By taking ‘best player available,’ Falcons earn an A-minus for 2021 draft class

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (right) holds a Falcons jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons with the fourth pick in the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (right) holds a Falcons jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons with the fourth pick in the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Credit: Tony Dejak

Credit: Tony Dejak

The Falcons maneuvered through the 2021 draft without making any reaches and took the best player available throughout. For making those moves, they earned an A-minus.

Explore2021 Falcons draft bios

The first-round selection of former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts was widely celebrated. But it must be noted that they passed on quarterback Justin Fields and left tackle Penei Sewell. Fields went to Chicago at No. 11 and Sewell went three picks after Pitts to Detroit.

The argument for selecting Sewell was that he could play 65 to 70 plays a game at any four of the five offensive line positions, while Pitts, as a pass-catching tight end, will only affect a game 10 to 15 plays.

The Falcons know they aren’t going anywhere unless the offensive line is improved. Matt Ryan can’t continue to get tossed around the stadium by the likes of Saints defensive end Cam Jordan or Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett.

Michigan offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield (73) blocks against Rutgers in the first half Sept. 28, 20219, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Michigan offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield (73) blocks against Rutgers in the first half Sept. 28, 20219, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Falcons picked power blocker Jalen Mayfield in the third round and cerebral center Drew Dalman in the fourth round. The Falcons have an opening at left guard and center Alex Mack must be replaced. Dalman and Matt Hennessy will battle for the job.

Also, right tackle Kaleb McGary has been shaky in pass protection. Mayfield’s college tape at right tackle against Chase Young is encouraging.

“When you talk about the roster, (Arthur Smith) is concerned about the front seven, the secondary, the offensive line — all the areas,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “It’s all about the team and doing what’s best for the team. He really thinks that way. So that’s what makes those discussions a lot easier.”

The Falcons — 18-30 over the past three seasons — plan to lean heavily on this draft class.

“So, if we don’t have a clear vision for them helping (us) at some point, then they’re not players that you want,” Fontenot said. “But I will say every player that we drafted, we do have visions for those players developing into contributors or starters.”

Ryan has been sacked 131 times over the past three seasons. In that time, the rushing attack finished 27th, 30th and 27th, respectively.

“When we picked both offensive linemen, they were the best players on the board,” Fontenot said. “Yeah, it’s easy. We do say, you come in, and you want to build inside out, and you want to get bigger, and you want to get big, tough guys in the trenches. That’s important, but when we picked those players, they were the best players on the board.”

The Falcons resisted the temptation to reach for their needs in the draft.

“So, we didn’t go through saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to reach for these players just to get in some offensive linemen and defensive linemen,’” Fontenot said. “Those players were there. We had a lot of passion for them at that time, but we felt like we didn’t reach for the players that we took.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) rushes against Alabama during the Rose Bowl Friday, Jan.1, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)
Notre Dame defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) rushes against Alabama during the Rose Bowl Friday, Jan.1, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

It looks like the Falcons got a couple of steals in the fifth round. Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji has a high-ceiling as a pass rusher and could turn into a special player. Returner Avery Williams is a playmaker with the ball in his hands and has Smith openly talking about seeing what he can do on offense.

Fontenot and the Falcons had a method to their draft madness.

“With every player, the discussion is always, it starts with how’s he going to make the 53?” Fontenot said. “So, what’s the vision for the player? If you’re talking about a developmental player, for instance, OK, what’s he going to do on fourth down? What’s he going to do in the kicking game if he’s developmental? How is he going to get to the active roster or is this going to be a player we’re going to see on the practice squad?”

Here’s a look at each player:

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons took tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

» First round (4th overall) – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Analysis: A dynamic pass-catching tight end with 4.4. speed. He will cause match-up problems and should help immediately in the red zone.

Fontenot’s take: “He’s a big man. He’s a big man, and it was exciting just getting to spend a little bit of time with him (on Friday). He has a nice, really nice family. But he’s a big man.”

Smith’s take: “I have to look up at him. He’s the size I remember at Florida, so I didn’t have to look down at him and think we got the height wrong. It’s always nice when you’ve got to look up at him.”

» Second round (40th overall) – Richie Grant, FS, Central Florida

Analysis: A versatile big-hitter who said he’ll start out at free safety.

Fontenot’s take: “When (defensive coordinator) Dean (Pees) talks about safeties, you’re not going to hear Dean say a strong safety, box safety, or a back end. The safeties have to be versatile. They have to be able to do everything. That’s what we really like about the player because he can play down in the box, he can pressure, he’s a viable tackler, physical, tough, throw his body around the box.”

Smith’s take: “We play a very versatile package on defense. Once Richie gets here, he’ll realize he’ll have multiple roles. It’s a transition. We’ll have multiple packages. He’ll play multiple roles. It’s not just going to be free and box safety. We’ll bring Richie along. He’ll find a role.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons selected Michigan offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield with the 68th overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

» Third round (68th overall) – Jalen Mayfield, OT/OG, Michigan

Analysis: He only played in two games last season after suffering a high ankle sprain. He prefers tackle but is open to moving to guard.

Fontenot’s take: “Then talking about Jalen, big, massive man. He’s athletic, versatile. He’s smart, tough, competitive. Again, another guy that we’re excited about what he’s going to bring on the offensive line.”

Smith’s take: “Yeah, no, he played tackle at Michigan. There’s a lot of guys that can make that transition. We feel good. He can possibly be a four-position player. But he’ll come in there and compete, compete inside. We’re excited about the pick.”

» Fourth round (108th overall) – Darren Hall, CB, San Diego State

Analysis: He was considered one of the top cornerbacks in the Mountain West Conference.

Hall on playing some safety at the Senior Bowl: “I’m not really sure what I will play, safety, nickel or corner. That most definitely helped my draft status. Just seeing the versatility that I knew I had, but teams seeing it because I only played outside corner and a little bit of safety my freshman year. Just going out there and performing really well, for sure helped my draft stock.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons added center Drew Dalman in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

» Fourth round (114th overall) – Drew Dalman, C, Stanford

Analysis: Dalman (6-3, 299 pounds with 32-inch arms) will battled last season’s third rounder Matt Hennessy (6-3, 307 and 32 ½-inch arms) for the starting center position.

Fontenot’s take: “We only have ten in the Draft room. The coaches and coordinators aren’t in the room, but they’re right down the hall. We could hear Dwayne Ledford yelling and throwing stuff around his office every time we drafted an offensive lineman. So he’s pretty pumped.”

Smith’s take: “He brings some versatility inside. He’s a very smart, instinctive player. You can’t have enough guys that have the ability to pull the football. We value that, that center/guard flexibility, obviously, with someone like Jalen who has tackle/guard flexibility. With Drew, he was a very productive player at center.”

» Fifth round (148th overall) – Ta’Quon Graham, DT, Texas

Analysis: At 6-foot-4, 294-pounds, Graham appeared in 48 career games with 24 starts over four seasons (2017-20) for the Longhorns and recorded 72 total tackles (41 solo), 23 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.

Pro Football Focus on Graham: “Graham has the body type that can fit into every defensive line in America. With a muscular frame and ridiculously long arms, he doesn’t need a lot of technique to see an NFL field. That’s good because there’s not much refinement in Graham’s game outside of his hand placement. He’s excellent at stacking opposing offensive linemen, as evidenced by his 87.1 and 84.1 run-defense grades over the past two years.”

» Fifth round (182nd overall) – Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE, Notre Dame

Analysis: He made 80 total tackles (44 solo), 17 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks, six forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in four seasons (2017-20) for the Fighting Irish. A team captain in 2020, Ogundeji made 23 tackles, a career-high and team-leading 7.0 sacks, seven tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery in 12 games last season earning All-ACC honorable mention.

Fontenot’s take: “These guys (Graham and Ogundeji) are long, two power forwards. They’re definitely big, and we’re excited about those guys.”

Pro Football Network analyst Tony Pauline take: “Ogundeji comes with a terrific amount of upside as well as growth potential and could develop into a starting defensive lineman in the NFL.”

» Fifth round (183rd overall) – Avery Williams, CB, Boise State

Analysis: A dangerous return man, who may get some time on offense.

Fontenot’s take: “Marquice [Williams] said he’ll figure it out.,” he said about the returners on the roster.

Smith’s take: “It’s great competition. Obviously, (Cordarrelle) Patterson has been a dynamic kick returner, and we expect him to be a dynamic kick returner for us, and Avery, he’ll have every opportunity to go back there and compete, whether it’s punt returns or a spot on defense, maybe offense. He’s a very unique player.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons picked Arizona State receiver Frank Darby in the NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

» Sixth round (187th overall) – Frank Darby, WR, Arizona State

Analysis: Darby played 40 career games at Arizona State, totaling 67 catches for 1,317 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 2020, Darby posted six catches for 46 yards and one touchdown in three games as he was limited due to injury.

Fontenot’s take: “Right before we called [Frank] Darby -- so I’m calling Darby, and Arthur said, ‘get ready for this.’ And he was going nuts on the phone. He was so excited. He started telling me about the food that he was cooking there, and he’s just -- he was so pumped up.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s take: “I highlighted Frank Darby at Arizona State playing for Herm. Herm had N’Keal Harry, a first-round pick. Then last year he had Brandon Aiyuk. Now it’s Frank Darby’s turn to be the guy. He’s been a vertical stretch guy until now.”

AJC’S POSITION-BY-POSITION NFL DRAFT SERIES

QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs

TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs

END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs

LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties

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