Strengths and weaknesses of 2021 draft class, and what it means for the Falcons

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The Falcons have obvious needs at multiple positions — running back, offensive line, defensive line, and defensive backs all need to be addressed this offseason. But what about the strengths and weaknesses of the 2021 draft class? Terry Fontenot will have his own big board, which is a guide to maneuvering through all seven rounds of the process. Rankings for each team are always different, but this year, even more so because of the strange offseason — no combine, no in-person interviews, etc. Prioritizing positions based on the two or three high-profile prospects set to be taken in the first round doesn’t tell the full story as some positions are top-heavy while others have more depth. Today, we will explore the strongest and weakest position groups while discussing how it could affect the Falcons’ decision-making. 

Beginning with the obvious, the quarterbacks this year are as good as they’ve ever been. Trevor Lawrence is a significant reason for that, but Justin FieldsZach WilsonTrey Lance, and Mac Jones all seem primed to be taken in the first round. There are even a couple of day two or three prospects like Kyle TraskIan BookSam EhlingerKellen MondJamie NewmanDavis MillsDesmond RidderJT Daniels, and Kenny Pickett, who could turn into serviceable starters. But for the most part, it’s a top-heavy quarterback class, meaning — if Atlanta wants to find Matt Ryan’s successor in this year’s draft, they ought to do it early. 

Next is the offensive line, which is both deep and has top-level talent in Penei Sewell, Christian Darrasahw, and Rashawn Slater that will all likely be first-round picks. Still, it would not be a shock to see five tackles crack the first round, with another half a dozen worthy of being taken in Round 2 or shortly after that. The interior offensive line doesn’t have the Quinton Nelson top-level talent, but many tackles are projected to kick inside to guard, like USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, and Clemson’s Jackson CarmanLandon DickersonWyatt Davis, and Quinn Meinerz headline the day two and three offensive linemen. This is good for the Falcons, who need to replace Alex Mack, find a starting right guard and a sixth offensive lineman to compete for depth.

Following the offensive line, I would have the wide receivers as the strongest position group. Much like last year’s draft, we could see a handful of receivers taken in the first round. I would generally group Kyle Pitts in the wide receiver category, but it’s stacked with day one, two, and three talent even without him. DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall, Jaylen Waddle, and Kadirus Tony could all be first-round picks. Marquez StevensonRondale MooreRashod BatemanTylan Wallace, Sage Surrett, and Elijah Moore are just a few of the day two and three prospects. This could be tricky for Atlanta, who claims to want to draft using the best player available strategy. Chase and Pitts are the 1a and 1b receivers and could eventually replace Julio Jones, but the thought of getting someone like Terrace Marshall at the beginning of the second round screams better value.

For the next strongest position, which may be controversial, I have the cornerbacks — boundaries and nickel. Beginning at the top, Caleb FarleyPatrick Surtain II, and Jaycee Horn are all first-round talents. Farley and Surtain could be taken in the top-ten. But Tyson CampbellAaron Robinson, and Greg Newsome could provide first-round talent at the beginning of the second round. Depth isn’t an issue with this position group either. Eric StokesAsante Samuel Jr., Shaun WadeRodarius WilliamsIfeatu MelifonwuElijah Molden, and Keith Taylor could all become impact players early in their careers and will be selected on days two and three. There is a corner for every type of defense; man or zone, nickel, or boundary — ideal for a Falcons team with an uninspiring cornerback room. 

The second-level defenders are the next strongest position group, which I am grouping 3-4 inside and 4-3 outside linebackers along with hybrids who play the linebacker-safety role. The depth and talent are impressive up and down, even though it appears to fall off on the third day. There are day one starters such as Micah ParsonsNick Bolton, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who could turn into Pro Bowl-caliber players. Then there are players like Chazz SurrattJabril CoxDylan MosesZaven CollinsBaron Browning, and Pete Werner, all scheme-specific prospects that round out this class with starting-caliber depth. The Falcons would be wise to grab one of these options with Foyesade Oloukon approaching a contract year.

This is where things start to thin out considerably. The running backs, safeties, and defensive linemen are all relatively weak this year. The only interior defensive lineman worthy of going in the first round is Christian Barmore, and the edge position doesn’t have a Chase Young or Nick Bosa type of talent. Interior defensive linemen like Levi OnwuzurikeJaylen TwymanJay TufeleTyler ShelvinDaviyon NixonMarlon Tuipulotu, and Tommy Togiai could be rotational pieces. But Kwity Paye, Jaelen Phillips, Gregory RousseauAzeez OjulariJoseph Ossai, and Carlos Basham all have an intriguing upside.

The safeties are much of the same as there is no Jamal Adams worthy prospect. Still, there is a dense group of second to third round prospects for the later rounds, such as Trevon Moehrig, Jevon HollandRichie GrantHamsah NasirildeenAndre CiscoTalanoa Hufanga, Tyree Gillespe, Joshuah Bledsoe, and Paris Ford — a positive for the Falcons, who have early picks in each round where Moehrig might fall in the second or Grant in the third. 

Running back comes in at last among the position groups. This is a position many will say has some top-level talent but lacks the depth — I beg to differ. A running back is so dependent nowadays on the offensive line, quarterback, and scheme that any fifth-round option could run in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Travis Etienne and Najee Harris are the two most recognizable names. Still, prospects like Javonte WilliamsMichael Carter, Kenneth Gainwell, Kylin HillRhamondre StevensonDemetric FeltonTrey Sermon, and Khalil Herbert are all a mixed bag of running styles. Some are third-down receiving threats, while others are potential three-down backs. Regardless, there’s no reason to draft any of them before the third round unless one of Harris or Etienne falls to the Falcons in the second — you’d have to consider them there at least.

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