The 2021 NFL Draft starts on Thursday, April 29. As a lead-up to the draft, we’ll be giving a team-by-team breakdown for positional needs. For each team, we’ll give an overview of the current depth chart and how big of a need each position in the upcoming draft. You can find the rest of the team needs (as they’re updated) and the rest of our draft content in the 2021 NFL Draft hub.
Atlanta Falcons 2021 DRAFT PICKS OVERVIEW
Round 1 (4)
Round 2 (35)
Round 3 (68)
Round 4 (108)
Round 5 (148)
Round 5 (182)
Round 5 (183)
Round 6 (187)
Round 6 (219)
Atlanta Falcons Offense
By Rich Hribar
Ryan is the only quarterback currently signed by the Falcons after Matt Schaub retired and the team released Kurt Benkert.
Ryan will turn 36 years old heading into 2021 with two years remaining on his current contract. He does carry a $40.5M dead cap hit in 2022, but still would actually save the Falcons $8M in cap space if they did choose to move on after this season.
I am not so sure they even should with quarterbacks able to push 40-years-old regularly now. Ryan has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in 10 straight seasons and has completed over 400 passes in each of the past three seasons. He has led the league in completions in each of the past two seasons. Put in a more friendly offensive climate under Arthur Smith, Ryan is still a viable quarterback for multiple seasons.
This new regime could believe otherwise, however, and hold a premium draft pick at No. 4 overall. If they love the passer available there, they may take their current opportunity to pounce since it may not come up again soon. They also should trade down if not taking a quarterback (of course you need a partner).
As a top-down depth note, at this current moment, the Falcons only have nine offensive players currently signed beyond this upcoming season, with pending fifth-year options on Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst. They have just 20 players under contract total currently over the entire roster with just the 22nd most cap space available in 2022. 77% of their current cap is solely taken up by Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Deion Jones. This team needs multiple additions to the roster.
Regardless of whether or not they select a quarterback at No. 4, they are surely going to add a rookie contract to the roster.
Keith Smith (FB)
The Falcons were 27th in the NFL last season in expected points added via rushing and have purged nearly the entirety of that backfield. The only backs currently on the roster to touch the football last season are Qadree Ollison (one touch), Tony Brooks-James (three), and fullback Keith Smith (15 touches).
The team added veteran Mike Davis on a two-year contract. Davis accrued 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns last season in relief of Christian McCaffrey in 2020. Only three backs caught more passes than the 59 receptions had a year ago. Davis showed he was capable of being a back that can accumulate production if fed touches, but still was not a player that was turning in high efficiency on that volume.
The 28-year-old back started hot, handling 21, 21, and 25 touches for 91, 111, and 149 total yards in his three starts last season. Over his next nine games with McCaffrey inactive, Davis reached 80 yards from scrimmage in just one of those games. Despite racking up 224 touches in total, Davis managed just 3.9 yards per carry and just 6.3 yards per reception on those touches. The Falcons are a team we should believe will be in the mix to pursue another back in the draft to add to Davis (and whatever touches they give Cordarrelle Patterson).
Atlanta is still loaded at the top of the position, having arguably the best pair of top wideouts in the league in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
After playing 14 or more games in six straight seasons, an ongoing hamstring battle limited the 31-year-old Jones to just nine games in 2020. While Father Time is undefeated and Jones could be nearing his inevitable decline, he still averaged 15.1 yards per catch (his highest since 2017) and ranked sixth in receiving yards per game (85.7) at his position. Jones turned 32 this past February, but is still signed through 2023 with dead cap hits of $17.5M and $7.7M over the 2022-2023 seasons.
Ridley has done nothing but improve over the start of his career as his targets (5.8-7.2-9.5), receptions (4.0-4.8-6.0) and yardage (51.3-66.6-91.6) have risen each season. Ridley led the NFL in air yards per game (131.6) and receptions on targets over 15 yards downfield (28) in 2020. The Falcons will surely pick up his fifth-year option for 2022 at the May 3rd deadline.
With Jones signed through 2023 and the team expected to pick up Ridley’s option, no other Atlanta wideout is currently signed beyond this season. The team has restricted or exclusive rights on everyone else with the exception of Russell Gage, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The top of the roster is anchored by two studs, but Atlanta still has a need for depth at the wide receiver position.
The tight ends in Atlanta were a struggle last season as the team ranked 27th in success rate (50%) and 25th in yards per target (6.4) targeting the position. After trading for Hayden Hurst last offseason, Hurst was third on the team in targets (88) and receptions (56), but ranked just 18th among tight ends in yards per game (35.7) while averaging just 6.5 yards per target.
The team will have a decision to make on picking up Hurst’s fifth-year option as well, which is currently looking to be around $5.4M. The team added run blocker Lee Smith to the mix for Arthur Smith’s system that used a league-high 35% of 12 personnel last season with the Titans. Atlanta has also been long-rumored to be interested in Kyle Pitts if they stay at pick No. 4. If they do bypass Pitts, the long-term answer at the position is still likely not on this roster.
LT: Jake Matthews/ Matt Gono
LG: Willie Wright/Josh Andrews*
C: Matt Hennessy
RG: Chris Lindstrom
RT: Kaleb McGary/Willie Beavers
The Falcons currently only have eight linemen under contract, but do have locked-in starters in Jake Matthews (signed through 2023) and Chris Lindstrom (2022). The rest of this unit is a mixed bag. Alex Mack and James Carpenter each led the team in snaps at center and left guard last season. The current alternatives in-house to replace both have limited resumes.
The team selected Matt Hennessy in the third round last season. Hennessy found the field for 150 snaps at center and 75 at left guard, but graded out 170th among 187 guards and centers in 2020 per Pro Football Focus on that limited sample. Willie Wright has yet to play a snap in the league while Josh Andrews has played for three teams over his six years in the league. Matt Gono also took 68 of his 336 snaps last season at left guard to throw his name into the competition.
2019 first-round pick Kaleb McGary is under contract for the next two seasons on his rookie deal, grading out 49th and 38th among tackles his first two seasons in the league per Pro Football Focus. Left guard and center are priority positions while depth is a need everywhere.
Atlanta Falcons Defense
By Dan Pizzuta
Interior Defensive Line
Grady Jarrett was third in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate among defensive tackles and eighth in Run Stop Win Rate. He was one of three defensive tackles to be in the top 10 of both in 2020. Jarrett was 21st among defensive tackles in pressure rate last season, per Sports Info Solutions. He’s the most consistent piece of the Falcons defense and is signed through the 2022 season.
Tyeler Davison played the second-most snaps on the interior with 48% of the snaps. Davison is more of a run-stopping interior player (he ranked just 80th in pressure rate at the position) and that’s all that is needed next to a player like Jarrett.
John Comisky has been a tweener, in the positive use of the word, lining up both inside and outside. Comisky played 36.8% of the defensive snaps in 2020 and added three quarterback hits with three tackles for loss. 2020 second-round pick Marlon Davidson also has this versatility, but he was only on the field for 12% of the defensive snaps and started the year with a knee injury. Both Cominsky and Davidson missed time on the COVID-Reserve list in 2020.
Dante Fowler parlayed a good season with the Rams into a three-year contract with the Falcons. The production did not follow. Fowler ranked 79th among edge rushers in pressure rate, per SIS. There’s not much depth behind Fowler.
Jacob Tuioti-Mariner has played inside lined up more often on the edge in 2020. He had a league-average pressure rate for edge rushers — which was the best of this group — but that led to just five quarterback hits and one sack. The 2019 undrafted free agent played 35% of the defensive snaps last season.
Jonathan Bullard, a third-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2016, is another tweener who hasn’t been able to stay on the field or find consistent production throughout his career. Bullard had his best season in 2019 with seven quarterback hits in nine games played, but he has no more than two quarterback hits in any other season.
If there is one position on the defense the Falcons don’t have to worry about the quality of talent, it’s going to be off-ball linebacker. But, the depth chart only goes four deep at the moment. Deion Jones remains one of the best all-around linebackers in the league. Last season, he combined nine tackles for loss with 10 quarterback hits and six passes defensed. He was one of 19 defenders to go at least 5-5-5 in those categories. He’s signed through 2023.
Foyesade Oluokun was a sixth-round pick in 2018 and turned into a plus starter with his first shot at the starting gig in 2020. Oluokun ranked 36th among 59 linebackers with at least 20 charted targets in yards allowed per target, which was a weakness, but he was able to bring it as a pass rusher. He rushed the passer on 20.8% of his pass snaps.
Mykal Walker, a 2020 fourth-round pick, was also a heavily used blitzer as an off-ball linebacker. Walker rushed the passer on 25% of his pass snaps but created significantly less pressure (just 8%) than Oluokon (22%). The ability to blitz from the off-ball spot will come in handy for a Dean Pees defense.
The Falcons will be hoping a young group of corners can continue to develop. A.J. Terrell, Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2020, played 84% of the defensive snaps last season. He ranked 112th among 148 cornerbacks in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. But given the struggles of most rookie corners last year, that ranking isn’t too bad.
Kendall Sheffield was a fourth-round pick in 2019 and played 48.5% of the defensive snaps over 13 games. Sheffield ranked 143rd among those corners in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap.
Isaiah Oliver split his time between the slot and outside and played 76.7% of the snaps overall. He ranked 119th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap. Oliver was a second-round pick in 2018 and will enter 2021 in the final year of his rookie deal.
Atlanta signed Fabian Moreau to a cheap one-year deal in free agency. Moreau lost time in Washington’s defensive rotation last season (he played just 15% of the defensive snaps) but flashed when he was on the field. Moreau ranked 20th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap and 48th in 2019.
Atlanta’s safety group has completely changed over from what it looked like throughout the Dan Quinn era. Jaylinn Hawkins is the only player in the group who played defensive snaps for the Falcons last season and that was just 6.8%. Erik Harris was signed as a free agent but the 31-year-old has been inconsistent on the backend of the Raiders’ defense. Duron Harmon was another free agent signing and he’s been solid as a deep safety throughout his career. Harmon will also be 31 years old in 2021. Both free agent safeties are only on a one-year deal.
The Falcons were 21st in DVOA against deep passes last season, per Football Outsiders, and with no investment past this season, this could be a position Atlanta targets on Day 2.