At the beginning of the offseason, I truly felt the Falcons would carry all nine rookies from the team’s 2021 draft class. Rarely do rookies come into the NFL and immediately make an impact, but I still expected the first-year regime to roster their first draft class. I don’t feel so confident in that thought process anymore. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have clearly sent these guys a message by burying them on the team’s first official depth chart, and some might believe it is purely just a message; I don’t feel that way. Here are some early impressions of the nine rookies who were drafted.
Pitts has been better than advertised. His physical ability is second-to-none, and he puts it on display daily, but he’s better than advertised because of his mental fortitude. Arthur Smith has consistently complimented the entire class’s maturity but specifically singles out the fourth overall pick. He’s been aligning all over formations — on the boundary, in the slot, and in line next to tackles — while showing off his dynamic athleticism and vast catch radius.
I have high hopes for Grant, and much like Pitts, the second-overall pick has immense positional flexibility — able to play in a split safety look, single-high, in the slot, or in the box. He’s been mostly running with the second-team, though he has been reportedly the first defensive back off the bench in nickel packages. Arthur Smith noted that Grant has been working hard, and he was very impressed with him. The first-year safety had a notable pass breakup on Kyle Pitts; his anticipation and quick-twitch ability were fully displayed. He’s coming along a bit slower than maybe I or fans had hoped for, but the veteran presence of Duron Harmon and Erik Harris has benefited Grant tremendously.
Good lord… where do I even start? Mayfield was originally drafted to develop as a guard but has been kicked out to his college position of right tackle due to injuries to two of the team’s top three tackles. In the few games I watched, he is a guard all the way. I don’t see what’s going on behind closed doors, so I can’t give an exact breakdown of what’s happening. Still, I feel confident Mayfield isn’t an NFL tackle, so I don’t understand the hold-up on kicking him back inside now that Kaleb McGary is back at practice. Time will tell about his positional outlook, but my first impression is that I’m nervous about having him take on Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Brian Burns, Shaq Barrett, and Jason Pierre-Paul while trying to protect Matt Ryan.
On a recent episode of Talkin’ Birdy, Scott Bair noted Darren Hall had been all over the field making plays. He can compete for snaps at nickel and can play a safety-corner role in this defense. I haven’t heard too much about Hall, but sometimes with defensive backs, that’s a good thing. I’ll be sure to watch him during the Falcons-Titans preseason game. At the very least, Falcons fans can expect Hall to push Kendall Sheffield and Chris Williamson in the cornerback room.
Dalman has notably been cross-training at left guard and center, given Matt Hennessy has locked up the starting center position. His athleticism and intelligence make him a fit at any of the interior line positions. Arthur Smith has been complimentary of Dalman’s versatility, so my early impression is Dalman will be a swing, interior linemen.
Graham has a difficult situation. He was elite against the run at Texas, which is why I figured he could see the field early. Still, the interior defensive line might be a surprisingly deep group this year, so Graham’s path to playing time is much harder than Ogundeji.
Ogundeji has looked impressive thus far in camp. He’s won one-on-one reps against every tackle lined up in front of him, including Jake Matthews. The EDGE position is one of the thinnest groups on this Falcons roster; Ogundeji has a clear shot at getting playing time. He’s shown the ability to win in one-on-one pass-rushing situations, and like Graham, Ogundeji was elite against the run in college. My impression is Ogundeji could be the diamond of these middle-to-late rounds if he continues to develop his pass rush arsenal.
Williams hasn’t been talked about much, but he’s in the middle of a battle to be the team’s punt returner. I once believed Williams was a lock to win the job because this regime drafted him, but Chris Rowland clearly has a shot at making the team, given his abilities on special teams.
Outside of a few impressive catches, I have heard very little regarding Frank Darby. If Rowland were to beat out Williams as a punt returner, Darby’s position on the roster becomes much less solidified. I fully expect Darby to make a few incredible catches this preseason, but the configuration of the roster might be the nail in his coffin.
I still believe the new regime will keep all nine rookies on the final 53-man roster, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t. I’ll update this piece after every preseason game, so stay tuned.