As you’ll hear from nearly every knowledgeable football fan, there is absolutely no reason to put any weight in draft grades before the players even take a snap in the NFL. Still, that doesn’t make it any less fun of an exercise. These are more like opinionated predictions than anything, and it’s always interesting to look back six months from now and see how those opinions have changed after watching them play against top-level competition. NFL.com gave the Falcons the highest draft grade out of all 32 teams with an A+ mark. I’m not as bullish on Atlanta’s draft class, but I still believe Terry Fontenot stuck to his game plan of taking the best player available, which should pay dividends this season.
Once the Falcons decided they would stick with Matt Ryan for the foreseeable future, they really only had two options — trade the 4th pick for a king’s ransom or select the player that was widely regarded as the best non-quarterback in the draft, Kyle Pitts. Since a whale of an offer never came, they went with the best player available. I love this pick for so many reasons. It’s cliche, but Pitts is a unicorn that will be a matchup nightmare from day one, and he couldn’t have landed with a better coach. Arthur Smith, who was the tight ends coach in Tennessee before becoming the offensive coordinator, will have a field day with him. If the Falcons do end up holding onto Julio Jones, this offense will be nearly impossible to stop.
In the second round, the Falcons were able to trade back, pick up an extra fourth-round pick, and still land one of the best players at a position of need. Weeks before the draft, our own Alex Lord talked about how taking Grant with the 35th pick could satisfy both a need and be the best player available — an excerpt from that piece:
Grant can play any role in any coverage Dean Pees decides to deploy. He possesses sideline-to-sideline range with explosive acceleration, which allows him to take tight ends and running backs in man coverage, not just cover ground as a single-high or split-zone safety. Grant has incredible ball skills but packs a punch as a run-defender. He’s likely a free safety at the next level, but with that said, he can comfortably work in the slot. He can even play in the box when needed due to his efforts in run defense and physical nature.
Grant may be slightly undersized, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most productive safeties in college football. His versatility makes him a dream fit for Dean Pees’ defense, and while the Falcons don’t necessarily need him to start from day one, I imagine it won’t take him long to take over the starting free safety role.
As was discussed on the Talkin’ Birdy podcast — our new Falcons podcast here at SportsTalkATL — the Falcons had to address the offensive line during the draft. Their most significant weaknesses on that side of the ball are at center and left guard; they also had very little depth on the offensive line entering the draft. Mayfield, still just 20-years-old, started 15 games at tackle for the Michigan Wolverines. He will likely kick inside to guard at the next level and compete for the starting job from day one. This is one of those picks that is tough to judge before watching him play at the next level. Mayfield certainly has potential, but he needs to add some muscle and refine his technique to succeed at the next level. Can Dwayne Ledford and Arthur Smith — two fantastic offensive line coaches — get him ready to start Week 1? If the answer is yes, this is another slam dunk selection.
Hall is a player I knew nothing about coming into the draft, but the secondary was a place that desperately needed to be addressed several times during the draft. The Falcons did so with Richie Grant, and then they doubled down with the selection of Hall, who is listed as a cornerback but also played some safety at San Diego State. Hall plays with excellent anticipation and is no slouch when it comes to run support. He may not be ready to start in year one, but he will certainly have the opportunity, given how thin the Falcons cornerback room is.
With the extra fourth-round pick they nabbed from the Broncos by trading back in the second round, the Falcons selected Drew Dalman — a center out of Stanford. I like this pick for several reasons. As I mentioned earlier, Atlanta needed to add a couple of offensive linemen in this draft, creating more competition at center and left guard. Dalman can compete for both, and he comes from a football family — his dad, Chris Dalman, played for the San Francisco 49ers. This is a solid depth addition to the Falcons offensive line that comes with some upside.
In the fifth round, the Falcons went back to the defensive side of the ball, selecting Ta’Quon Graham out of Texas. Defensive tackle certainly isn’t Atlanta’s most glaring need, but Graham comes with — yep, you guessed it — defensive versatility. He’s a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, standing at 6’3″, 290 pounds, and went to Texas as a defensive end. Graham is super athletic for his size, which gives him some upside at the next level. I imagine Dean Pees will utilize him all over the defensive line as a rotational piece early in his career, and perhaps he develops into something more in a couple of years. That’s about all you can ask for from a fifth-round pick.
If Adetokunbo Ogundeji ever becomes a household name among Falcons fans, we will have to find him a nickname. The Falcons doubled down on the defensive line in the fifth round, selecting the defensive end out of Notre Dame. Ogundeji comes with an NFL frame that he’s grown into over his time in college, and his play steadily improved for the Irish. This is more of a project pick with some upside that Dean Pees will have to develop. I wouldn’t expect him to contribute much in year one.
Williams is a cornerback out of Boise State, but he probably won’t contribute much on the defensive side of the ball — at least not early in his career. However, he should have an impact immediately on special teams. Williams returned six punts for touchdowns at Boise State and will likely take over the punt returning duties from day one for the Falcons. Cordarrelle Patterson is on the roster, but he’s more of a kick returner and has never been relied on to return punts often. Williams should have a special teams’ impact from the get-go, which makes this a very valuable sixth-round pick.
Darby has big-play ability, but he’ll have a tough time making it on the roster in a crowded receiver room. I don’t imagine he will get on the field much, if at all, as a rookie, but there’s some potential for him to develop into a quality deep-threat in a couple of years.
My biggest takeaway from the regime’s first draft is they came in with a plan, and they executed it. It was clear they targeted versatile players at positions of need, but they also placed a high value on character. Almost all of their Day 3 selections were team captains. With Kyle Pitts and Richie Grant, they got two day one starters; however, Super Bowl rosters are built in the later rounds, and the Falcons selections after Round 2 were far from sexy. However, if one of those offensive linemen can become a productive starter as a rookie, the rest of the class will just be icing on the cake.