Falcons 2021 rookie class is first foundational piece for Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith

dho19090750294 stan at usc

Terry Fontenot‘s plan was always to bring in one of the biggest rookie classes of 2021, which he did with a nine-man draft class and the biggest undrafted free-agent class in the league. A few weeks ago, the Falcons were the only team yet to sign a single draft pick. The delay was tied to the finalization of the Julio Jones trade, which created the salary cap space to sign the rookie class and put the team in better financial standing with the cap this year and in 2022.

The first dominos fell in the form of Avery Williams and Ade Ogundeji getting their rookie deals done. Now, those nine players will be the foundation of this new regime’s roster going forward, and as Kyle Pitts signs his rookie deal, it signals the start of this new period for the Falcons as the last member of the class is under contract.

Ideally, Fontenot selected nine future starters for Arthur Smith, but at the very least, it seems the new regime’s first draft netted more future starters than not. Obviously, developing the talent brought in is a crucial piece to the puzzle, but as Fontenot has said before, it’s not about hitting on the early draft picks, rather hitting on the middle-to-late rounders to build a sturdy foundation for the future.

Obviously, Pitts is the highlight of this class, and he’ll likely be the one rookie that contributes a substantial amount of production in his first year. Many draft experts felt he was the best non-quarterback prospect in this draft, given his incredible size and athleticism, almost making him bust-proof. But that’s just Fontenot’s point, to build a steadily successful franchise, you need every draft pick in a class to contribute.

Second-round pick Richie Grant is a draft crush of mine, and though I believe he’ll eventually become an impact player, his contribution in his first year won’t be difference-making. Thankfully, Fontenot signed a pair of veteran safeties — Duron Harmon and Erik Harris — so the coaching staff can take their time developing him.

Jalen Mayfield — a third-round pick — is in a similar position as Grant having veterans around him in case his development doesn’t lead to opening the season at left guard. He’s athletic for a guard, and his lateral movement and body control in space make him an ideal scheme fit in Arthur Smith’s zone rushing attack. Mayfield seems poised to become a starter for this team in the near future.

But every player of the draft class doesn’t need to start, but most of them have to contribute. Darren Hall, Drew DalmanTa’Quon Graham, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Avery Williams, and Frank Darby will be role players for the first year of their careers, but each will have a chance in the future to contribute on a more regular basis as the players ahead of them on the depth chart have expiring contracts.

The formula should be to draft and develop, to have quality starters and role players on rookie deals. Then bringing back those special players with a second contract when you have to break the bank to keep your draft picks. Building draft classes on top of each other to stack talent and rely upon within the organization rather than in free agency. Free agents are for rounding out a roster, not building the foundation; Terry Fontenot has his first official building block in place.

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