'They are wired the right way': Terry Fontenot impressed by 2021 draft class, discusses 2022 draft

Fontenot expects the rookie class to continue to develop in year two.

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Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot is seen on the field talking with head coach Arthur Smith prior to a game against the New England Patriots at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, November 18, 2021. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)

When the Falcons selected Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick in the 2021 NFL draft, it was obvious that he would play a significant role in the offense, as most first-round choices do. 

And Pitts did. 

He broke records, made highlight catches, and was just 51 yards from having the most receiving yards for a rookie tight end ever.  

While Pitts had the best season of the 2021 rookies, entire class played vital roles for the Falcons this season. 

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After left guard Josh Andrews suffered a broken wrist in the preseason, Jalen Mayfield,  selected in the third round, became the starter and remained there for the season. Mayfield struggled, but he showed glimpses of his potential, like when he earned a 92.2 grade from Pro Football Focus in the Falcons loss to the Cowboys, the second highest among all offensive linemen. 

"Rookies, you're gonna take lumps, and there's gonna be ups and downs. What I love about this rookie class is the mindset of the group. I believe they have competitive guys that fight and compete, and it's gonna be a challenge for them to continue to develop coming into this next year."

Linebacker Ade Ogundeji, the Falcons fifth-round selection, has also quickly made an impact. 

Ogundeji started eleven games this season, where he had a fumble recovery, a sack, and 32 tackles on the year. His biggest moment of the year may have come in week seven against the Miami Dolphins

With the Dolphins threatening to extend their lead to seven points, Ogundeji burst through the Dolphins defensive line and blocked the 49-yard-field goal – the first time the Falcons have blocked a field goal since Ra'Shede Hageman blocked a 63-yard attempt against the Carolina Panthers in the 2014 season.

And it doesn't end there.

All of the Falcons' 2021 draft picks this season: Avery Williams, Richie Grant, Darren Hall, Ta'Quon Graham, Drew Dalman, and Frank Darby have made impact plays. 

Whether it was Avery Williams's impact as a returner — he was 18th in the league in yards per punt return — or Richie Grant forcing a fumble against the Cowboys and recovering one against the 49ers to put the Falcons in the red zone to begin the game; the 2021 class shined. 

The big plays did not come without struggles, however, as General Manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith have admitted. Still, the 2021 draftees have given Smith and Fontenot confidence for the future.

"They played a lot," Fontenot said. "If you look at it, it was tops in the league in terms of the amount of snaps they played, the games they were active for, and the amount of snaps they played not just on offense or defense but also in the kicking game. They contributed a lot. And that was our plan for them to come in and contribute and grow and develop." 

Fontenot added: "We appreciate the fight we got from that group. We believe they are wired the right way."

As they head into the offseason and the 2022 NFL draft quickly approaches, Fontenot and Smith plan to have the same approach as last season: draft the best player available. A process which in the past, Rich Mckay even admitted in August, the Falcons have made mistakes.  

"We always want to be a team that doesn't reach for needs," Fontenot said. "We go into the draft with needs, and you know you want to fill those needs, but you always want to take the best player on the board and not reach for something. I think we think that's how you make mistakes."

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