FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons went into the draft clinging to their “best player available” mantra.
They didn’t necessarily stick to it when they selected Texas running back Bijan Robinson over Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who some considered the top player in the draft. Some draft analysts had Robinson as the second-best player.
However, given all of the red flags, it is completely understandable why the Falcons passed on Carter and that’s why we believe this draft, which included six players from Power 5 teams, earned the Falcons an A.
“There’s a lot of people that work really hard through this process,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “It takes the entire building to do this, and there’s a lot of hours that go into it ... It’s very exciting to be able to wrap up a draft class like this.”
If Carter turns into the next Warren Sapp in Philadelphia, then we’ll look back on this as a draft mistake.
If he’s the next Jadeveon Clowney, who had similarly ballyhooed college career with spectacular highlights and work ethic issues, and didn’t deliver in the NFL on a regular basis, then the Falcons will have made the right move.
Here’s what Falcons coach Arthur Smith had to say when asked why they passed on Carter to select Robinson.
“A lot of good players available,” Smith said. “You can’t coach them all. You make the decisions. We collaborate, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. We do what we think is best for our team. There’s a lot of good players. It’s not about one guy.
“I understand the question and the intent of the question, because he is a player that was successful at Georgia. They’ve had a lot of success in the last two years. There are a lot of good players there.”
Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian pointed out to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that taking an elite running back early is the right move. The problem becomes what to do with the second contract for the elite running backs.
Also, our esteemed colleague AJC columnist Mark Bradley pointed out, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers used a lot of “21 personnel” (two backs, one tight end). What he also does, is when they toss the ball to wide receiver Deebo Samuel, that’s turns it into a “31 personnel” normally running power into a nickel defense.
The Falcons have now have the personnel to run the 21/31 package if they use Robinson, Allgeier and move Patterson to wide receiver to play the Samuels’ role.
Bradley also noted that “In 2022, without Robinson and with (tight end Kyle) Pitts mostly missing, the Falcons arrayed themselves in “21″ on 22% of first-and-10s. That was the fifth-highest total among the 32 teams. We’ve seen what’s coming.”
Add in the “31 option” – Patterson as Samuels – and you see the possibilities.
Robinson and second-round pick guard Matthew Bergeron have clear paths to the field as rookies at running back and left guard. Defensive end Zach Harrision, the third-round pick from Ohio State University, can learn from veterans Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree and possibly be a part of the rotation.
The Falcons love his 36-1/4 inches arm length, which should allow him to hold contain against the run.
Cornerback Clark Phillips III, the fourth-round pick, looks like a contender at nickel back. He was the ninth rated cornerback in the AJC’s rankings of the top 10 cornerbacks in the draft. He was ranked 10th by the33rdteam.com. He was the 17th cornerback taken in the draft in part because he ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. (The Falcons said they have a faster time on Phillips.)
Safety DeMarrco Hellams and guard/center Jovaughn Gwyn, both of the seventh-rounders, could provide depth and maybe contribute on special teams.
“I wish one of these days you catch somebody coming up here and are like, ‘hey, we feel awful,’” Smith quipped. “We didn’t get anybody we wanted’ (laughing). Maybe someday somebody will do that.”
But on a more serious note.
“We do feel really good about it,” Fontenot said. “A lot of work goes into it. You just don’t know how it’s going to go. There’s a real – you get really anxious before the draft starts.”
After three drafts and one legitimate free agency class, the Falcons appear ready to end their streak of five consecutive losing seasons.
“It’s so unique, and you fall in love with these players through the process, and you’re going to get some of them, you’re not going to get some of them,” Fontenot said. “But the way the results, the way everything went from the start of the offseason through the draft and, again, we’ll keep going, but we’re very excited about where this team is.”
The Falcons were understandably pleased with their draft class.
“We got smart, tough, highly competitive players that fit what we’re about,” Fontenot said. “They fit our makeup and they’re versatile, smart football players. So, very excited about the outcome of this draft.”
Here’s a look at each player:
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
» First round (eighth overall) – Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Fontenot’s take: “We hold him in high regard on the field, off the field. We talk about positionless football, and the impact that he is going to make for us, we’re extremely excited to get Bijan.”
Smith’s take: “We went down to Austin and were able to work Bijan out. Took him to dinner the night before. Worked him out. Felt really good about it. ... Some of the things that we were going to ask him to do, you see it on the tape, with the background, not just the running back, the running back stuff was obvious on the tape, but the versatility part where you use him and where he has been effective. I mean, he did that at Texas at times, but his background, playing in the slot, was another big piece of it. That’s intriguing. We feel he is an explosive weapon, a home-run hitter however he gets the football in his hands.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
» Second round (38th overall) – Matthew Bergeron, OG, Syracuse
Fontenot’s take: “In a lot of cases, you’re going to see that, where if you are the best offensive lineman, you’re going to play left tackle. So, you’ll see that a lot in college, guys are playing that, but then I think our staff does a really good job and Coach (Smith) does a good job of looking at the skill set, really evaluating the player and having a clear vision of how we’re going to use him.”
Smith’s take: “When a guy is as smart as Matt and the way he has played and really for us the vision of the way he is built. I hate using comps, but I will give you one in this instance about guys that played tackle that ended up out of necessity moving into guard. A guy named Rodger Saffold. I coached Rodg at the end of his career. He was playing really good football there. Early in his career at tackle, that’s what he was drafted to be. You know, he ended up having a great career and still playing right at guard.”
» Third round (75th overall) – Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State
Fontenot’s take: “And Zach is big, but nobody has Calais’s body type. That brother has got to duck to come in that door. He is a big dude, giant.”
Smith’s take: “With Zach, from that area of the country, huge expectations coming in there. He is a young guy, and so we feel that there’s a lot of room to develop. There’s no pressure immediately for him because of the way that room is constructed right now.”
» Fourth round (113th overall) – Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
Fontenot’s take: “We’re excited about Clark. You can’t have too many defensive backs that can cover and take the ball away, quick, athletic, speed, instincts, ball skills. Again, a tough competitor. A tough, competitive player who played at a tough program, the way they do things there.”
Smith’s take: “He can do both (play inside and outside). ... For a guy like Clark, highly productive in which I think is one of the better programs that sustains success. We have a lot of respect for that Utah program and the way they play defense. Loved every interaction with him. He was a guy that we had conviction on across the board, and we were excited he was there at 113.”
Fontenot’s take: “Jovaughn. Same thing, versatile interior player. Smart, tough, highly competitive.”
Smith’s take on Hellams and Gwyn: “They were highly productive players in the SEC. Both of them played in a lot of big-time games and big-time environments, and they show up week in and week out, so we’re very excited to add both of them to the program.”
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.