Since taking over in Atlanta as general manager, Terry Fontenot has been adamant about how the Falcons will approach the NFL draft—by taking the best player available. Even in a stacked quarterback class a year ago, Fontenot’s front office elected to make Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in league history because he was the best player on the board.
Fontenot has said in the past that draft mistakes happen when teams reach to fill a need, instead of selecting the best player available. So I fully expect the Atlanta front office to trust their evaluation and big board when draft night comes. Luckily, there are so many holes on the Falcons’ roster that the best player available at the 8th pick will more than likely fill a need.
Pro Football Focus put out a piece on the best fit for each prospect, given which teams are in a realistic position to land them. The Falcons were named the best fit for three different prospects, each addressing a current deficiency on the depth chart. This solidifies the earlier point that, regardless of who the best player on the board is when the Falcons are on the clock, they’ll probably fill a positional need.
9. EDGE GEORGE KARLAFTIS, PURDUE: ATLANTA FALCONS
The Falcons have had their fair share of pass-rushing woes over the past decade, as they have only had a player record double-digit sacks twice (John Abraham’s 10 in 2012 and Vic Beasley’s anomalous 15.5 in 2016) since 2011.
As one of the most productive pass-rushers in this class, Karlaftis has the potential to rectify this issue. His 27.8% pass-rush win rate is the 13th-highest among FBS defensive linemen that have been since 2015, and his 20% win rate on true pass sets puts him in the top 20% among defensive linemen over that same span. While his run-defense production is only middling, his size and strength suggest that he should improve in this area. He is an excellent candidate to become the Falcons’ primary D-gap defender.
11. CB AHMAD GARDNER, CINCINNATI: ATLANTA FALCONS
Sauce Gardner is very, very good at man coverage. That is his calling card, and that will be the reason he is drafted so highly. Cincinnati called Cover 1 on 36.9% of his snaps, and Gardner lined up in a press alignment on 80% of his coverage snaps. With these responsibilities, he was targeted on only 9.41% of his snaps, the 97th-highest rate of the 358 FBS defensive backs drafted since 2015, including rarely targeted safeties.
Therefore, Gardner can reasonably fit in any defensive scheme that heavily relies upon man coverage and quarters, which is quite a few teams. For this exercise, we’ll go with the Atlanta Falcons, partially due to the synergy of Dean Pees’ high blitz rates and 10th-highest Cover 1 rate on early downs in 2021. The other main reason is that pairing Gardner with A.J. Terrell in a man-heavy scheme has the potential to create one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
12. C TYLER LINDERBAUM, IOWA: ATLANTA FALCONS
Linderbaum getting swept up by Arthur Smith’s offense is one of the most natural fits in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Falcons employed zone runs on 73% of their early-down running plays in 2021, a top-five mark. And in Linderbaum’s last season at Iowa, the Hawkeyes utilized zone runs on 79% of their early-down running plays, in which he posted an astounding 95.4 run-blocking grade.
While Linderbaum’s pass-blocking production is slightly less ridiculous — an 80.2 grade on true pass-blocking snaps, which ranked sixth among Power Five centers with at least 100 such snaps — he would be a clear upgrade over current Falcons center Matt Hennessy’s 48.4 grade on true pass-blocking snaps in 2021.
Karlaftis or Linderbaum at No. 8 is a little rich for my taste, but the scheme fit is undeniable. The Falcons need every bit of help on the edge, and Karlaftis could be a foundational piece on the defensive line. The Falcons would have to be 100% sure Linderbaum would be an All-Pro- or Hall of Fame-caliber center to justify selecting him 8th overall with Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman on the roster.
Sauce Gardner is the name that truly pops. Not only could he be the best player on the board, but he also fills a significant need on the roster—a win-win. With such a loaded cornerback class, the Falcons could do no wrong selecting any of the top prospects—Sauce, Derek Stingley, Andrew Booth, or Trent McDuffie. Some might say picking a primarily press-man cornerback like Gardner wouldn’t be wise for the Falcons, but Dean Pees has stated before that he’s willing to adjust his scheme to fit the personnel.