Falcons will have tough decisions at No. 8 spot in the NFL draft

What if Bijan Robinson, Jalen Carter, C.J. Stroud or Nolan Smith are available?

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith are set to preside over their third NFL draft together and have vowed to stick to selecting the best player available.

“The draft board isn’t just one line of players and you’re taking the person who’s on the top of it,” Fontenot said Tuesday. “Players are in categories. Generally, when you are on the clock you have players in a category, but there are multiple positions that can be in that category.”

The Falcons hold the eighth overall pick in the draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri.

“When we say best player available, the key is don’t reach for needs,” Fontenot said. “If you have players up in this category don’t reach down and take a lesser player at a position of need because No. 1 we are not just drafting for today or tomorrow. We are not prisoners of the moment. We are drafting … you are going to have these players under contract for the next four to five years.”

The Falcons have drafted offensive weapons in tight end Kyle Pitts (fourth overall) and wide receiver Drake London (eighth overall) in the top 10 of the past two drafts.

“You are also not grading on a curve,” Fontenot said. “You want an impact player. If you say this player is going to be an impact player and at this other position, this player is going to be depth player. I think that’s what we are talking about. If you have impact players at either of these positions, then yes, you can say, yes, we want this premium position.”

In free agency, the Falcons had $62.2 million to spend against the league’s $224.8 million salary cap. Only the Chicago Bears ($98.6 million) had more cap space.

Because they can spread the money over the term of contracts, the Falcons spent almost $179.3 million in guaranteed money to 17 players in free agency, a total of $88.8 million was spent in guarantees on defensive players.

On the defense, the Falcons signed safety Jessie Bates ($36 million), defensive tackle David Onyemata ($24.5 million), linebacker Kaden Elliss ($10.16 million), defensive lineman Calais Campbell ($7 million), cornerback Mike Hughes ($3.24 million), outside linebacker Bud Dupree ($2.5 million) and linebacker Tae Davis ($101,500).

The Falcons also spent some guaranteed money to retain outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter ($5.2 million) and cornerback Cornell Armstrong ($152,500).

The heavy spending on the defense was understandable given that unit didn’t finish in the top half of the league in any of the key categories: points allowed (22.7, 23rd), total yards allowed (362.1, 27th), passing yards allowed (231.9, 25th) and rushing yards allowed (130.2, 23rd).

The Falcons also ranked 31st in sacks.

In addition to the influx of talent, the defensive coaching staff was overhauled, and Ryan Nielsen was named the defensive coordinator to replace Dean Pees.

The Falcons are expected to continue to work on the defense in the draft. But they have some perplexing evaluations along the way.

Here’s are look at the Falcons’ draft plight:

What if the best player available is a running back?

Texas’ Bijan Robinson is considered the best running back in the draft and a top-five talent.

If the Falcons select the best player available on their board, Robinson could be the selection.

He’s a dynamic running back with pass-catching ability. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay compared Robinson with former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who was selected second overall in 2018 by the New York Giants.

In subsequent drafts, the running back position has been devalued.

Why would the Falcons take a running back a year after they selected Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round? He went on to rush for 1,035 yards in his rookie season.

The Falcons have said they never want to reach for needs. They don’t really need a running back, but if Robinson is as good as advertised, taking him at No. 8 is plausible.

“I think it will be (a defensive) player,” one high-ranking AFC official said about the Falcons’ plight. “Many to choose from. Wisdom says a pass rusher. Either Nolan Smith or Tyree Wilson. Personally, I think they would be (unwise) to pass (the) Texas (tailback).”

Draft experts remember that Packers Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf selected Aaron Rodgers when he already had Brett Favre.

“There are so many variables that could happen in front of you when you pick,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “You try to have a good understanding, more importantly of who realistically is going to be there, especially at eight.”

What if Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter drops?

Carter had a rocky run up to the draft starting with the events of Jan. 15.

Crash investigators determined that Carter and UGA recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy were traveling side by side at more than 100 mph on Barnett Shoals Road in Athens when the car LeCroy was driving left the road.

LeCroy and Georgia offensive lineman Devin Willock died. Tory Bowles, another UGA employee, was seriously injured, while Warren McClendon, riding in the front seat with his seat belt fastened, walked away with only a cut on his forehead.

Carter pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of racing and reckless driving.

In addition to the fatal crash, Carter had a subpar workout on his Pro Day. He could not finish the workout. However, he has game tape that shows he could be a dominant force in the NFL.

If Seattle or Detroit doesn’t take Carter with the fifth or sixth pick, he could be available when the Falcons pick. The Falcons defense needs help, but the new regime insists they want players with the right “character” and “makeup.” Will Carter’s issues with the crash, poor workout and allegedly poor practice habits be a deterrent to his selection?

It must be noted that the Falcons have never taken a player from Georgia in the first round of the draft.

Is Nolan Smith worthy of the pick?

Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith was one of the fast climbers in the pre-draft process.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. picked him for the Falcons in his most recent mock draft. He believes that Smith could provide the Falcons with eight to 10 sacks per season while rushing the passer, if used correctly at 238 pounds.

Smith also dazzled the league when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.

He is coming off a pectoral muscle that shortened his season.

What if Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud drops?

Stroud scored low (18% out of 100%)) on the S2 Cognition test, according to an article by longtime NFL writer Bob McGinn for Tyler Dunne’s golongtd.com website. One executive told him anonymously that “we’ve never had somebody grade low and play well.”

The test is designed, according to its website, “Our revolutionary approach to understanding athletes’ in-game instincts has redefined the “it factor.” We have taken decades of cognition science and applied it to the world of elite performance, making the undefinable qualities of top athletes quantifiable with the S2 System.”

Stroud’s ability to process has been called into question.

Stroud had a spectacular showing against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-41 loss. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Over his career, Stroud completed 69.3% of his passes, with 85 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, and was considered a potential No. 1 overall selection when the draft process started.

The Falcons moved on from Matt Ryan and drafted Desmond Ridder last season. He started four games, and the team recently anointed him as their No. 1 quarterback, but that was before they could envision a drop by Stroud.

The Falcons met with Stroud at the combine and had him in for one of the top-30 visits.

“Who knows what is really going to happen Thursday night,” Arthur Smith said. “Then you also have to be ready to move as well, and you’re OK with moving, depending on what you’re getting.”


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


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

RUNNING BACKS – Running 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

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