Cover 9@9: If the Falcons don’t trade up, quarterback J.J. McCarthy is their guy

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy passes against Washington during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy passes against Washington during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons are in the quarterback market and must continue to upgrade their roster this offseason.

“Personally, I think you’ve got to try Kirk Cousins first,” ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said Tuesday. “If that doesn’t happen, you’ve got to call Chicago about Justin Fields. If that doesn’t work, then I think you pivot and go OK, is this team a Jacoby Brissett away from a playoff run in a bad NFC South? Or, do you say, we can get by with a J.J. McCarthy in year one and build for the future.”

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot is preparing for his fourth draft and first with coach Raheem Morris. Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke currently are the quarterbacks on the roster.

“Also, this even plays into it a little bit, that this is not a GM that hired a head coach,” Miller said. “They didn’t come in here together. So, you probably got a little pressure on the front office to find results so that you are not getting replaced. … I think that’s in the back of everyone’s mind or at least it has to be.”

The Falcons hold the eighth overall pick in the draft. They’ll have to trade up if they want one of the top quarterbacks – USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels or North Carolina’s Drake Maye – in this draft class.

McCarthy, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. are considered the top quarterbacks in the second tier of players at the position.

“I would not want to put, be my job on drafting J.J. McCarthy or Bo Nix eighth overall,” Miller said. “Every situation is unique. I think Atlanta has a really good system in place with all of the talent that they have acquired on offense.”

This is the fourth consecutive year in which the Falcons are drafting in the top 10. They passed on quarterbacks in the first round in each of the past three drafts, including Fields in 2021.

“I would say that eighth is too high, based where these players are ranked,” Miller said. “But we know teams are going to go higher (than ranked) on the quarterbacks. I think at eighth, you’re falling in love with J.J. McCarthy. (He) is your guy there. It’s too early for Bo Nix. Too early for Michael Penix Jr. But McCarthy’s intangibles are intriguing enough that you can talk yourself into it.”

The Falcons botched the transition from Matt Ryan. They whiffed on trying to sign Deshaun Watson. They drafted Desmond Ridder in the third round in the 2022 draft, and that has not worked out.

“This year there is not that super intriguing second- or third-round quarterback that you are eyeing as your developmental guy,” Miller said. “Obviously, Atlanta just went to that with Desmond Ridder and didn’t have a ton of success with that. It does feel like if you’re going to get a guy, you’re going to have to swing early.”

There will be intrigue around the Falcons’ pick if they stand pat with the eighth pick.

“I’ll be curious to see,” Miller said. “You’ve got veteran coaches, who come from a defensive background. Are they going to be willing to kind of wait on a rookie quarterback? I think Atlanta is interesting because the offensive line is so talented. As we know, they’ve spent a lot of draft picks on the offensive side of the ball. So, there’s a very, very talented offense that J.J. McCarthy could just slide into.”

McCarthy will be heavily scrutinized at the scouting combine, which starts Sunday and runs through March 4.

“I think we all saw how well C.J. Stroud did at the combine last year,” Miller said. “How much that helped his stock. J.J. could absolutely have a similar week. Whether if it be the interviews, the testing portion or the throwing portion. Those are all really crucial for him especially because he’s an under classman. He wasn’t at the Senior Bowl so you didn’t have that opportunity like you did with Bo Nix or Michael Penix, actually to take a look at him up close.”

McCarthy helped lead the Wolverines to the national championship last season.

“With J.J., the thing I hear from scouts is great arm strength,” Miller said. “The guy only lost one game in two years of college football, which is very impressive no matter if you want to give wins to the quarterback or not.”

McCarthy is perceived to have some upside.

“Then it’s the ability to get better,” Miller said. “The athletic potential is through the roof. He’s a good mover. He’s got room to grow into that frame. He’s 6-3 and probably 205 pounds. He’s got room to get bigger and stronger. There were throws he made against Ohio State. Throws he made against Alabama that make me think, yep, that’s a top 10 pick.”

But was McCarthy just riding the wave on talented Michigan team that will have 18 players at the scouting combine?

“How much was he helped by his supporting case,” Miller said. “How much was he helped by a team that was able to line up and run the ball at will and keep defenses so frustrated with the run game and with the great offensive line. Those are the big questions as far as J.J. goes.”

Also, can McCarthy win a drop-back game?

“How is he going to handle it when he has to throw the ball 35, 40 times a game,” Miller said. “The combine will help you get to know who he is as a person. Try to see how he’s wired and best predict how he’s going to handle his environment.”

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (19) runs after a catch against Mississippi safety Trey Washington (25) during their game at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, November 11, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 52-17. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

2. What about Bowers? Former Georgia tight end Brock Bowers is considered a top five talent in the draft.

“I love Brock Bowers, but when you sit down to do a mock draft it is very hard to find a spot for a tight end,” Miller said. “Every time I do a mock draft exercise, I feel like he’s coming off the board at 13, 14 or 15 because those teams in the top 10 have so many needs and they are going to go most likely for big positional value: quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver or corner. Those are the top 10 picks this year.”

Bowers is a two-time John Mackey Award winner.

“It’s was like Bijan Robinson last year,” Miller said. “We knew how talented that he was as a player. It was really hard to find a natural fit for him. The Falcons obviously were OK with taking a running back pretty early. ... Bowers might be in a similar spot … a similar-type team that is going to take the best player available regardless of position, that’s Brock Bowers.”

3. The case for McConkey in first round: Former Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey is an intriguing NFL prospect.

“I think with Ladd, coming off the Senior Bowl and watching him play, I don’t know why he’s not getting that first-round love,” Miller said. “I don’t know if there is an expectation that he’s not going to perform well athletically. He’s incredibly quick. He’s going to have a great three-cone, short-shuttle and he doesn’t drop the ball ever.”

McConkey could slip into the first round if there is a run on wide receivers.

“He is a little bit alignment specific,” Miller said. “He’s going to mostly play in the slot just because of his size. You start to get through the big receivers, there are four of those that are probably going to go in the top 20. Then it just comes down to scheme fit, which teams need that inside receiver.”

McConkey is in a group of five receivers in Xavier Worthy (Texas), Adonai Mitchell (Texas), Troy Franklin (Oregon) and Keon Coleman (Florida State).

“Those five receivers are grouped together for me,” Miller said. “I think it will come down to scheme-fit for McConkey.”

Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) makes a move after a reception during the first half against Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Florida. Georgia won 63-3 against Florida State. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

4. Georgia defensive backs: Miller said it’s hard to evaluate the Georgia defensive backs because they are so-well coached.

He believes Javon Bullard will be drafted in the second round. Kamari Lassiter is a top-50, top-55 pick.

“Tykee Smith, I have him in the fifth round right now because of the usage,” Miller said. “He might be labeled as a box safety. That’s probably going to drop him to the fourth or fifth round is where I could see him going right now.”

5. Running back group : Falcons running backs coach Michael Pitre was retained by coach Raheem Morris.

“Extremely grateful to have the opportunity to stay here and continue to work with Tyler Allgeier, Bijan Robinson, Carlos Washington, Avery Williams and just that group,” Pitre said. “Continue to build the relationships and continue coaching those guys.”

The coaches returned to their offices this past week.

“There are some players coming through and doing their own thing, but we’re not really communicating with those guys right now,” Pitre said. “I think the biggest thing right now is just building the continuity as a staff. Getting to know each other. Working through some projects and some stuff that we are doing in the building. Guys are working draft stuff. Guys working on some assignments that Coach had given us.”

The Falcons may retool their rushing attack.

“We’ll have an identity in what we want to do,” Pitre said.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

6. Running backs at the combine: Pitre is studying all of the running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“Slow and steady,” Pitre said. “Stay the course. Be thorough. Again, be collaborative. We have scouts and the personnel department, we’ll take their information. Watch some film and talk about it. Come to a conclusion on what we need to do to put the Atlanta Falcons in the best situation to compete on Sundays come this fall.”

7. Falcons’ 2024 opponents: The Falcons, who finished at 7-10 and in third place in the NFC South, are set to play the NFC East and AFC West during the 2024 season.

The home games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Dallas, New York Giants, Los Angles Chargers, Kansas City, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

The away games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Las Vegas, Denver and Minnesota.

8. 2024 draft order: The Falcons are set to draft eighth overall for the third consecutive year.

The draft will be held in Detroit on April 27-29.

Here are the teams in front of the Falcons: 1. Chicago Bears (from Carolina); 2. Washington, 3. New England, 4. Arizona, 5. Los Angeles Chargers, 6. New York Giants, 7. Titans.

9. Falcons’ position-by-position analysis: Check out the stories in the Falcons 2023 season-review series:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Specialists

The Bow Tie Chronicles