Revisiting the 2021 NFL Draft in Justin Fields return to face hometown Falcons

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The Falcons don’t have the quarterback position figured out. Despite many fans clamoring to see Desmond Ridder, the rookie hasn’t played a single regular season snap, and there’s no shred of evidence that points to Arthur Smith benching Marcus Mariota. Teams are only as good as their quarterback. Just ask the Colts, who built one of the league’s most well-balanced rosters last year, only to miss the playoffs on the back of Carson Wentz. The Falcons could have their franchise quarterback in Ridder, but we won’t know until we see him play. In that same breath, it seems Justin Fields is a franchise quarterback.

Atlanta is set to host Chicago and Fields today in the former Roswell High School star’s return home. The Bears’ offense has been tweaked in recent weeks to better accentuate Fields’ electrifying playmaking ability, and the early returns are encouraging for Chicago. After beginning the season rarely putting him in a position to succeed, the Bears’ philosophy has completely shifted to a run-dominant offense with a supplemented play action passing attack. In the same territory as Tua Tagavailoa and Marcus Mariota, the Bears have ramped up the play action dropbacks for Fields, and it’s been working. The former No. 11 overall pick is seventh in the entire league in rushing yards with 749.

The most obvious storyline of this matchup is the Falcons passing on Justin Fields in favor of Kyle Pitts, who has been nothing but disappointing this season. After a record-breaking rookie season en route to the Pro Bowl, Pitts has totaled just two games with four or more catches, which is a stark difference from his first campaign. But it’s not his fault.

The Falcons have completely changed their offensive philosophy in wake of trading Matt Ryan. Atlanta has turned to the running game with a less-than-reliable Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Nobody runs more often than the Falcons other than the Bears; they hold the top two spots for the highest percentage of their offensive plays being runs.

A year ago, nobody was questioning the Kyle Pitts selection. He posted a 1,000-yard season and was doing it without any real experience in the league; the sky looked to be the limit. Now, in a run-heavy Falcons offense, everyone’s questioning why Atlanta made Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in history. He’s blocking on most of the team’s plays, and when he is targeted, Mariota generally misses him, posting an off-target rate of 30%. Pitts is a Ferrari and is being used like a work truck to just bang bodies with linebackers and defensive ends in the run game. It’s honestly sad.

The Falcons had Matt Ryan and looked to be trying to compete when the team selected Pitts. At the time, the Falcons had Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on the team. Adding someone like Pitts to the receiving core made mouths salivate. Fast Foward to the present, and the pick makes a lot less sense. The Falcons don’t pass the ball because they don’t have a reliable thrower in Marcus Mariota and have an obvious need for a quarterback — enter Justin Fields.

Hindsight is always 20/20, so it’s kind of a silly exercise to re-visit the 2021 NFL Draft, but I don’t think it’s completely useless. At the time of the selection, it made sense to take Kyle Pitts to maximize Ryan’s twilight years in Atlanta. Arthur Smith wanted to compete, and Pitts was the best player available; I still have no issues with the selection. But it may turn out to be the wrong one if Fields turns into an elite quarterback.

Photographer: Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

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