Taking a defensive player in the 2021 NFL draft would make the most sense for Terry Fontenot and the Falcons, given how poorly that side of the ball has been in recent years. Six out of the past eight seasons have resulted in a 19th or worse ranked defense by points surrendered. In that same time period, Atlanta selected 12 defensive prospects in each draft’s first two selections compared to just four offensive prospects. The former regime knew their deficiencies, but they never could find the right answers to fix them. Only two of those defensive prospects are still on the team, not counting second-year players AJ Terrell and Marlon Davidson.
There’s plenty of blame to throw around — the front office for not making better decisions, and the coaching staff for not effectively developing homegrown talent. No matter how great a general manager is at plucking away pro prospects, the teams that have success are the ones who can draft and develop in-house.
Fontenot seems to be giving himself flexibility in the draft by signing one-year veterans as stopgaps at positions of need. The Falcons brass needs to be comfortable with their roster before the draft; that way, if an opportunity presents itself, Fontenot can pull the trigger instead of hesitating and contemplating, “well, if we had signed a _______ then we could’ve taken _______ .” The strategy of taking the best player available forces those general managers to be disciplined during the draft and stick to their war room’s big board.
If the Falcons don’t take a quarterback with the fourth overall pick, and Fontenot decides not to trade back, there is no defensive prospect worth taking fourth overall. The best non-quarterback prospects are all offensive players. A trade-down scenario from the fourth overall pick or trade-up scenario from the 35th overall pick should be the only possible way the Falcons come away with a defensive player in the first round.
The top of the draft — outside of quarterbacks — is loaded with talent on the perimeter, with guys like Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Kyle Pitts, and possibly Jaylen Waddle coming off the board in the first ten picks. Then you have the elite tackles such as Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater, and even Christian Darrisaw that could be selected in the first ten picks. Given all the high-end offensive players, including the quarterbacks, there’s a good chance this April that a defensive prospect won’t get drafted in the top-10, perhaps even the top-15.
Prospects like Patrick Surtain, Micah Parsons, Jaycee Horn, Caleb Farley, Kwity Paye, and Azeez Ojulari are all fantastic players in their own right. They will likely come in and start immediately, but none of them are worthy of being taken with the fourth overall pick. Strictly looking at on-field production and potential, Parsons is the only prospect worth even considering that high. However, given all the off-the-field issues, I doubt Fontenot and Smith bring in someone like that to set the tone for their reign. There aren’t players like Jamal Adams, Jalen Ramsey, Quinnen Williams, and Nick Bosa in this draft.
Anywhere after the tenth pick would be great value for any of the aforementioned prospects, but there is no situation where the Falcons come away with a defensive player if Fontenot stays put at four. The density of starting-caliber prospects between the top 20-50 is incredibly rich, so the Falcons could kill a few birds with one stone in a trade down scenario, but it’s still any of the quarterback prospects, Penei Sewell, Ja’Marr Chase or Kyle Pitts if the Falcons stay at four.