Before taking a look at the Falcons 2021 draft class specifically, what new head Coach Arthur Smith and first-time GM Terry Fontenot showed over the past few days was their immediate take on the current roster and how to enhance it.
Matt Ryan clearly is the quarterback they believe in. By not drafting a quarterback to develop and instead reaching terms with veteran free agent A.J. McCarron, Fontenot and Smith showed no signaling of Ryan's departure anytime soon. Maybe after the season that process begins, but Ryan won't have to deal with anyone behind him that fans will be clamoring for should he have a tough outing.
The investment of a draft pick for a running back was something Smith and Fontenot did not feel was needed, showing they like in-house back Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson (he is a running back folks) and feel, if needed, they can find undrafted or veteran free agents who fit Smith's scheme. Fontenot told me that once they got to Day 2, the drop off at some positions – again, that were Falcons' scheme friendly – was fairly significant and that they were not going to overreach to fill a supposed need, like running back.
Lastly, Fontenot and Smith gave defensive coordinator Dean Pees some potential immediate contributors in second-round safety Richie Grant from UCF, two corners and edge rusher Ade Ogundeji. Pees also was shown faith that he can scheme up ways to get veteran edge player Dante Fowler and others to be more productive. Remember, Fowler wasn't considered anything special until he was traded to Los Angeles and figured things out in his second season with the Rams.
In all, the initial view of Atlanta's draft class could produce some individual stars, but more so in the short-term, add some really strong components that could accentuate the players already on the roster.
Meet your 2021 Atlanta Falcons Draft Class. Welcome to Atlanta!
Now, let's take a deeper dive:
No. 4 overall pick, tight end Kyle Pitts, is the chess piece every team wants in its offensive skill group. He is a matchup issue in the passing game. Schematically, defensive coordinators are hoping they have the proper personnel on their roster or at least players smart enough to figure out whether Atlanta is going to throw it when they have Pitts lined up wide or in motion, or if it's a run play when he's in-line.
Smith has so much to concoct and plenty of time to do it – and don't think Ryan isn't thinking about ways he can help exploit opposing tendencies with all the weapons he's been afforded. Don't forget, Pitts can block too.
Adding a guard/tackle Jalen Mayfield out of Michigan and center Drew Dalman immediately ramps up competition along the offensive interior, which is needed. Size, smarts, and toughness are what Smith wants and by landing this pair in the draft, they have the chance to grow together.
Smith said during the draft that Atlanta would not overreach for O-line help and that he felt that scheme design could benefit those veterans already in place. He knows, though, you can't have enough linemen and you can't have enough good linemen for an offense that won't work properly unless the run game functions well consistently.
Now to the side of the ball where concern prevailed before the draft – and to some degree, afterward.
Fontenot told me during the draft that there wasn't an abundance of pass rushers that can win one-on-one battles. So, when things got to Day 2 and beyond, the edge rush help the Falcons need likely would be someone that would be more developmental and serve more as a spoke instead of the wheel. Ogundeji fits that mold, so it's up to Pees to coach him in his hybrid odd/even front up while figuring out how he can work with the other's up front, including fifth-round defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham.
Drafting safety Richie Grant after trading back in the second round and adding two more cornerbacks (Darren Hall and Avery Williams) was strategic and desired. Fontenot told me before the draft that safeties that can play free and strong with coverage ability were paramount. With offenses, keeping teams in sub packages (five or six defensive backs) 70 percent of the time, you can't keep up without a multitude of open-field tacklers and matchup options.
Grant checks all those boxes, plus, he is a far more longer-term option than veteran safeties Erik Harris and Duran Harmon, who signed one-year deals. Corners Darren Hall and Avery Williams could compete for starting roles, but also add needed depth to a unit that found itself picked on last season.
Sixth-round WR Frank Darby is a big-bodied target but figures to have to earn his keep on special teams initially.
Much will be made on which of these players hit, are projects or busts. It's just the way we do things in media as fans, etc. It is fair in some regards but not always. There simply is too much competition for everyone to stick.
While much is expected of these young men, much should also be expected of Fontenot and Smith now. GMs and especially coaches are hired and paid handsomely because they are supposed gurus, offensive or defensive whisperers that can fix the broken, develop the raw, create opportunities for the worthy and part ways with the disruptive.
Those who lead and communicate best, while showcasing their "guru" strengths tend to be who wins and sustains success. Now is when Smith and Fontenot earn their keep. Though the roster is fluid, this new regime has laid its foundation in free agency and now the draft. It has shown us how it plans to chart its course.
It's time now to chart it.
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