In their first offseason, the new regime of general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith seemed steadfast on approaching the draft with the best player available philosophy. Choosing to restructure Matt Ryan’s contract helped create cap space in 2021 by spreading the cap hits over the next couple of years, but it did very little in terms of free-agent acquisitions. The 2021 draft class will have a profound effect on the Falcons’ immediate success this year. It is naive to start judging these picks just days after the draft, but it’s a fun exercise to see which predictions come true.
Best Pick: Richie Grant
Many will say that Kyle Pitts should occupy this spot, but I wanted to present the possibility of something different from everyone else. Grant could be more important than Pitts to Atlanta’s immediate success, given the Falcons’ defense is miles behind the offense. I’ve been clamoring about him for quite some time, and rightfully so, Grant is as close to a perfect fit as one could get. According to PFF, he was the highest-rated safety in run defense last season, with a 90.0 score — his 33 run stops among defensive back are also the most among this year’s draft. His 10 interceptions and seven forced fumbles over his college career prove his versatility and playmaking ability.
Dean Pees can use him in a plethora of ways: single-high, in the box, and in the slot. Again, a perfect scheme fit and could have a bigger impact than any rookie on this team, but Terry Fontenot traded back, acquiring a fourth-round pick, and still was able to draft Grant — an all-around home run selection.
Most-Underrated Pick: Jalen Mayfield
I have this pick dubbed as the most underrated because Mayfield will start the first week of the season and solidifies a concern of mine — the offensive line. He played tackle at Michigan but will start at left guard if his progression goes as planned. He’s athletic for his size and is only 20-years-old. The former Wolverine is a much better run-blocker than he is in pass sets, but the former is more important in Arthur Smith’s offense. For offensive linemen, more reps usually correlate to better technique in pass blocking. Mayfield only started 15 games at Michigan, so I expect him to improve drastically in that area with more experience.
Moving to guard will make the transition to the NFL easier, but he needs to add strength and refine his technique. This selection is underrated because offensive linemen are not a sexy pick, but Mayfield could provide more of an impact because Smith’s offense only goes as the run game goes — the biggest question marks on offense are at left guard and center. At least one of those positions will be occupied by a rookie in 2021.