This is the second installment of a series reviewing Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith’s first draft class in Atlanta, which included a total of nine players. We’ll go chronologically through these draft picks in the order they were selected; next up is the Falcons’ second-round pick that rarely saw the field.
If you’ve missed any other installments, be sure to check them out!
When the Falcons drafted Richie Grant with the 40th overall pick, I pegged him as the shoo-in starter next to Erik Harris or Duron Harmon. Even before Atlanta selected him, nobody was higher on the safety out of Central Florida than I was. I noted in a piece before the 2021 NFL Draft that taking him 35th overall—the Falcons’ original second-round pick before Terry Fontenot traded back with the Broncos—would satisfy a team need as well as the “best player available” approach Fontenot intends to use.
Grant can play any role in any coverage Dean Pees decides to deploy. He possesses sideline-to-sideline range with explosive acceleration, which allows him to take tight ends and running backs in man coverage, not just cover ground as a single-high or split-zone safety. Grant has incredible ball skills but packs a punch as a run-defender. He’s likely a free safety at the next level, but with that said, he can comfortably work in the slot. He can even play in the box when needed due to his efforts in run defense and physical nature.
There are limitations to his game, such as his age and weight. A hair under 200-pounds and 24-years-old, Grant is easily handled by blockers and might not have the same longevity as younger prospects. These are normal concerns, but nothing ground-breaking that can’t be overlooked. His playstyle is aggressive, so he occasionally misses tackles as well as bites on play-action, but he’s a clean prospect with a ton of upside — a future “do-it-all” safety that Pees can move around like a chess piece.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Overall, Grant was on the field for only 23.5% of defensive snaps this season, including four games where he accumulated zero snaps on defense. He only surpassed 50% of defensive snaps in three games while playing in over three-quarters of all special teams snaps. Grant was a mainstay in the third phase of the game, but that’s not exactly what you want from your second-round pick.
Injuries to Isaiah Oliver and Erik Harris resulted in an uptick of snaps, but he received most of his defensive snaps as the nickel back, not as a traditional safety. So, what was the reason, even with injuries in the secondary, that Grant couldn’t consistently get on the field?
It’s simple; while Grant is undoubtedly ready to compete at the professional level, he just wasn’t there mentally. He possesses the raw talent to be a difference-maker in this league, but without the knowledge of how NFL offenses operate, and with limited understanding of Dean Pees’ scheme, Grant just wasn’t able to shine consistently.
Grant himself will say that he’s had a vast amount of information thrown at him. From understanding his own role and technique to grasping the responsibilities of the entire defense to just learning how to be a professional in this league, it can be overwhelming for a rookie. “Beginning of the year? Pfft,” Grant said in a presser a couple of weeks ago. “I’ve been learning a lot, let’s just say that. I’m a completely different ballplayer than I was when I first got here. It was just raw talent, but now I am finally putting the pieces together.”
Grant finished his first season with 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble and fumble recovery. He logged nearly 200 snaps in the slot, surrendering 19 receptions on 24 targets for over 200 yards. Playing the nickel corner position in Dean Pees’ scheme can be difficult, especially for a rookie with very little knowledge of the system.
Just as some of us struggle to begin a new job, so did Grant. As the season progressed, his increased confidence in himself—and the defense as a whole—became apparent. To completely write off this draft pick after he barely played is gross negligence. Grant’s consistency needs to improve, but we saw those flashes of brilliance that he’s capable of providing.
He was likely a disappointment for most fans, but in reality, he never really got on the field except for special teams. For a rookie in a complex defensive scheme, Grant’s rookie year shouldn’t be considered a failure. He’s got incredible physical gifts and just needs to catch up at the professional level mentally. There’s no doubt the Falcons need Grant—along with the entire rookie class—to take a significant leap in 2022.