Armed with five of the top 100 picks and six of the top 115, Atlanta can pretty much do whatever it wants in this month’s NFL draft.
And that’s probably a good thing, as the Falcons lack talent at almost every position, save for a few notable exceptions.
So what would a “best player available” draft look like?
Here’s a glimpse of what the Falcons might do with its first six picks:
You can pencil in Marcus Mariota as the starter at quarterback, regardless of whether Atlanta drafts a QB in rounds 1 or 2. Mariota, though, likely isn’t the long-term answer at the position despite his status as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Just don’t count on Atlanta drafting Matt Ryan’s replacement with the No. 8 pick.
Michigan pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson appears to be a lock at this point to go No. 1 overall to Jacksonville, while Carolina seems to be leaning toward taking a QB with the No. 6 pick.
That takes care of two picks.
That leaves Georgia edge Travon Walker, Oregon edge Kayvon Thibodeaux, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, Alabama tackle Evan Neal, North Carolina tackle Ikem Ekwonu and LSU cornerback Derek Stingley as the best players available.
The best-case-scenario is either Thibodeaux or Walker falling to Atlanta, since both players would be an immediate upgrade over 2021 fifth-rounder Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Lorenzo Carter, who led the team with five sacks.
But Walker has seen his stock soar since the Combine and could be a top-5 pick. Either Neal or Ekwonu could be available, too, but Atlanta already has Jake Matthews at left tackle and Kaleb McGary at right tackle, plus there are several teams ahead of Atlanta who need a tackle.
Could Hamilton be the pick? He certainly might be available after running a 4.7-second 40 at his Pro Day. Since then, some draft analysts have pegged Michigan safety Daxton Hill as the top safety in this draft. Either way, it’s hard to see Atlanta drafting either player in the first round.
That leaves cornerbacks Gardner and Stingley as the most likely players to fall to the Falcons. The two New York teams both could use a cornerback, so cross off Gardner.
That leaves Atlanta with Stingley as the most likely player who’s still available.
Would that be a wise pick?
On the one hand, Stingley would pair with 2019 first-rounder A.J. Terrell to give the Falcons one of the top young CB duos in the league.
With that said, Stingley has seen his stock fluctuate in recent weeks, as the 6-foot, 190-pound junior missed 10 games the past two years after his breakout freshman season in which he played all 15 games for the national champions. Stingley put to rest some of the doubts, though, at LSU’s Pro Day, when he ran a 4.44-second 40 and had a 38 1/2-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump.
Derek Stingley's 91.7 PFF Grade in 2019 is the highest by an SEC CB since 2014 🔒pic.twitter.com/OyY8JSPB2E
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) April 7, 2022
There’s another reason why Atlanta might skip the QB position in the first round: In a draft that’s allegedly weak at the position, taking a quarterback any way would mean the Falcons would likely feel the need to stick with that player next season, when the QB pool is expected to be stronger.
Plus, it’s not as franchise-altering to draft a QB who doesn’t work out in the second round as opposed to taking one who fails to meet expectations with a high pick in the first round.
Liberty’s Malik Willis and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett are the only signal-callers almost assured of going in the first round, although that’s not set in stone, either. That leaves Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral as the top remaining quarterbacks.
Howell and Ridder are ranked near the bottom of the first-round/top of the second round in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board, which leaves Corral as the lone remaining “Tier 1” QB. Corral is ranked No. 57 overall.
There’s a big gap in the QB rankings after Corral; Nevada’s Carson Strong, who comes with medical red flags, is the next-highest rated at No. 126 overall.
Therefore, if the team doesn’t take a QB by the second round, then there’s a good chance Atlanta skips the position entirely.
Matt Corral launches an accurate missile down the sideline from a crowded pocket pic.twitter.com/HWaOGBmnJq
— Goal Line Stand (@GoalLineStand2) April 3, 2022
Maffe is right on the cusp of the bottom of the first round, as NFL team sources were split on whether he’d go in the first- or second-rounds, according to Walter Football. Hall is another solid option, although he would most likely play the Edge in Atlanta’s 3-4 defense instead of outside linebacker.
Ojabo is probably the most talented out of the group, but he’s expected to miss a chunk of his rookie season – or all of it – after suffering an ACL tear during his Pro Day.
That leaves Ebiketie, who’s coming off a solid season after transferring from Temple. Ebiketie had 62 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in his lone year for the Nittany Lions.
And he provides special teams value after blocking two kicks this past season.
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 2, 2022
If quarterback is Atlanta’s greatest need, then wide receiver might be the second-biggest need.
As many as six WRs could go in the first round. After that, only one receiver is ranked in the second-round range, according to the Rigdon big board.
That’s likely why some mocks have players like North Dakota’s Christian Watson and South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert going in Round 2, as they figure those receivers might not make it to them in the third round.
Still, the second tier of receivers is fairly deep, with seven ranked between picks 65 to 105.
This is truly a boom-or-bust pick, as Pickens comes with serious injury concerns but might have been the top receiver drafted had it not been for those red flags.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior tore his ACL in spring 2021 practices and missed most of the season, returning to play in the last four games. If healthy, then Pickens is easily Atlanta’s top receiver.
Career drop rates
George Pickens: 2.1%
Skyy Moore: 3.3%
Chris Olave: 4.7%
Jahan Dotson: 5.1%
Drake London: 5.7
Alec Pierce: 6.4%
Garrett Wilson: 6.8%
Justyn Ross: 7.1%
Treylon Burks: 7.4%
Jameson Williams: 7.7%
Jalen Tolbert: 8.4%
Christian Watson: 12.7% pic.twitter.com/QH1qlhHq2L
— Ben Linsey (@PFF_Linsey) April 7, 2022
Atlanta needs help along the interior of both lines, including at center, where 2021 fourth-rounder Drew Dalman is expected to push starter Matt Hennessy for a starter’s role.
The problem? There just aren’t very many centers in this draft who could step in as a starter from Day 1.
Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum is far-and-away the top center prospect in this draft. After Linderbaum, who is ranked No. 25 overall, is Kentucky’s Luke Fortner (No. 80), followed by the fast-rising Cam Jurgens of Nebraska (No. 107).
The 6-foot-4, 307-pound senior is said to be a terrific locker room presence, but he also comes with positional flexibility, as Fortner could also play guard at the next level.
Pick a guy you think goes on Day 3 – yet plays for 10yrs…
My vote: Luke Fortner pic.twitter.com/iL2GzABeCm
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 26, 2022
Atlanta still needs help at defensive line and, depending on how 2021 second-rounder Richie Grant and 2020 fourth-rounder Jaylinn Hawkins perform, safety might be under consideration, too.
As of now, five safeties are rated in the fourth-round range, but there’s no guarantee that any of them would be an immediate upgrade over Grant and Hawkins or over current starters Dean Marlowe or Erik Harris.
But, aside from 2021 first-round tight end Kyle Pitts, the Falcons lack dynamic athletes on offense, so the team could look at running back or even another receiver with this pick.
The 5-foot-9, 194-pound redshirt sophomore might have been a higher pick had it not been for the 4.65-second 40 he ran at the Combine.
Still, Williams is as close to a home run threat as the Falcons will find this late in the draft. Williams is seen as a “three-down” RB, as he can catch passes out of the backfield and is considered solid at blitz pickups.
Williams has run for 2,127 yards and 27 TDs the past two seasons and has caught 77 receptions for 672 yards and 4 TDs.
Kyren Williams is a magician pic.twitter.com/eivpkfxsRo
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) October 31, 2021
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