Will the Falcons Rise Up for the 2021 Draft?

Dec+13%2C+2020%3B+Inglewood%2C+California%2C+USA%3B+Atlanta+Falcons+quarterback+Matt+Ryan+%282%29+puts+on+his+helmet+before+the+start+of+pregame+warmups+before+playing+the+Los+Angeles+Chargers+at+SoFi+Stadium.+Mandatory+Credit%3A+Robert+Hanashiro-USA+TODAY+Sports

Dec 13, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) puts on his helmet before the start of pregame warmups before playing the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Front office changes often mean big roster changes, so how will new general manager Terry Fontenot build the Atlanta Falcons roster this offseason?

Going into the season Falcons fans saw preseason predictions grading their squad as, at best, a borderline playoff team. Every fan thought this was finally a season where we could surprise the pundits again, just like the 2016 season, where the Falcons were placed twentieth in preseason power rankings and ended up making it to the Super Bowl. Don’t worry, fellow Falcons fans, this will be the last time that day is mentioned in this article (R.I.P. first three quarters of Super Bowl LI, gone and please let the fourth quarter be forgotten).

After all of the hope of turning it around, we finally did. Unfortunately, the Falcons went in the wrong direction. Finishing 4-12, the Falcons underperformed dramatically and were left with the fourth pick in the 2021 Draft.

Following a rehaul of the front office and coaching staff, what should Falcons fans expect the team to look like going into the 2021 season? Can Fontenot and new head coach Arthur Smith right the wrongs of the past regime? The short answer is, nobody knows. Here’s the longer answer.

 

Free Agency Recap:

Following numerous contract restructures, the Falcons just made the cut to meet the salary cap.

Left with about $10 million, Fontenot brought in Todd Gurley’s replacement in Mike Davis. Davis had a breakout year filling in for Christian McCaffrey in Carolina with over 1,000 total yards in 12 starts and will take home a modest $5.5 million over two years. With a declining running back market, this is the best option for now.

With the signing of Erik Harris, Fontenot addressed the need for safeties following the departures of Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal. Harris, soon to be 31, will be the short-term answer at free safety and should take on some of the leadership void left by defensive captain Allen while being paid only $1.35 million for the year.

The Falcons also addressed the need for depth at linebacker, bringing in Barkevious Mingo and Brandon Copeland. Both have the ability to play EDGE or middle linebacker in the Falcons new 3-4 scheme, but it’s likely neither will see much playing time barring the inevitable injuries to the defense that the Falcons tend to be plagued with.

Their contracts both come in a little over $1 million, leaving Fontenot with around $3.5 million to play with.

 

Needs:

IOL, EDGE, CB, S

IOL:

With two starters gone on the offensive line, 2020 third-round pick Matt Hennessy should be able to fill the center role while also having the flexibility to move to left guard. Essentially, the Falcons need to sign or draft a guard or center to fill a spot and hope Hennessy is ready to step into a bigger role.

 

EDGE:

Moving to the defense the secondary is easily the first priority, especially after spending $48 million over three years on Dante Fowler Jr. last season, who proved to have the pass-rushing prowess of Lawrence Taylor. But not like the greatest defensive player of all-time Lawrence Taylor, I mean Lawrence Taylor right now… at 62 years old. The Falcons essentially spent over $5 million per sack and almost $1 million per tackle in 14 games. An edge rusher is still a need on the other side. The upcoming draft class at the position is incredibly strong and deep, so the Falcons should be able to snag a falling pass rusher in the second or third round.

 

CB:

This season, A.J. Terrell showed that he could be the Falcons best corner for years to come. As this is being written, Fabian Moreau was just signed, however contract details are yet to be indicated. Moreau, 27, signed a one-year deal and should bring much needed experience to the corner position. This might just fill the gap as fans pray for a breakout year from young corners like Isaiah Oliver or Kendall Sheffield. Moreau is unlikely to be the answer for the future here, but he may have just pushed this section to next year’s article.

 

S:

Even after bringing in Harris, the Falcons need another safety. One old former Canadian Football League player doesn’t quite replace the defensive captain and one of the hardest hitters in the league. This could also be a look in day two of the draft, with safety being a less-valuable position, not to mention the depth of the class at safety. Tyree Gillespie is an extremely underrated safety and could fall as far as the fourth round in the draft, but if Trevon Moehrig falls to the second round the Falcons should jump on it.

 

NFL Draft (Apr. 29 – May 1)

Round 1, Pick 4

Ideally, the Falcons are able to trade down in a soon-to-be-talked-about strong quarterback class, meaning teams will be willing to give up a lot of draft capital and young players to get their quarterback of the future. Throwing in trades and ranking the best quarterbacks could be an entirely separate article, so we’ll keep the Falcons at four for now.

In this strong quarterback class, it will be incredibly difficult to pass up the future face of the franchise here. After a restructure of his contract, the Falcons will still save $20 million by cutting Matt Ryan after the 2022 season, leaving two years for Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance to sit behind or stand-in for Ryan. If not quarterback, any other pick will look like a reach. With Wilson likely gone, Fields should be the choice.

 

Prediction: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

 

Round 2, Pick 35

With a deep class of edge rushers, the Falcons should be able to find a guy capable of getting at least more pressure on the quarterback than Fowler did this past year. Jaelan Phillips didn’t have the sack numbers at Miami, but had a ridiculous amount of pressures, leaving the sexy stats to Gregory Rousseau. If Phillips is gone, Jayson Oweh or Georgia’s own Azeez Ojulari should be available, but Phillips could end up being the steal of the draft.

 

Prediction: Jaelen Phillips, EDGE, Miami

 

Round 3, Pick 68

Now, the Falcons pray for a safety to fall. Ar’Darius Washington and Elijah Molden are two that could slide. However, with those safeties likely gone the Falcons could address the offensive line through Quinn Meinerz.

Meinerz made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl and quickly became popular in the football Twitter-sphere thanks to his stomach hanging out of his football jersey while pancaking fellow abnormally large men. He’ll likely be available at this spot and would replace Alex Mack at center while Matt Hennessy would slide to left guard to replace James Carpenter.

 

Prediction: Quinn Meinerz, C, Wisconsin-Whitewater

 

Round 4-7

The Falcons fourth pick should be spent taking a stab at a safety and hoping it works out. A guy that could be the eventual replacement for Keanu Neal is Tyree Gillespie. Gillespie is another hard-hitter and showed surprising potential for a guy likely getting taken in the fourth round or later.

The rest of day 3 should be spent picking up depth on the offensive line and possibly another corner to make Terrell and Sheffield sweat at the possibility of losing their starting spot, such as Paulson Adebo out of Stanford.

 

Falcons fans have had a disappointing few years since the Super Bowl-that-shall-not-be-named. Rebuilding the front office and coaching staff is only the beginning, and the new staff could look to blow up the roster or try to win now. There’s still a lot of time left in the offseason and plenty of shocking moves to see on Apr. 29.