According to new Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, he and head coach Arthur Smith are “aligned” on who to select in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s D. Orlando Ledbetter.
That report also includes prospects who Ledbetter insists are squarely on the Falcons’ radar. Whether they ultimately make a choice at No. 4 overall, or trade back to gain additional future assets remains to be seen.
Fontenot faces a difficult salary cap situation in the coming years due to quarterback Matt Ryan‘s exorbitant contract. Ryan’s eventual successor could be in play for Atlanta, along with any number of other playmakers.
Let’s take a look at the Falcons’ best options with the fourth pick, based on the five prospects being bandied about in the Journal-Constitution report.
5. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Maybe Atlanta figures the best way forward, with Julio Jones aging and Calvin Ridley entering a contract year, is to ensure it gets a No. 1 receiver of the future in the event Jones is no longer productive or Ridley walks next offseason.
But until the wheels are literally falling off of Jones, and until a unique weapon like Ridley is allowed to walk — imagine how that’d make Ryan feel — Ja’Marr Chase is a total luxury pick for the Falcons and stands out as the player they least need.
Chase is widely considered the best receiver prospect in the 2021 class. However, Atlanta has plenty of other needs on its talent-depleted roster, and the hope is that Smith will bring over his successful offense from Tennessee to elevate the performance of the Falcons’ incumbent playmakers.
4. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Last time I checked, Jake Matthews was still in place at left tackle. Why is Penei Sewell necessary? Now, obviously the Falcons must envision Sewell sliding inside to guard and absolutely destroying anyone in his path. Atlanta’s interior offensive line definitely needs an upgrade.
It’s hard to knock taking a franchise left tackle of the future fourth overall — unless you already have one, which the Falcons do in Matthews. He still has three more seasons to play on a five-year, $72.5 million contract.
The superior move would be to trade down if offensive line is the top priority in the early going. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater would make a lot of sense and may actually project better as a guard or center in the NFL.
3. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
A Georgia native, Justin Fields is more than just a feel-good story. He’s been neck-and-neck with Trevor Lawrence ever since high school as a presumptive NFL franchise quarterback. After transferring from the University of Georgia, Fields shined as a two-year starter at Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to two playoff berths.
Fields is a much more dynamic athlete than Ryan, and getting someone who has the potential to be at least the second-best QB in the draft at this spot is a huge steal. We could be seeing a similar situation to what happened when Justin Herbert was the third signal-caller off the board, and now looks like he could be the best of the bunch.
Here’s the big caveat: Ryan still probably has a lot of football left in him. Smith’s scheme should help extend Matty Ice’s career, since it revolves much more around the rushing attack. The Falcons wouldn’t reap the benefits of capitalizing on Fields’ rookie contract window if he sits on the bench for multiple years.
2. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Perhaps the most gifted tight end prospect in NFL Draft history, Kyle Pitts is a stone-cold baller who’d help Atlanta give the NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers a run for their money as the most talented collection of offensive skill players in the conference.
Again, though, Pitts is more of a luxury pick. Ryan and Smith don’t necessarily need another world-class weapon to light up the scoreboard on Sundays. Where the Falcons are really lacking is on the defensive side of the ball.
Having said all of that, no one could blame Atlanta for taking Pitts. He feels like one of the safest prospects in the draft. Fontenot could address defense with literally all the rest of his picks, and probably have a home-run first-rounder in Pitts to point to as his maiden rookie class’ crown jewel.
1. Trade down, draft Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The option that ultimately prevails here, though, is trading out of the fourth pick, probably with the Denver Broncos down to ninth, and then taking Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
Surtain would give Atlanta a strong tandem at a vital position, joining A.J. Terrell. Having two players who are that skilled in coverage would aid the Falcons’ anemic pass rush. Better yet, Fontenot would probably net an additional second- or third-round pick to play with, and possibly a 2022 Day 1 choice.
Building through the draft doesn’t always make as much sense as most football pundits suggest. Given Atlanta’s cap woes and need for multiple quality defenders on less-expensive contracts, though, the best thing the Falcons can do in the 2021 NFL Draft is trade down, and target the best cornerback or pass-rusher available — whoever is higher on Fontenot’s board.