Falcons need 2021 draft class to take massive leap in 2022

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Terry Fontenot’s first draft class was headlined by Kyle Pitts, who was selected fourth overall and played a significant role in Arthur Smith’s offense. He broke multiple records — first rookie tight end in 60 years to exceed 1,000 yards, Falcons’ all-time leading rookie receiver, Falcons’ single-season receiving yards leader by a tight end — on his way to being the first rookie tight end voted into the Pro Bowl since Jeremey Shockey in 2002.

Pitts also almost broke Mike Ditka‘s 1,076 receiving yards record by a rookie tight end, ending up 51 yards short. It is safe to say Fontenot nailed the first pick of his career as Falcons general manager; the same cannot be said for the rest of the 2021 rookie class, though. Richie Grant, the Falcons second-round pick, hardly made it on the field due to a lack of knowledge of the playbook, says the coaching staff.

To draft a player that high who can’t get on the field can be seen as nothing other than a failure. The Falcons’ third-round pick, Jalen Mayfield, played nearly every snap, but one could argue the Falcons would’ve been better with him off the field like Grant. He was abysmal this season and makes Fontenot 1-for-3 in his first draft picks through their rookie years.

Darren Hall, Avery Williams, Drew Dalman, Ade Ogundeji, Ta’Quon Graham, and Frank Darby rounded out the rest of Fontenot’s first draft class. Many of whom had very little impact. Williams and Ogundeji probably had the most significant impact of those players, but they were minimal. Fontenot knows they struggled too.

“Rookies, you’re gonna take lumps, and there’s gonna be ups and downs. What I love about this rookie class is the mindset of the group. I believe they have competitive guys that fight and compete, and it’s gonna be a challenge for them to continue to develop coming into this next year,” the Falcons general manager said in his end-of-the-season press conference.

The Falcons don’t have the luxury of these draft picks not panning out; in fact, Atlanta needs a majority of them to develop into reliable starters if they want any chance of competing in the postseason in Matt Ryan’s latter years, especially when you consider what the Falcons cap situation looks like next season. Pitts will continue to ascend into greatness, but the rest of his classmates need to take a massive leap in 2022.

Grant, Mayfield, Ogundeji, and Hall will probably carve out starting roles before next season. Grant and Mayfield are the two who the most eyes will be on heading into 2022. The Falcons need at least two of those four to turn into above-average caliber starters. Even if the season was unimpressive for most people, the Falcons don’t feel the same about their soon-to-be sophomore class.

“They played a lot,” Fontenot said. “If you look at it, it was tops in the league in terms of the amount of snaps they played, the games they were active for, and the amount of snaps they played not just on offense or defense but also in the kicking game. They contributed a lot. And that was our plan for them to come in and contribute and grow and develop.”

Writing any of the 2021 draft class off after just one season is incredibly short-minded, especially for players who rarely saw the field. This offseason will be a big task for the coaching staff to develop these rookies, but only time will tell if the draft picks will work out. Fontenot seems to think they will.

“We appreciate the fight we got from that group. We believe they are wired the right way.”

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