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Will the Falcons reinforce or break their 2021-2022 draft trends?

2022 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Every front office has its draft habits. Under Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons virtually never traded down and often traded up in the first round, had a habit of picking defensive backs on the second day for better or for worse, and habitually picked players not named Kemal Ishmael in the seventh round who didn’t wind up sticking around.

Under Terry Fontenot and company, the Falcons have been picking in the top ten and have had many selections to work with, and we’ve seen what certainly look like habits forming over the past couple of seasons. Two drafts does not a trend necessarily make, but here are three consistent themes across the past two drafts that we’ll see either continued or broken in 2023.

Immediate, high-impact weapons on offense in the top 10

In 2021, the Falcons drafted Kyle Pitts at #4 overall, the highest a tight end has ever been chosen. Just 22 years old, Pitts has been terrific when healthy and utilized well, with 96 catches for 1,328 yards and three touchdowns in 27 games. He missed seven games last year and we’re still waiting for the sky-high numbers and touchdowns, but the Falcons are hoping he can be elite sooner than later.

In 2022, the Falcons took Drake London at #8 overall, making him the first receiver off the board and starting a massive run at the position. Just 21 years old, London managed 72 catches, 866 yards, and four touchdown grabs in his rookie season.

In both cases, the Falcons used a premium pick to select a pass-catching weapon, eager to bolster their offense by doing so. In 2023, they could do so again with Texas running back/all-around weapon Bijan Robinson, TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnson, Ohio State pass catcher Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and so forth. That would seem like overkill after investing in Pitts and London, but the Falcons are rolling with Desmond Ridder, have a pretty good offensive line, and spent most of their free agent dollars stocking the defense. It’ll be interesting to see if this is just how the Falcons intend to add their weapons on offense, or if they’ll finally pivot away from doing so.

Projects in the draft’s second day

Atlanta has yet to draft an immediate impact starter on Day 2 under this regime, despite making six selections there over the past two classes. Whether the team views Rounds 2 and 3 as the ideal time to get high-upside players who need some work or they’ve had higher year-one expectations for these rookies that have yet to come to fruition is less clear.

Take 2021. The Falcons snagged Richie Grant in the second round and Jalen Mayfield in the third round, and had everything gone to plan, neither one would’ve been an immediate starter. Grant logged time at safety and the nickel but shone as a special teams standout in year one, eventually becoming a pretty good starter in 2022. Mayfield was thrown into the fire at left guard after a short preparation period because Josh Andrews got injured, and he held down the position throughout the 2021 campaign, though he ranked among the worst guards in football. He might’ve won that position back in 2022, but a back injury cost him part of the summer and the entire season. While both were pressed into significant roles year one, the Falcons didn’t intend for that to happen.

A similar story unfolded in 2022. The Falcons drafted Arnold Ebiketie and Troy Andersen in year one, and Andersen didn’t get sustained action until the season had rolled along and Mykal Walker had struggled. Ebiketie was sort of the exception to the rule for the Falcons, stepping into a significant role early and quietly rushing the passer effectively, but his role did diminish down the stretch after injury. In the third round, the team chose Desmond Ridder and DeAngelo Malone, with Ridder sitting until the final four games (and now stepping in as the team’s starting quarterback in 2023) and Malone playing a small role throughout the season.

That’s six selections and only one player who the Falcons intentionally rolled into a significant role from Week 1, which suggests they’re either picking players they love who unexpectedly aren’t quite ready to go in their first season or are intentionally targeting players they think can be special but need to be brought along slowly. We’ll see if they buck that trend in 2023.

Zero interest in making seventh round picks

In two drafts under Terry Fontenot, the Falcons have managed not to pick at all in the seventh round. Whether that’s a function of how the team has packaged picks to make trades or an intentional gambit to avoid seventh rounders because the team doesn’t value them is not entirely clear, obviously, though their willingness to stock up on and play undrafted free agents rather than make those picks suggests it might be the latter.

The team has two seventh rounders now after trading one away for Jonnu Smith. If they move both of them in draft day trades, I think it’s fair to say Fontenot just doesn’t want to stick around for the very end of the draft.