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Pick at four or trade back? | Steve Wyche looks at crucial factors in Falcons decision

Now, things get real.

This is the week that the broad scope of the NFL draft business for each team starts to narrow and teams trying to trade get down to brass tax.

With the Falcons holding the coveted No. 4 overall draft pick, things are going to really get serious.

The teams that have called to have preliminary talks about moving into Atlanta's draft slot will stop with the 'Well, what would it take?,' compensation conversations they've floated for weeks. There could be real offers made that could be too good for the Falcons to turn down.

Compensation is one thing, how far back Atlanta is willing trade is another.

Atlanta won't move too far back from where it now stands, based on conversations I've had with folks in the know from around the league.

Why wouldn't they if they get a multitude of picks?

If they get into the mid-teens or beyond, the chances of landing a difference maker in the short- and long-terms might not be worth the assets accumulated. Quality vs quality quantity, or lack thereof, is often the swing vote when it comes to moving off such a choice draft spot.

Then again, no bait could be tempting enough for the Falcons to trade back. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, North Dakota State QB Trey Lance or Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields just might be the player Coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot want to build with.  

Don't overlook this: Is trading back how Smith and Fontenot want to make their presence felt in their first time leading a draft with a pick so potentially influential?

So, no, we aren't any closer to knowing who the selection is or when that pick will be, but let's look at some crucial factors that will play into the decision.

Let's start with quarterback. Atlanta is all but certain to draft one because Matt Ryan is the only QB under contract. That pick just might not come in the first round.

If the Falcons use a top-five pick on a quarterback, he isn't likely to play in 2021 with Ryan still in the fold. A blown opportunity to pick an immediate contributor? Maybe. Yet, a great opportunity to make a seamless transition once the team decides to move on from Ryan, 36 – or vice versa.

Could Smith's history of being part of a Titans' coaching staff entrusted with developing Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 selection in 2015, bring home the reality that there are costly misses with QBs at the top of the draft?

Remember, the top four picks in 2015 and 2016, QBs Jameis Winston, Mariota, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, are no longer with the teams that drafted them – and Tampa Bay, Tennessee and the Rams opted to import veteran players to enhance their fortunes – with resounding returns in Tampa Bay (Tom Brady) and Tennessee (Ryan Tannehill).

Then again, passing on a QB and having him thrive elsewhere – DeShaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes – could be a franchise and career crusher.

So maybe Atlanta waits until at least the second round to go QB. There are some quality prospects in Stanford's Davis Mills, Florida's Kyle Trask, and Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, all of whom are projected to be available after Day 1.

Another option at No. 4? Florida's Pitts.

So many NFL talent evaluators believe Pitts is an immediate game changer because he is that chameleon player – think of 49ers tight end George Kittle – who can line up inline, in the slot, at H-back or wide, and put defenses in conflict.

Case-in-point: should the opposing defense be in its base front, Ryan could audible to a pass because of favorable matchups spawned by Pitts' versatility. Conversely, if the defense is in a sub-package (five, or six defensive backs), Ryan could change the play to a run because Pitts is quite adept as a blocker too.

And then there is this: With Tennessee in 2020, then Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith ran 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) nearly 33 percent of the time, second only to Philly, according to NFL research. While in 12 personnel, Tennessee averaged 6.8 yards per play, a fraction less than league- leading Kansas City, when in one running back, two-tight end formations.

To compare, the 2020 Falcons used 12 personnel 13.9 percent of the time and averaged 5.7 yards, ninth worst in the league in that grouping.

It might not mean much come draft time, other than Smith likes to use 12 personnel. However, Pitts could be a dangerous weapon while on the field with Hayden Hurst, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Ryan.

That shiver you just felt came from collective opposing defensive coordinators.

Atlanta will not neglect its defense, where generating pass rush, adding cornerbacks and getting physically bigger up front are priorities.

The Falcons plan to add personnel that fits defensive coordinator Dean Pees' 3-4 front (the Falcons have played a four-man front for years). The moves won't all be made for the scheme structure though, since teams only play their base defense roughly 25 percent of the time.

With so much time spent in sub-packages, getting the best athletes for their roles is premium.

Based on Fontenot's history with the Saints, collecting players with the history of being effective, if not better, at the end of games and in big moments will be a goal. So will position versatility, especially along the defensive front.

The Falcons are going to rely a lot on young players to support the established players or that have been imported this offseason. While that No. 4 pick is the headline maker and creates the most splash, what comes after that in the draft could prove most important.

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