Editor's Note: The "Eight at No. 8" series is an installment of eight separate stories evaluating eight different prospects the Falcons could take with the No. 8 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. With holes to fill, there are a number of directions Atlanta could go with its first-round pick. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll take a look at eight players who could fit in the 2022 Falcons roster and beyond.
Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner is the best cornerback in this year's draft class and has been for a while. He has the makings to be a top-10, perhaps even a top-5, draft pick. If he enters into the right situation, there are many who view Gardner's ceiling to be quite lofty in even his first few years in the league.
Gardner is a special talent, and would excite just about any defensive coordinator. He didn't allow a single touchdown catch in more than 1,100 snaps with Cincinnati. He was impressive against Alabama in this year's College Football Playoff game, shutting down Jameson Williams in said game. Williams had one catch for minus-2 yards against Gardner.
In one of his final press conferences of the 2021 season, Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the Falcons have to improve in pass rush and in press-man coverage. If the Falcons put Gardner on the field, could he ultimately help with both? Even in his rookie year?
We take a look at eight options for Atlanta's first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Why the Falcons should take Gardner
Close your eyes for a quick second and just imagine the pairing of Gardner and AJ Terrell in the Falcons secondary. One could argue there wouldn't be a pairing quite like it in the NFL's entirety. It would be a thing of beauty to see Gardner play opposite Terrell. Could it be the best young cornerback duo to grace the league in a while? It has that type of potential.
Through two years in the league, Terrell has established himself as one the best - if not the best - corner in the NFL. With a few more interceptions, there would be very few who could contend with Terrell at the position. The 2021 season showed just how much opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks view Terrell: They didn't want to challenge him. It's not dissimilar to how opponents viewed Gardner at Cincinnati. In Bruce Feldman's mock draft, an anonymous coaching source said Gardner gave everyone pause.
"I thought he was very good but I didn't know how good he was because nobody ever really went at him. We didn't want to," Feldman reported the source saying. "We put a slapdick (receiver) over there the whole game and never looked at him. He's imposing. His parameters are elite in terms of his size, range and speed."
Obviously, Gardner wouldn't strike that kind of fear into professional receivers, quarterbacks and coordinators in the league in the same way he did the Bearcats' opponents. But put him opposite Terrell who does? C'mon. That'd be dangerously exciting to watch.
Counter punch: Why the Falcons should not take Gardner
Surprisingly, this section has as much to do with Terrell as the last section did. The Falcons have Terrell, after all. Do they really need to use another first-round pick on another cornerback? Especially when they have so many other needs they have to fill on this 2022 roster?
That's the main issue here. It's not necessarily that the Falcons wouldn't want Gardner. Who wouldn't? It's more that the Falcons have greater needs like edge rusher, wide receiver and maybe even offensive tackle. The Falcons have also signed Casey Hayward to a two-year deal. He'll pair nicely with Terrell anyways.
Sure, we could nitpick Gardner's game or the fact that Cincinnati's opponents didn't show a talent pool worthy of really pushing him, but none of that matters as much in the face of this question when comparing it to the fact that the Falcons just have so many other pressing needs. Because of Terrell, cornerback isn't necessarily a top priority in 2022.
What are the odds he'd be available?
Here's another kicker to the Falcons-draft-Gardner movement: It's not looking like Gardner will even be available at No. 8. If this is January or February, the narrative is different. Gardner was often mocked to Atlanta. With less than two weeks to go until the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, it's looking like Gardner won't be available at No. 5, let alone No. 8.
ESPN's Mel Kiper had Gardner as the No. 2 overall pick in his most recent mock draft. Jason McIntyre of Fox Sports had the cornerback going No. 4 overall. NBC Sport's Peter King also had the Jets taking Gardner at No. 4, too.
The closer we get to the draft, the less it's looking like the odds are in the Falcons favor to land this coveted corner.