Previewing what the NFL Draft’s first three rounds could bring for the Falcons

Illustration by Roe Gassett | The Signal

As April 29 and the 2021 NFL Draft draws closer, the Atlanta Falcons find themselves at a difficult crossroad. The team is talented but aging, with longtime veterans in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones at the end of their careers. The new regime could set themselves up for the future or draft for a final run with the current core.

Could the new regime of general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith build for the future through quarterbacks? From Ohio State QB Justin Fields and Trey Lance out of North Dakota State, it’s a deep class of signal-callers. Both quarterbacks could learn behind Ryan for a season during a transition season in 2021.

Maybe it’s better to get the most out of Ryan in what could be the last few years of the 35-year old’s career that began in 2008? There are many decisions to finalize over the next nine days for the franchise, but let’s see if we can correctly predict their first three rounds. 

No. 4 overall (first round, fourth pick): Kyle Pitts, tight end, Florida

With Ryan in Atlanta for at least the next two seasons, the new regime will look to go all-in during the stretch. What better way than adding possibly the next non-quarterback in the draft?

Even with Julio Jones and breakout rookie Calvin Ridley, the Falcons ranked 26th in red zone scoring percentage in 2020. While the team could move the ball down the field, they failed to execute in the red zone during their 4-12 season. 

While many fans argue that the team doesn’t need more offense, the numbers beg to differ. Not only were the Falcons ineffective in the red zone, the team 18th overall in total offense. Aside from the talented leg of kicker Younghoe Koo, the Falcons’ offense failed to score in pivotal situations. 

Pitts’s 6-foot, 6-inch, 245-pound frame presented college football defenses a nightmare matchup during his time at Florida, and lining up with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst could make the Falcons offense potent once again. 

The few times the Falcons were successful, the team had talented tight-ends such as Austin Hooper and Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. For the offense to recapture the dominance of past seasons, adding an athletic young pass-catcher like Pitts is a major step in the right direction. 

In three years as a Gator, Pitts caught 100 passes for nearly 1,500 yards. He performed well in big-time situations, notably the 2020 SEC Championship against Alabama, where he torched the eventual national champions with seven receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown. 

Currently, the Falcons only have two positions that are above average: wide receiver and quarterback. Ryan succeeds in spreading the ball around when there is an athletic tight end in the arsenal. Also, Smith is well known for running two-tight end sets, which worked out well for him with the Tennessee Titans. 

Head coach Arthur Smith used tight-ends effectively, making the Titans one of the best offenses last season. If Atlanta wants to maximize what could be Ryan’s final seasons in Atlanta, Pitts could be a clear answer in the first round. 

No. 35 overall (second round, third pick): Carlos Basham Jr, EDGE, Wake Forest

Another draft, another potential defensive line pick for the Falcons. 

The issue of the pass rush has been an annual conundrum for the franchise. While Basham won’t be the immediate fix, he does provide another solid piece for new defensive coordinator Dean Pees. 

Basham brings an exciting profile as an NFL prospect following inconsistent production at Wake Forest. After a breakout 2019 campaign where he amassed 10 sacks and 18 tackles, he surprisingly did not declare for the 2020 draft.

Instead, he returned to Wake Forest to separate himself from the pack. The decision saw him post underwhelming numbers of 5 sacks and 4.5 tackles. Yet, due to COVID-19, many other prominent prospects saw their numbers fall off, too. 

If the Falcons’ new regime is willing to develop Basham, he could mesh as a worthwhile addition. 

No. 68 overall (third Round, fourth pick) Kenneth Gainwell, running back, Memphis

The Falcons’ tailback depth is an issue the franchise has not consistently addressed since releasing Devonta Freeman last March. Even with the addition of veteran Eric Davis, the Falcons have to address the position in the draft. 

Recently, the Falcons released running back Ito Smith and signed special teams specialistCordarrelle Patterson. However, the team may not be done tinkering with the position. Team owner Arthur Blank highlighted running back as the position the Falcons must address. 

Currently, the Falcons have Davis and Quadree Ollison at the running back position. While it’s unlikely that the Falcons will have their own Derrick Henry, any additional running back would help a dire situation for the dirty birds. Gainwell can be the change of pace that the team desperately needs. 

Gainwell sat out the 2020 season but is worth a third-round pick for the Falcons if he’s still on the board. He provides electric playmaking at the position by catching the ball out the backfield at Memphis. 

In 2019, Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards and scored 13 touchdowns for the Tigers. Behind an offensive line with run blocking ability, he could thrive in Atlanta. The running game for the dirty birds is lackluster and needs an immediate shot in the arm to get back into contention in the division. 

The Falcons finished 4-12 and are in an exciting position for the future of the franchise. The team could attempt to rebuild (while in cap hell) or remain competitive in a division with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and heated rival New Orleans Saints. 

Whatever the decision, the new regime has its work cut out from them. While they could go all-in in Ryans’ final tenure as Falcons, there is no harm in preparing for the future. With the core of the team aging and seemingly not over the ghost of Super Bowl LI, the time to rebuild is nigh.