Five players on the Falcons’ radar at No. 8 in NFL draft

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons' Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot disclose the team's needs prior to the 2022 NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith agreed on one key point entering the NFL draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday.

“There’s not one (meeting) room that we don’t want to add to, and so that’s why we have needs in every area of the roster and even places we might feel better about,” Fontenot said Tuesday. “We’re thinking big picture, so there could be players that won’t be under contract in a couple years or something. There’s not one position that we don’t need to add competition to, which makes this process very easy for us.”

The Falcons’ plan is to draft quality players who fit in their locker room.

“I wouldn’t say there’s one position where we’d say, ‘Hey, we’re all set,’” Fontenot said. “We don’t need to add a player there.”

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Smith added: “I don’t think you’re ever all set. Even if you were to win a Super Bowl, I think you’re just going to continue to come back is not a great strategy. I think the more we can continue to add at every position, increase the competition, improve the roster, that’s what we’ll do.”

With a lot of mystery at the top, the Falcons are calling this a “unique” draft and are set to move accordingly when they are on the clock with the eighth overall pick.

Here are five players on their draft radar:

Garrett Wilson, Ohio State: The 6-foot, 183-pound wide receiver has elite run-after-catch ability. Wilson caught 70 passes for 1,058 yards (15.1 per catch) and 12 receiving touchdowns in 2021. He also returned punts for the Buckeyes.

Wilson believes he can make an immediate impact as a rookie, similar to Ja’Marr Chase (81 receptions, 13 TDs) with the Bengals in 2021.

“I think he’s the best receiver in the draft, in my opinion, and he can do everything,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He is a complete wide receiver.”

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Jermaine Johnson, Florida State: The 6-5, 254-pound defensive end began his college career at Independence Community College, where he was featured on Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”

He went to Georgia but transferred to Florida State in December 2020. He led the ACC with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2021.

Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Georgia’s Travon Walker are edge rushers who could be selected before the Falcons pick. Johnson or one of the others could fall to the Falcons.

“It’s a good class (of edge rushers),” Fontenot said. “I think throughout, there are players at the top at that elite level, there are players throughout the draft and even down at the bottom. That’s such a unique position in that it doesn’t have to be one flavor. If you’re a pressure player, it can come (in) different ways. But I would say it’s a strong class.”

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Charles Cross, Mississippi State: The 6-5, 310-pound offensive tackle is a very polished pass blocker. He has entered the draft as a third-year sophomore.

N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu (6-4, 320), Alabama’s Evan Neal (6-7, 337) and Cross are the top three tackles in the draft, and they all may be selected by the time the Falcons pick.

If one of them slips through the cracks, look for a Falcons executive sprinting to enter the draft card.

“Cross is a fascinating one,” Jeremiah said.

Malik Willis, Liberty: The quarterback is 6-3, 217 pounds. He played in seven games in 2017 and completed 6 of 7 passes and five games in 2018 and completed 5 of 7 passes at Auburn.

After transferring, he completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,250 yards, 20 TDs and six interceptions in 2020 at Liberty. He passed for more than 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushed for 878 yards last season.

Some have Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett as the top quarterback in the draft.

“He’s my No. 1 quarterback,” Jeremiah said of Willis. “I’ve kind of stuck with him through this whole process.”

The Falcons have decades of experience with drafting quarterbacks and have three former general managers on the personnel side, four counting President Rich McKay.

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“It certainly helps,” Smith said. “You look at why certain players were successful, why they weren’t, what you could possibly control. Yeah, I don’t think you ever dismiss a class year after year.”

Understanding the talent and where to select them is key.

“If you don’t take one, who you potentially would have to see, you’d have to face off against,” Smith said. “A lot goes into it, but you certainly study history and why guys are successful, why guys aren’t.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons coach Arthur Smith, GM Terry Fontenot speak before the 2022 NFL draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Cincinnati: He’s 6-3, 190 pounds and has the potential to be a lockdown cornerback in the NFL.

He was the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and didn’t allow a touchdown over 1,059 career coverage snaps.

The Falcons signed veteran cornerback Casey Hayward in free agency and re-signed nickel cornerback Isaiah Oliver. With A.J. Terrell at left cornerback, the position is one of the stronger ones on the roster.

We’re going to keep bringing in competition,” Fontenot said. “That’s our charge. That’s our goal at every single position, to bring in competition and continue to improve.”