The Atlanta Falcons have the 4th overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. With holes in the roster and barely any cap space, the Falcons’ margin for error is razor thin. Drafts during the Dan Quinn era were not kind to Atlanta. Littered with players who never seemed to blossom, Atlanta is now paying the price for years of poor drafting.
Holding the 4th overall pick brings with it endless opinions on how to use that pick. Opinions vary depending on who you speak to however, but four general themes hold the lions share. First, many believe Atlanta should part ways with current quarterback Matt Ryan and draft his replacement. Others believe Atlanta should continue its whack a mole attempt at drafting a defensive line. With no current reliable option at running back, many argue that Atlanta should fill the void by drafting a top-rated running back. Last, the least sexy of all options is the camp that believes the Falcons should draft an offensive lineman.
A popular topic among football fans now is the future of Matt Ryan. Many believe his time in Atlanta should come to an end. Parting ways with Ryan would be a bad decision. First, should the Falcons decide to release Ryan, his contract carries enough dead money to bankrupt a small country. Ryan would account for 80$ million dollars in dead money over the next three years should he be cut. He could also be traded. However, a quarterback on the back nine of his career carrying three more years on his contract may not return much value. Besides, the passing game was not a problem for the Falcons in 2020. The chart below shows them among league average in passing yards per attempt. Despite missing Julio Jones for several games in 2020, Atlanta was able to move the ball through the air at an acceptable rate. Using a capital-intensive pick like the 4th overall to draft a quarterback would be a waste for Atlanta. Sadly, only one person can start at quarterback in the NFL. Should Atlanta take Zach Wilson or Justin Fields, either the 4th overall pick or a 40$ million-dollar player would be holding a clipboard on the bench.
The next option would be to draft a defensive lineman. It seems like this option has been on repeat in Atlanta for the last five years. Every draft brings with it a new defensive lineman for Atlanta, only for them to get cut before their fifth year. A team that ranked 23rd in sacks with a total of 29 in 2020 could use more help pressuring the quarterback. But, all the post-traumatic stress of wasting top picks on pass rushers coupled with a draft littered with offensive talent makes it a bad time to use such a high pick on a defensive lineman. Yes, Atlanta had a horrible defense in 2020, but using their top 4 pick may not correct the ship. It may be more logical to help patch together the defense with later round picks.
Atlanta’s run game was bad in 2020. And by bad, I mean dead last in yards per attempt. There is still uncertainty whether or not Todd Gurley returns, and at the time of writing, the only running back signed to the roster is Ito Smith. So yes, Atlanta is in need a of running back. But the numbers do not lie, drafting a running back with a high pick rarely returns high value. Although it is a debate for another day, most high-profile running backs do not live to see out their second contract.
Besides, Atlanta’s poor rushing performance cannot be blamed solely on the men who carried the ball in 2020. Predictable play calling and poor offensive line performance made life tough on the running backs in the peach state. The first of those points has been address as the Falcons have a new coaching staff. One that will hopefully add some creativity to the play calling. The latter point should be the focus of this draft- the offensive line.
Atlanta had one of the worst, if not the worst offensive lines in football. Despite their discipline in avoiding holding calls, they were dead last in the league at blown blocks- blocks where a lineman missed his assignment. Not the kind of performance you would expect from the 5th highest paid line in football. Going into 2021, the Falcons do have several questions at offensive line. Starting center Alex Mack will be leaving, and lackluster performance from other players like Kaleb McGary leaves a lot of uncertainty around the unit. Roughly 20$ million dollars over the 2021 adjusted cap Atlanta may have a hard time filling the holes with valuable free agents. Put between a rock and a hard place the Falcons options are limited.
The first option to fix the offensive line would be to use the 4th overall pick to draft a highly ranked offensive lineman. This year’s draft has a clear front runner, Penei Sewell. The tackle out of Oregon is a logical fit for the Falcons. Already thin on the line, Sewell can be the missing piece in bringing together a better front unit for the Falcons.
Although drafting a talented offensive lineman with the 4th overall pick is a viable option there is a better more complicated answer- trade down!
Trading down in the first round is a risky move. Draft capital is scare in the NFL. Trading down brings with it the chance you miss out on top talent. But in the case of Atlanta, they have backed themselves into a corner. The Falcons are like a comedy skit where a boat has too many holes and not enough plugs to fill them. Trading down in the draft may offer a solution. Should Atlanta find a suitable dance partner- most likely a team looking for a top quarterback- they could move down in the first round and acquire an ensemble of 2nd, 3rd or 4th round picks in return for their 4th overall pick. Similar to the move Indianapolis executed with the Jets a few years ago. Atlanta can fall down several spots by swapping picks while acquiring as many later round picks as possible.
Logical partners that come to mind would be Denver at 9, San Francisco at 12, or the Patriots at 15. All three teams have question marks at the quarterback position. Should Atlanta be able to work out a deal with either of these teams they could fall down a few positions in the first round and hopefully add to their later round picks where they would be able to take swings at adding talent to the defense or running back position. The middle of the first round appears littered with solid options at offence line, so moving down won’t come at the cost of losing out on a top offensive lineman. Christian Darrisaw, Rashawn Slater, Teven Jenkins, Alex Leatherwood are just a few options for Atlanta.
Drafting an offensive lineman isn’t sexy. There is not much fanfare about drafting a lineman. They don’t sell jerseys. But they are the bedrock of a good football team. Trading down in the first round for a lineman is a hard sell to a fan base. But with glaring holes in the Falcons roster and limited cap space Atlanta has put themselves in a tough position. Time is running out. An aging roster with many holes is not a winning situation. Trading down, grabbing a good lineman, and adding to this year’s draft capital might be the only way to salvage the tail end of the Ryan-Julio era in Atlanta.