Falcons draft classes under new regime making strides

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The Falcons have begun the cultural shift in Atlanta under Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot. In the past two offseasons, the front office has rid the roster of bloated contracts and overpaid veterans like Matt Ryan, Dante Fowler, Deion Jones, Julio Jones, and others. Fontenot has relied on bargain shopping in free agency and large rookie classes to fill out the roster. Predictably, that formula has resulted in some of the least talented rosters in football. Last year, the Falcons finished 7-10, which is commendable given the talent level. And now, they sit at 4-4 atop the NFC South. A big reason for that is the two draft classes making strides.

2021 Draft Class

Kyle Pitts has had a much slower season this year compared to his rookie year but is coming off an impressive performance against the Panthers — logging five receptions for 80 yards and a score. Pitts is still a foundational piece of this team, and the front office drafted him for the future quarterback, not Marcus Mariota. Be patient, Falcons fans.

Richie Grant has now become a full-time starter for the first time with a bag of mixed results. Sometimes, he looks like the fastest guy on the field, flying down the alley to limit a runner’s gain. Other times, like against the Bengals, Grant looks like a rookie. On the season, he has the third-most tackles on the team, an interception, four passes defended, and two tackles for loss. As the game slows down for him mentally, his physical ability will take over. He’s flashing but needs to be more consistent.

Jalen Mayfield hasn’t been activated since landing on the injured reserve at the beginning of the season. And I’m not sure he ever gets back on the field. Elijah Wilkinson, who is an average player at best in this league, has taken over, and the offensive line has improved dramatically. That’s no coincidence. It seems Mayfield might’ve been a miss, but no general manager bats a perfect 1.000.

Darren Hall will now have an extended job interview with Casey Hayward on the IR and likely out for the season. Hall got his first start of the season against the Bengals, and he performed admirably considering the circumstances. Against the Panthers, it was a similar product. The defense as a whole is terrible, so you can’t point to Hall as the cause.

Drew Dalman leaves a lot to be desired at the center position, but he’s certainly been an upgrade over Matt Hennessey. Dalman likely has the starting center position locked up until the Falcons feel they can upgrade significantly.

Ta’Quon Graham is someone I was very high on coming out of Texas when the Falcons drafted him. He’s exceptionally long and uses leverage beautifully. Graham’s presence has improved the Falcons run defense exponentially. They’re actually a solid unit against the run. However, he leaves a lot to be desired as a pass rusher, where the defense struggles the most.

Ade Ogundeji has had a quiet season, but he’s a similar player as Graham. He’s better against the run than rushing the passer. Ogundeji is much less effective defending the run compared to Graham, though. He shouldn’t be anything more than a rotational piece if the Falcons improve the edge room unless he takes a significant leap next year.

Avery Williams might be one of the highest performers in this rookie class. He’s averaging more yards per punt return than anyone in the league and offers Arthur Smith a Darren Sproles-esque role in the offense. Williams is an incredible special teams player, which often goes unnoticed. But not here; Williams is a beast.

Frank Darby has recorded only a handful of snaps.

2022 Draft Class

Much like the 2021 class, the rookies are a bag of mixed results. After starting the season on fire, Drake London has cooled off considerably in recent weeks. However, he’s instrumental in the Falcons’ run game and continuously comes up big on third downs. Much like Pitts, London wasn’t brought in for Mariota but for the next quarterback.

Arnold Ebiketie has continually improved throughout the season, becoming a starter. His best game came against the 49ers, where he recorded five quarterback pressures. He seems to be the future at the position.

Troy Andersen got a start in place of an injured Mykal Walker, but he’s mostly been a special teams contributor. Much like Richie Grant’s first year, Andersen is slowly learning Dean Pees’ scheme. Expect him to be the full-time starter next season.

Desmond Ridder remains on clipboard duty.

DeAngelo Malone‘s snap counts have increased, but he’s still playing a supplemental role behind Lorenzo Carter, Ebiketie, and Ogundeji.

Tyler Allgeier has made the most of his opportunity with Cordarrelle Patterson going down. Caleb Huntley and the BYU product haven’t slowed down one bit since taking over for the veteran. Allgeier can also impact the game as a receiver and runner; he seems primed to play a role in the Falcons’ offense in the future, even when Patterson returns.

Justin Shaffer and John FitzPatrick have yet to log a snap.

Photographer: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

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