NFL draft prospects in play for Falcons’ 1st round pick

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We are less than a month away from the NFL draft, which is one of the most anticipated events in all of sports. The Falcons currently hold the 8th overall pick and are in an excellent position to grab a future high-quality starter. In Terry Fontenot’s first draft as Falcons general manager, he made Kyle Pitts the highest tight end drafted in league history.

The former Saints executive has been adamant regarding Atlanta’s draft strategy, best player available. This puts the team in a position to be flexible in the draft, which we saw when they selected Pitts 4th overall in 2021. Given the Falcons’ poor personnel, chances are whichever prospect the Falcons select will also fill a position of need. Here’s a compiled list in order of who I believe will be in Fontenot’s crosshairs:

Evan Neal (OT) — Alabama

I doubt Neal will be available when the Falcons are on the clock, but if he is, I’d expect Fontenot to take him. Neal played all over the Alabama offensive line during his time in Tuscaloosa — guard as a freshman, right tackle in 2020, and left tackle this past season. I’ve seen some draft pundits put Neal in the conversation for the 1st overall pick, and it’s reasonable. He is excellent in most facets of offensive line play and can play all over the line of scrimmage.

Kyle Hamilton (S) — Notre Dame

Everyone knows how I feel about Hamilton; he’s in the conversation for the best prospect in the class. If Richie Grant develops into the player I think he can be, a future tandem of Grant and Hamilton will be one of the best safety duos in the league.

Hamilton is similar to Derwin James in that he’s incredibly versatile. He has ideal size, excellent closing speed, and a high football IQ. Hamilton played all over the Irish defense in 2021, lining up deep in coverage, in the slot, and in the box as a linebacker. He can cover tight ends while also supporting the run with the best of them.

Kayvon Thibodeaux (EDGE) — Oregon

Thibodeaux is an exciting prospect. Many believe he’s not going to pan out in the league for whatever reason, but there’s no arguing the physical traits are there. He’s got the ideal body type for a premier edge rusher with impressive qualities across the board — initial quickness and punch, closing speed, bend, and he’s versatile enough to kick inside.

Ikem Ekwonu (G/OT) — NC State

Ekwonu is one of three offensive linemen who are in play for the Falcons. He’s the best run-blocker in this class — a mean, punch-you-in-the-mouth lineman that regularly knocks defenders off the ball. Given Arthur Smith’s offensive system, Ekwonu would have an immediate impact as a run blocker. He can play guard or tackle at the next level, which has to intrigue the Falcons, who could use upgrades at both positions.

Derek Stingley Jr. (CB) — LSU

Stingley is my favorite for the Falcons at 8, but I’m biased, given I went to LSU. However, covering him before he got on campus, I can tell you all Stingley knows is ball. His father has been cultivating a football specimen since the LSU product could walk. He’s flashed the length, speed, and physicality that shutdown corners in the league possess; Stingley can play press-man, off-coverage, and pretty much anything else his defensive coordinator asks of him. He’s incredibly fluid in the hips and has the instincts to match all those physical gifts.

Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (CB) — Cincinnati

Gardner is one of the best press man corners coming out of college in quite some time. He suffocates receivers with his long frame, but he also has great recognition skills in zone coverage. Sauce didn’t allow a single touchdown in 14 games last season. The tandem of A.J. Terrell and Gardner is enticing; it’ll give Dean Pees flexibility to bring exotic pressures.

Travon Walker (EDGE) — Georgia

Walker is a fast riser up most big boards, and some analysts have called him a darkhorse candidate to be the first player taken in the draft. After his combine, it’s easy to see why.

Walker is one of several former Dawgs that will see their draft stock rise after an impressive Combine performance, posting a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, a 35 1/2-inch vertical, a 10-foot-3 broad jump and an elite 6.89-second three-cone drill. Walker could be in play for the Falcons’ first-round pick.

Charles Cross (OT) — Mississippi State

Cross is the third offensive lineman on this list; I expect all three to be selected in the first ten picks of April’s draft. He is a natural pass blocker with the balance and patience to handle double moves, speed rushers, and blitzes. His run-blocking skills need refining, specifically his lower body strength, but he is still reliable in that area.

Jermaine Johnson II (EDGE) — Florida State

Johnson may be a little rich for the Falcons’ first-round pick, but I don’t see it that way. His performance at the Senior Bowl in Mobile made him one of the quickest risers up draft boards.  He showed his relentless motor and competitiveness while displaying the smooth movement that notched him 12 sacks, 45 pressures, and 23 tackles for loss.

Garrett Wilson (WR) — Ohio State

Despite my evaluations, a receiver will be in play for the Falcons’ first-round pick. Wilson’s ability to create separation, both at the line of scrimmage and at the top of his routes, is second to none in the draft class. He also has positional versatility as he lined up mainly in the slot in 2020 and on the boundary in 2021. He’s an electric playmaker with smooth routes and excellent body control. Wilson totaled 70 receptions for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns this past season.

Drake London (WR) — USC

London is a different type of receiver than Wilson. His massive frame — 6′ 5″, 210 pounds — makes him a matchup nightmare and a threat to make seemingly-impossible contested catches; he led college football with 19 such receptions. London’s season ended prematurely after he suffered a broken ankle, but he still recorded 88 receptions for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns in just eight games.

Malik Willis (QB) — Liberty

It pains me to have these next prospects included with the rest of them, but all reports indicate Willis and Pickett will be in the fold for the Falcons. Chase has already outlined the kind of prospect Willis is, and I couldn’t agree more.

The physical attributes are all there. Willis can throw bombs, looks the part at 6’1″, 225 pounds, and can flat out fly, allowing him to extend plays when they break down. At his best, he’s a star NFL quarterback. Unfortunately, the tape doesn’t show that all the time. He’s often inaccurate, especially down the field. There are plenty of plays throughout his college career where he misses wide open receivers. His lack of accuracy also hurts him when throwing into tight windows. Most quarterbacks selected in the top 10 are much better in these areas.

Willis’ bust potential shouldn’t scare the Falcons away, though. If it turns out he isn’t the guy, Atlanta will have another chance to draft a quarterback next year; just look at how the Cardinals handled things with Josh Rosen and Kyler Murray.

Kenny Pickett (QB) — Pittsburgh

The Falcons brass was out in full force at Pickett’s pro day. Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone, and Charles London were all in attendance. He’s got the makeup of a franchise quarterback in this league, but at 8, I think it’s a bit rich. There are downsides to Pickett, who has notoriously tiny hands, but I’m here to tell you it won’t be the factor that holds him back.

Photographer: John Rivera/Icon Sportswire


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