Building a self-sustaining roster through the draft is important; in fact, one could argue it is the only way to have enduring, long-term success in the NFL. How that is accomplished is easier said than done, though. The best teams in the league find starting-caliber players in the first couple rounds of the draft, but so do most teams. The hit rate in the first 64 picks is exponentially higher than the middle-to-late round picks.
The Packers, Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, Saints, Chiefs, and Ravens are the most winning teams over the past 10 years. The difference between those organizations and the Browns (until recently), Jaguars, Jets, and Lions is their staff’s ability to find starting-caliber players in the middle-to-late rounds of the NFL draft.
This Falcons draft class — the first under the new regime — will ideally be a foundational piece going forward. At this point, it is far too early to tell which of the nine drafted rookies will develop into solid contributors, but some have already shown flashes of starting-level play. A mid-to-late round selection turning into an every-down type of player is something every successful team has in common; as a general manager, it is about minimizing your misses in the draft.
Terry Fontenot may have found a gem in the fifth round of his first draft in charge — Ade Ogundeji. Of course, Kyle Pitts will be the face of this class for years to come, but at this point, Ogundeji is the surprise of the 2021 draft class.
A fifth-round pick isn’t necessarily supposed to come in and make an impact immediately; nobody told the former Notre Dame star that. At first, he was the beneficiary of a thin depth chart at outside linebacker as Dante Fowler missed time being on the COVID-19 list; he made the most of those reps. He took first-team reps during the team’s open practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, moving up and down the defensive front showing his versatility.
He’s been reportedly beating everyone the coaches put in front of him in one-on-ones, including Jake Matthews. He looked impressive in his snaps during the Titans game. He uses his incredible length in both run and pass-rushing situations; he can stand up outside of tackles in three-man fronts, put his hand in the dirt in the same spot or kick down in four-man fronts. His pass-rushing skills aren’t diverse enough yet to win consistenly, but he knows how to use his length and thrives against the run.
In the Miami game, Ogundeji continued to show up — notching a couple of tackles, a quarterback hurry, and a pass defended. If Ogundeji can turn into a reliable defender along the front, it’ll be a big part in retooling this roster in hopes of chasing a Super Bowl. The formula should be to draft and develop — to have quality starters and role players on rookie deals. Free agents are for rounding out a roster, not building the foundation; Ogundeji could be a key piece of this team going forward.
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