderson was a consensus Top 3 pick, and he still might be. He’s easily one of the most talented players to come out in recent years, and he should have both a high floor out of the gate and a tremendous ceiling as he continues to develop.
The Falcons have not had a sure-fire threat off the edge since John Abraham, and it’s high time they found someone to keep offensive coordinators up at night. Landing Anderson would likely require Atlanta to move up in the Top 10, which is something we haven’t seen Fontenot do yet as general manager. But the Falcons have been very proactive this offseason, and this would be a move to potentially put them over the top on defense.
Anderson has compiled 48 tackles for a loss and 27.5 sacks the last two seasons for the Crimson Tide. Ideally, he would be the long-term answer for a pass rush that has lacked any real teeth outside of Grady Jarrett, and both Anderson and Arnold Ebiketie would give Atlanta some youth to continue to build around with veteran talent. That veteran talent like Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree should also help them develop.
Moving up in the draft might ultimately be a non-starter for a team that has seemed very calculated and strategic in its moves so far. However, perhaps a lot of those have been throat-clearing for the kind of cherry on top that Anderson represents. Maybe they’ve put themselves in position to be one major move like this away from legitimate playoff contender status, if they are not already there.
The Ringer’s resident draft analyst Danny Kelly had this to say about Anderson, who he has No. 1 on his big board:
“Anderson plays from both two- and three-point stances and uncoils at the snap to instantly threaten the high-side edge. He converts that first-step speed to power on his bull rush, shoving opposing tackles into the pocket with a forceful two-hand punch. He knows how to bounce his rush back to the inside with an effective counterstep or spin move, and he employs a great push-pull move to get tackles lunging forward.”
At this moment, it feels a bit more likely that the Falcons go in a different direction. That these types of moves are even in consideration, though, speaks to how far this team has come in the span of one offseason. Under Fontenot, Atlanta has been a best-player-available type of team in its approach to the draft, but need is always the clear thing for fans and the media to point to in draft discussions.
This year, however, there really are no clear needs left that this point in the process. That makes things much tougher to project. It also makes things much more fun.