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Bair: Why 2022 NFL Draft is an inflection point in Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith quest to turn Falcons around

Striking gold with premium picks would set Falcons up well for present and a near future with significant salary cap space

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Tori McElhaney, Kris Rhim and I were recording a Falcons Final Whistle podcast in my office recently, discussing the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft and how it can aid two areas of pressing need, both rushing the passer and catching passes.

I went on a long rant about how the Falcons can use their selections, especially with five in the top 82, to help the 2022 product. I was confident in the statements made, backed with supporting evidence and solid draft strategy designed to load up on two positions in the early going. That is, until Tori or Kris or both put up a (metaphorical) stop sign.


McElhaney spoke first, pointing out [using kinder terms than I'm about to] that I had serious tunnel vision in relation to filling immediate needs. That, while the Falcons need multiple edge rushers and receivers, this draft shouldn't be used to solely solve 2022's greatest problems.

It's all part of something bigger, part of a longer-term effort aimed at the overall quality, health and sustainability of this roster.

That's something deep down I knew, yet got temporarily lost in the sea of mock drafts, positional breakdowns and analysis of who the Falcons should pick and when.

It was an important reminder that re-centered my view on this Falcons draft in the context of Terry Fontenot's and Arthur Smith's grand plan.

This particular NFL Draft, I would argue, is an inflection point on their journey.

The Falcons won't always have this much premium draft capital. If they're adding the right players, they'll rarely have a top 10 picks as we go along. That's why you have to jump at this opportunity, to borrow Tori's point, for the present and future.

That got me thinking about a conversation I had with general manager Terry Fontenot at the NFL owners meetings, most of which never saw print. It was a big-picture conversation about the philosophy of team building, in relation to what the Falcons are working on here.

One thing he said has been rattling around my brain for a while, leaving me looking for a time and place to write about it. Now's that moment. It perfectly applies to what we're discussing now.

We'll get to what he said in a minute, after applying proper context.

We take a look at eight options for Atlanta's first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Falcons are a team in transition, a descriptor I think everyone can agree on. They're carrying significant dead money. They've got a new starting quarterback for the first time in 14 seasons. They've lost some bigger names through trades or free agency or suspension.

The Falcons have been in a salary-cap trouble for a while, with the worst of it inherited by Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith. The Falcons have been mired in it and will continue wading through the muck for most of this year.

This isn't a wasted walk. The Falcons have a chance to pick up vital assets, tools for success along the way. This draft might be the biggest and most important acquisition period to this point, a real chance to prepare themselves to sprint forward over slowly regaining their stride in 2023.

"When you look at what the cap situation looked like a year ago and what it looks like in 2022 – it was bad in terms of being over the cap, and the situation was made worse when the cap shrunk (in '21)," Fontenot told me in late March. "We had to make some tough decisions we didn't want to make with contracts. We didn't want to do those things. Now, we're in a position to see that light at the end of the tunnel.

"Now it's on us to draft the right players, add the right free agents and build this team the right way. We must continue to build this culture the right way, to get the right people on the bus and the right people in the building, because we know there's a bright future ahead."

The Falcons would like to establish as many sure starters and role players as possible from this 2022 group, either with draft picks, incumbents or veterans playing on prove-it deals. The more that happens, the better they can use what should be more than $100 million in 2023 salary-cap space to reward their own and add new premium talent.

The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to build as strong a team as possible around the quarterback position – something Fontenot has always preached – and give Marcus Mariota a real shot to prove himself.

Drafting well this weekend is the best way to create optimism for the future. And, given the current state of the Falcons roster and its relation to the salary cap, nailing picks will help the present product a great deal.

"Where we're at currently, from last year to this year, with our cap issues, these draft picks, whether some of them are ready or not, they're going to have to play," Smith said Tuesday. "You saw that last year with some of them, where we had a plan and injuries come up and you've got to play a guy earlier, or you're able to be disciplined at certain spots maybe on the back end. Where we're at, currently for '22, this draft is obviously big for us."

While there's a never-ending public debate between drafting for need and the best player on the board -- there's always a slant toward premium positions -- those two sides often align when a team's on the clock. That'll likely be the case regarding a roster with so many holes. That also means the No. 8 overall selection might not be the position you've been demanding they take.

It might not be an edge rusher or a receiver. They might go deep in one area, seemingly too light in another while attempting to extract maximum value from each selection.

Before ripping one on spec, I invite you to join me in taking a less granular, more wholistic view to these picks and see how they fit into the 2022 product and beyond, with ongoing development as important as immediate impact.

You'll achieve a greater understanding of what Fontenot and Smith are working towards when you look at it that way. And like you'll see all these picks aren't designed for 2022, all of next year's money won't be spent frivolously and all at one time.

"We see that even despite the challenges we had this year, we're going to like where we are as a team as we step into the year and we're going to continue to improve," Fontenot said Tuesday. "There's never going to be a time that we have a lot of money and we're going to go out and be reckless. We're still going to have a process and have discipline and do things the right way."

There is a level of heightened optimism in the Falcons building that, starting with this draft, they'll do less of what they have to do and more of what they want to do.

"With the cap space we're going to have next year and the draft capital we have now," Fontenot said in March, "it gets you really excited."


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