Cover 9@9: Falcons fans want running back Bijan Robinson in NFL draft

1. No-spin zone: Over three days, more than 1,600 people voted in an unscientific Twitter poll, and the fans of the Falcons want the team to select Texas running back Bijan Robinson.

He edged Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith, 39% to 37%.

The other options were Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, who finished with 17% of the vote, and Iowa defensive end/tackle Lukas Van Ness, who finished with only 7% of the vote.

If you want some real entertainment, go read the comments.

The Falcons are considering several options with the eighth overall pick.

“This is the most uncertain that it’s been, in my opinion, because you really just don’t know,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “We sit there and try to game it out, think about what we would expect and what we would anticipate, but there are just too many things. ... There are a lot of things that you can’t predict.”

There’s more draft confusion than normal because of Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter’s “makeup” and character issues and Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud’s cognitive test scores.

Throw in how high to draft Robinson, and you have some good 2023 draft confusion.

“You don’t really know what a team is thinking, regardless of what is out there,” Fontenot said. “You don’t really know what another team is thinking. You don’t know when a team is going to trade up and how that affects other things. If someone is going to trade up and someone is going to trade back. It is difficult.”

The Falcons plan to remain fluid.

“But what we just have to do is make sure that we talk through as many scenarios as we can,” Fontenot said. “So, we are comfortable and ready to make a move when we need to. Whether we are moving up, moving down or staying at eight, we are going to get a really good player who’s going to make an impact for us.”

2. 53-man roster: Falcons coach Arthur Smith is expecting the next training camp to be his toughest after the team has spent nearly $180 million in guaranteed money in free agency and is set to add the draft class Thursday through Saturday.

“Every year, you’d love to have 15 picks,” Smith said Tuesday. “I think where we are at right now, this is going to be a very competitive camp. Just looking at the way the numbers are. Credit to a lot of people. We continue to add and build. I’m excited about that.” The Falcons’ depth chart looks much better than over the past two offseasons.

“That’s part of the strategy, too, as you are moving around in the draft,” Smith said. “How many picks do you want? Do you want future assets? You may have some guys on one-year deals. This may be a hard (53-man roster) to make. That’s a good problem to have.”

The Falcons also will add some undrafted rookies to compete for the roster and the practice squad.

“That’s going to force us to make some really tough decisions at the end of camp,” Smith said. That’s why you are really excited.”

Smith is looking forward to the draft.

“You get to this time right now, we feel good,” Smith said. “We don’t feel desperate. We can make some great picks to allow us to make the subjective best-player-available, so to speak, and allow us to move around.”

3. Dupree and Okudah: Outside linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Jeff Okudah met with the media Tuesday. Our Gabe Burns wrote stories on both players.

4. On backup QB: Smith said the team was frank with quarterback Taylor Heinicke during the free-agency process.

“This guy is a veteran in this league, and he’s choosing between a couple of spots. Again, Terry and I won’t compromise that,” Smith said. “We’re not going to sit there and tell somebody whatever we can to get them to sign.”

5. Girls flag-football grants: The Falcons recently awarded grants to 44 high schools to grow girls flag football in the state. The grants, supported by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, will either help launch girls flag-football high school programs or provide needed funds to existing programs.

In December 2019, Georgia became the fourth state to sanction girls flag football as a high school sport. This fall, more than 250 high schools across the state will offer girls flag football.

Here’s list of the schools receiving grants in 2023:

High School/District

Alexander High School*/Douglas County

Callaway High School/Troup County

Chamblee High School*/DeKalb County

Claxton High School/Evans County

Colquitt County High School*/Colquitt County

Creekside High School/Fulton County

Cross Creek High School*/Richmond County

Discovery High School/Gwinnett County

Dougherty Comprehensive High School*/Dougherty County

D.M. Therrell High School/Atlanta Public Schools

East Jackson High School*/Jackson County

Fannin County High School*/Fannin County

Fayette County High School/Fayette County

Greater Atlanta Christian School*/private school

Greene County High School/Greene County

Harris County High School/Harris County

Herschel V. Jenkins High School/Savannah-Chatham County

Hiram High School*/Paulding County

Houston County High School/Houston County

Jackson County High School*/Jackson County

Jackson High School/Butts County

KIPP Atlanta Charter High School*/Atlanta Public Schools

LaFayette High School*/Walker County

Laney High School*/Richmond County

Long County High School/Long County

Lowndes High School/Lowndes County

Macon County High School*/Macon County

Martin Luther King Jr. High School/DeKalb County

Monroe Area High School*/Walton County

North Clayton High School/Clayton County

Perry High School/Houston County

Peachtree Ridge High School/Gwinnett County

Richmond Academy*/Richmond County

Spalding High School/Griffin-Spalding County

Statesboro High School/Bulloch County

Swainsboro High School/Emanuel County

T.W. Josey High School*/Richmond County

Valdosta High School*/Valdosta City

Veterans High School/Houston County

Villa Rica High School*/Carroll County

Washington County High School/Washington County

Windsor Forest High School*/Savannah-Chatham County

Woodville-Tompkins High School*/Savannah-Chatham County

*Denotes schools launching girls flag football programs in 2023

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Free-agent signee Bud Dupree talks about the Falcons and how he will fit into the team in 2023.

6. High school awards: The Falcons hosted their high school awards show recently and honored athletes, coaches and staff members who have made an impact on and off the field this academic year.

Cherokee Bluff High School coach Jacob Benjamin was named the high school man of the year. Benjamin, a senior offensive lineman, earned first-team all-state honors and was named the 8-4A Region lineman of the year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He volunteered with the Next Generation Character and Community and Changes (NG3) Ministries.

Joelle “JoJo” Miller of Blessed Trinity was named the Trailblazer award winner for her contribution to her flag-football team. Miller helped establish Smiles for Cancer, an organization that raised more than $23,000 for cancer research.

Apalachee’s Tony Lotti was named the coach of the year for representing integrity, leadership, perseverance, dedication to the community, commitment to player protection and on-field success.

Lotti recovered from surgery to remove multiple brain tumors and complications which nearly took his life and returned to coach Apalachee High School in 2022.

Josh Carmichael of Hiram High School, Robert Hill of Athens Academy, Tavares Lewis of Treutlen High School and Ryan Manard of Pelham High School were honored as the inaugural high school assistant coaches of the Year.

Chris Carruth of West Hall High School, was honored as the high school athletic trainer of the year for his service and dedication to high school athletes.

Carruth serves as the head athletic trainer for all varsity sports at West Hall and sprang into action when an athlete collapsed during a volleyball game this year. Because of his assistance, the athlete came to and recovered quickly.

7. Falcons’ draft picks: Here’s when the Falcons will select in the draft:

First round: No. 8 overall

Second round: No. 44

Third round: No. 75

Fourth round: No. 110 (from Tennessee)*, No. 113

Seventh round: No. 224 (from Las Vegas), No. 225

*Acquired as part of Julio Jones trade

8: AJC’S 2023 POSITION-BY-POSITION DRAFT SERIES

WIDE RECEIVERSPast few drafts have spoiled NFL teams looking for wide receivers | Top 10 WRs

RUNNING BACKSRunning backs Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs may have to wait to hear their names called | Top 10 RBs

TIGHT ENDSNotre Dame’s Michael Mayer heads a dee TE class | Top 10 TEs

QUARTERBACKSBryce Young’s small stature no longer an issue in the NFL | Top 10 QBs

OFFENSIVE LINESkoronski’s short arm length being scrutinized for left tackle | Top 5 C,G, &OTs

DEFENSIVE LINE Is Jalen Carter the real deal or a potential bust? | Top 5 DTs, DEs

LINEBACKERSDutchtown’s Will Anderson expected to go in the top 5 of NFL draft | Top LBs

CORNERBACKSFormer Georgia standout Kelee Ringo one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL draft | Top CBs

SAFETIES Alabama’s Brian Branch, Jordan Battle are top safeties in the NFL draft | Top FS/SS

SPECIAL TEAMSMichigan’s Jake Moody hopes to kick way to NFL draft | Top STs

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

New Falcons defensive back Jeff Okudah talks about being traded.

9. Updated depth chart: The Falcons now have a hole at right cornerback after releasing Casey Hayward, who opened the 2022 season as a starter at the position.

The release of Hayward, which saved the Falcons $5 million in salary-cap space, could be an indicator of the franchise’s plan to take a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri. Okudah and Cornell Armstrong, who started four games for the Falcons at the position last season, moved up on the depth chart.

Hayward started six games in 2022, but had his season cut short after he sustained a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery. The two-time former Pro Bowler was hoping to play another season in the NFL. He’s set to turn 34 in September.

As for the draft, Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. are considered the top prospects at the position.

Here’s what the updated depth chart looks like:

OFFENSE

QB – Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke, Logan Woodside, Feleipe Franks

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams, *Caleb Huntley, B.J. Baylor

FB – Keith Smith, Clint Ratkovich

WR – Drake London, KhaDarel Hodge, Frank Darby, *Jared Bernhardt, Josh Ali

TE – *Kyle Pitts, Jonnu Smith, Parker Hesse, Feleipe Franks, *John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk, John Raine

LT – Jake Matthews, Germain Ifedi

LG – Kyle Hinton, Matt Hennessy, *Jalen Mayfield, *Justin Shaffer

C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil, Jonotthan Harrison

RG – Chris Lindstrom

RT – Kaleb McGary, Tyler Vrabel, Joshua Miles, Ethan Greenidge

WR – Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller, Ra’Shaun Henry

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, Bud Dupree, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne

NT – Eddie Goldman, *Ta’Quon Graham, Jalen Dalton

DE – David Onyemata, Joe Gaziano

OLB – Calais Campbell, Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, David Anenih

ILB – Kaden Elliss, Dorian Etheridge, Tae Davis

ILB – Troy Andersen, Mykal Walker, Nate Landman

CB – A.J. Terrell, Mike Hughes (nickel), Dylan Mabin, Javelin Guidry

FS – Jessie Bates III, Jaylinn Hawkins, Micah Abernathy

SS – Richie Grant, Jamal Peters

CB – Jeff Okudah, Cornell Armstrong, Dee Alford, Darren Hall, Matt Hankins, John Reid

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

PR – Avery Williams

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson or Avery Williams

Note: Players who ended the season on injured reserve have an asterisk.