FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ big week is at hand. When last they entered an NFL draft without an established quarterback, they drafted Matt Ryan. This is their first draft since 2008 without him. This is their second rebuild of this century.
They traded with the Chargers before the 2001 draft to take Michael Vick No. 1 overall. He led the Falcons to a playoff win at Lambeau Field and to the NFC Championship game. He was their quarterback until the summer of 2007. A new administration spent its first pick on Ryan, who led the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons and later carried them within sight of the Lombardi Trophy.
For all their foibles, the Falcons have been rather deft with quarterbacks since landing Chris Chandler from the Oilers in 1997. (He also took the Falcons to a Super Bowl.) Only two of the past 25 seasons have seen them understaffed at the position that matters most – in 2003, when Vick missed 11 games with a broken ankle, and in 2007, when Vick was otherwise occupied in federal court.
As we speak, the Falcons have no franchise quarterback. They have Marcus Mariota, who’s a guy you hire when you lack a franchise quarterback. They hold the No. 8 pick of Round 1 in a draft that mightn’t include a franchise quarterback. Then again, it might.
Asked Tuesday if this draft includes a quarterback who can start in the NFL, general manager Terry Fontenot said: “There are starters at every single position.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
Asked if the Falcons would consider this draft a failure if they don’t take a quarterback, Fontenot said: “No. We could draft a quarterback in any of the rounds. There are multiple ways to add a quarterback.”
There are, but the easiest – and cheapest – way is to draft one. From coach Arthur Smith: “It’s the most important position in professional sports.”
At issue is whether the best quarterbacks of this class – Kenny Pickett of Pitt, Malik Willis of Liberty, Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati, Matt Corral of Ole Miss – are worthy of a high Round 1 pick. There’s a thought that the Falcons could fill a different position at No. 8 and land a later Round 1 pick to spend on a quarterback.
Fontenot again: “We could come out of this draft with a quarterback. We need to add to that (meeting) room.”
A few days ago, this correspondent suggested the Falcons’ draft priority should be a quarterback. That’s not to say they don’t need to upgrade elsewhere/everywhere. (Fontenot: “There’s not a position we don’t want to add to.”) But a rebuilding team that finds a quarterback is a team that has hastened its rebuild.
Another school of thought holds that the Falcons would be better served devoting this draft to wideouts and edge rushers and offensive linemen and wait until 2023 to snag Alabama’s Bryce Young. (This assumes the Falcons with Mariota would be among the NFL’s worst teams in 2022, which doesn’t seem outlandish.)
Said Fontenot: “We’re living the moment.”
Then: “We’re thinking big picture. We’re not saying, ‘We might get this player next year, so we don’t need to do anything this year.’”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
The belief here is that the Falcons would be wise to find the best quarterback they can in this draft and let at least some of the season ahead serve as his audition. The belief is that Mariota is no more than a placeholder, though we stipulate that, once upon a time, he was the No. 2 overall draftee. That time, we note, was April 2015.
A Smith-directed offense with Mariota and Cordarrelle Patterson would be intriguing for half a season. (Imagine Oklahoma’s wishbone of the 1970s re-created 50 years later.) It would not, alas, be sustainable. There’s a reason Mariota hasn’t started a game since Oct. 13, 2019. He doesn’t throw the ball to NFL specifications. There aren’t a lot of people on this Earth who do.
Apologies for repeating myself, but the Falcons should exit this draft with a quarterback who stands a chance of running an NFL offense. If they watch him for a year and decide he’s not their guy, they can try again in 2023. For what it’s worth, I saw Ryan and Boston College play against Georgia Tech in 2007 and decided he was an NFL quarterback. I saw Pickett against Tech in October and felt the same way.