Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot knew going into their first draft in 2021 that, unless something crazy developed with the first three picks ahead of them, they were taking Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 selection.
In their second go-round with this process and picking eighth overall, the waters are far murkier. Not because they don't have their sights set on a few prospects, but because there is so much unknown ahead of them.
- A trade for A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and other potential draft day moves
- McElhaney: Why the Falcons should not draft a quarterback at No. 8
- Wyche: How Marcus Mariota could fit into Falcons long-term QB plan
- Eight at No. 8: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Kyle Hamilton, Malik Willis, Charles Cross, Garrett Wilson, Sauce Gardner, Jermaine Johnson II, Travon Walker
With the very real prospect that a quarterback won't be taken before they select, the heir to Matt Ryan could be the passer they have the highest grade on. Do they do it?
And, in that scenario, the top edge rushers could be gone, as could their highest graded cornerback and wide receiver. Do they go offensive line because that's what remains atop their draft board?
For Atlanta, it's hardly a dreadful scenario because the roster has so many areas to be addressed. The Falcons, frankly, can't go wrong in terms of where they go with the pick. That said, drafting a quarterback might not deliver a Day 1 starter, based on pre-draft evaluations of these prospects.
"What we feel good about, the scouts, coaches, everyone involved in our process, is that the guys we select will be players we love," Fontenot told me this weekend. "We will find players that fit what we are building and who fit our ethos."
That's about as specific as Fontenot got during our conversation, so if you're thinking I'm holding any inside intel, I can assure you that I know about as much about which players the Falcons are targeting as I do about what the weather is going to be tomorrow.
With the need to find immediate help for a 7-10 team that has lost so many key players this offseason, it would seem that a quarterback – Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett or Liberty's Malik Willis, considered the top prospects by many NFL evaluators – is unlikely.
The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota in free agency to be the likely starter, although Mariota said that no guarantee was made.
There is an abundance of projected standout edge defenders at the top of the draft. We know this is a position the Falcons need to properly upgrade for the short- and long-term: Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, Georgia's Travon Walker, Purdue's George Karlaftis and Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II lead the group.
Here are some other top options at positions of need.
Offensive linemen: North Carolina State's Ikem Ekwonu, Alabama's Evan Neal, Mississippi State's Charles Cross
Wide receivers: Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson of Ohio State and Alabama's Jameson Williams
Cornerbacks: Cincinnati's "Sauce" Gardner, LSU's Derek Stingley and Washington's Trent McDuffie.
The Falcons clearly have options at No. 8, but there's a more global outlook that needs to be taken into consideration. The first-round pick is just one player.
Is Atlanta one player away? Ahem, nope.
It has nine picks total, and it needs to come out ahead on the number of players on which they hit.
We take a look at eight options for Atlanta's first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The real area where the Falcons must strike? They have five picks in the first three rounds (two in the second and two in the third). That's significant capital to select players or trade up or down.
Atlanta must find players to develop and play as soon as possible because, frankly, it doesn't have much of a young, long-term nucleus to build around.
Pitts, stud cornerback A.J. Terrell and guard Chris Lindstrom are the obvious young building blocks. There are key veterans in tackle Jake Matthews, defensive lineman Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones, who could be contributors for years.
Leadership is hopeful that others, like defensive tackles Marlon Davidson and Ta'Quon Graham, edge player Ade Ogundeji, safety Richie Grant and guard Jalen Mayfield, continue to develop.
Where a lot of teams, including the Falcons, are going to benefit from this draft will be on Days 2 and 3. Multiple NFL GMs, coaches and talent evaluators said there is an abundance of strong talent in the later rounds, at nearly every position.
So, if the Falcons go edge rusher in the first round, there are wide receivers, offensive linemen, quarterbacks, cornerbacks, safeties, defensive linemen and running backs that could find a home in Atlanta as the draft proceeds.
Here's another element to consider: several prospects took an additional year of collegiate eligibility because of COVID-19 issues and that allowed dozens of players, especially at smaller schools that had seasons truncated or canceled outright, to gain needed experience to compete for NFL roster spots. The result could be a groundswell of undrafted free agents being good enough to make teams over the summer.
Competition is always the buzz word through the NFL but, in 2022, there could be a lot of jobs changing hands.
As part of the Falcons draft process, coaches at all levels were deeply involved. Leadership wants to acquire players that fit schemes, prototypical traits of a particular coach's needs, short- and long-term projections, football intelligence and character. Scouts have done months – years in some cases – of work on players and matching their reports with the desires of coaches and high-ranking evaluators.
Then comes determining the likelihood of acquiring these players, and where in the draft process it's possible to do so. Trade up, try and trade back, sit tight and cross your fingers?
The draft exposes teams that know what they want and know how to accomplish that – or not. It might take a year or two to figure things out, but it tends to cause folks -- players, coaches, evaluators -- to lose jobs or get extensions.
Fontenot and Smith set a plan, in place upon arrival last season, to build a roster so that, when they do get their franchise quarterback – maybe Mariota earns that job – they'll have a roster ready to rock and roll into perennial playoff contention.
They've already established a no-excuses culture, which is huge for 2022 since so many key positions and position groups are in flux or are being occupied by players on short-term contracts that won't be around for the expected turnaround in fortunes.
With all that, the Falcons don't have much wiggle room for error this draft. No team does, but with so many opportunities to find talent that can be molded into culture and schemes, all these pre-draft efforts must bear fruit.
Fontenot, Smith, and owner Arthur Blank can determine what that means.
Seemingly, after an offseason where they traded quarterback Matt Ryan and missed out on acquiring quarterback DeShaun Watson, Blank is going to give both men he hired a year ago time to get things in order. He historically has done as much with coaches and GMs.
Yet, history tends to show little mention of patience and progress. Instead, victories, great leaders and warriors, or failures and poor strategies live on.