The Falcons are very clearly rebuilding, so every bit of success the team has this season should be enjoyed that much more. Atlanta is coming off the most impressive win of Arthur Smith’s tenure with a 28-14 throttling of the 49ers, who are by all accounts the more talented team. The cultural shift inside Flowery Branch is palpable, and it takes the right players to do that.
Credit should be given to Terry Fontenot as well as the head coach. The first-year general manager has done an excellent job of shedding bloated, over-priced contracts inherited from the former regime. The financial outlook is incredibly bright. With very little money to spend on free agents, Fontenot has made the most of it — Casey Hayward, Cordarrelle Patterson, Elijah Wilkinson, Lorenzo Carter, Rashaan Evans, etc. However, what is going to make this team a perennial playoff contender is the draft classes.
Fontenot’s first draft class wasn’t immediately successful, but that shouldn’t be expected. After all, the saying is draft AND develop. The coaching staff is the other part of the equation, and it seems the Falcons are beginning to stack draft classes.
2022 Draft Class
- No. 8: Drake London
- No. 38: Arnold Ebiketie
- No. 58: Troy Andersen
- No. 74: Desmond Ridder
- No. 82: DeAngelo Malone
- No. 151: Tyler Allgeier
- No. 190: Justin Shaffer
- No. 213: John FitzPatrick
The Falcons are getting some unexpected contributions from its rookie class. Drake London is living up to the billing, recording 306 yards and two touchdowns on 25 receptions. Arnold Ebiketie had the best game of his young career against the 49ers, totaling five quarterback pressures. On the season, the Penn State product has one sack, one tackle for loss, but six quarterback hits — second on the team.
Troy Andersen has been a mainstay in the third phase of the game for the Falcons but saw a ton of action last week with Mykal Walker out of the lineup. It was a bag of mixed results. But much like Richie Grant‘s rookie year, once the game slows down for Andersen mentally, his physical ability will allow him to be an incredible player in this league.
Malone’s pass rush arsenal is far less developed than Ebiketie’s. However, he had his best game to date as well last week, notching a tackle for loss. He’ll undoubtedly be a valuable piece of the rotation in the future, at the very least. Tyler Allgeier has been excellent as injuries bleed throughout the running back room. The BYU product is second on the team in rushing attempts and yards behind Cordarrelle Patterson as one of PFF’s highest-graded rookie runners.
Ridder, Shaffer, and FitzPatrick haven’t seen the field.
2021 Draft Class
- No. 4: Kyle Pitts
- No. 40: Richie Grant
- No. 68: Jalen Mayfield
- No. 108: Darren Hall
- No. 114: Drew Dalman
- No. 148: Ta’Quon Graham
- No. 182: Adetokunbo Ogundeji
- No. 183: Avery Williams
- No. 187: Frank Darby
Pitts caught his first touchdown in Mercedes Benz Stadium against the 49ers, coming off the first missed game of his career. The Falcons’ offense is very different with Pitts involved. Sometimes, I wish Mariota would just throw a couple more 50/50 balls Pitts’ way, but I understand him not trying to get outside of the system.
Richie Grant is fully coming into his own as a swiss army knife in Dean Pees’ defense. Pees will align Grant at different points as a single deep safety, in the slot, box, and everywhere in between. It’s fantastic to see his mental capacity catch up to his physical ability; Grant will be a damn good player moving forward.
Jalen Mayfield might never see the field again because Elijah Wilkinson’s even-average level of play has completely turned the Falcons’ offense around.
Drew Dalman has been a complete revelation at center. With Matt Hennessy, the Falcons struggled to run the ball and protect the passer. With Dalman (and Wilkinson), the Falcons have the second-most rushing yards before contact and remain one of the best in pass sets. Finding starters in the middle rounds will always be impressive.
Graham and Ogundeji have been excellent too. The former is really coming into his own, leading the team in quarterback hits. The Texas product is effective against the run and enough of a threat rushing the passer. Grady Jarrett certainly has benefited from Graham’s breakout. And last but certainly not least, Avery Williams is an ace special teamer. He’s one of the better returners in football and is a fantastic wrinkle in Arthur Smith’s offense as a homerun threat.
No general manager bats 1.000, but Fontenot is pretty damn close. In his first draft, more than half of the picks are contributing at significant levels in their second season. In his second draft, several pieces have flashed high-end starter capabilities.
Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire