Falcons should draft best player available again

Approach has worked for general manager Terry Fontenot

FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s possible that the first four picks of the NFL draft will be used to select quarterbacks. That doesn’t mean they are the four best players in the draft. It’s just that quarterback is the most valuable position. Some better prospects at other positions are going to fall to the Falcons at No. 8.

Terry Fontenot has been a best-player-available guy in each of his three drafts as Falcons general manager. Top picks Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson all were unconventional selections in some way. Now Fontenot is going to get a chance to make a BPA pick again Thursday with the No. 8 selection.

The expected run on quarterbacks by teams at the top of the draft likely will be followed by prime prospects at wide receiver, offensive tackle and tight end. The Falcons have some good, veteran players at those positions. That should not preclude Fontenot from selecting the BPA.

“When you talk about ‘best player available,’ really you’re talking about best player available for us,” Fontenot said, referring to the fact that different teams have different opinions on which players are best. “The key is not reaching for needs. ... You have the ‘elite’ players, the ‘solid starters,’ the ‘functional starters,’ the development (players). In most cases, you’re going to have more than one position in that category. ... So let’s go with the position need or the more premier position.

Added Fontenot: “We always want to bring in impact players and continue to build a team. But where need does come into play is when you have several players in that category, which in most cases you do.”

The Falcons shouldn’t pick a quarterback even if the BPA on their board at No. 8 is a QB. They’ve got a small window of time to win with Kirk Cousins, their $100 million guy. Needs at other positions should take precedence. The Falcons really should take the non-QB who they deem to be the BPA at No. 8.

Ideally, the best player available and team needs would intersect. The Falcons could get that scenario in this draft. The team’s defense needs more talent at every level. The Falcons might get their pick of prospects for the defense after the quarterbacks go off the board early.

The Falcons haven’t had a good pass rush for years. Last season they ranked last in pass-rush win rate, per ESPN Analytics. The team’s two most productive edge rushers from 2023, Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, are free agents. Those factors are why outsiders are guessing that the Falcons will select an edge rusher with the No. 8 pick.

The top prospects at that position include Dallas Turner (Alabama), Jared Verse (Florida State) and Laiatu Latu (UCLA). The argument against the Falcons drafting an interior pass rusher is they have two good veterans inside, Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata. But Jarrett showed signs of slowing at 30 years old in 2023. Onyemata was the better pass rusher last season, but he’ll turn 32 in November.

“Those are premier positions, and so at any point if you can get them, it doesn’t matter what you have in your building,” Fontenot said of outside and inside pass rushers. “If you can get them, you definitely want to get them and there are some good in this draft, I would say, at both positions.”

This draft also is said to be deep in top-flight wide receivers. The Falcons seem to believe they adequately addressed that position in free agency with Darnell Mooney. I’m not so sure. They are paying Darnell Mooney like he’s a good No. 2 ($26 million), but he’ll have to give them more production to fit that bill.

The Falcons likely will have a chance to select a more talented wide receiver at No. 8. It won’t be Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and probably won’t be LSU’s Malik Nabers. It could be Washington’s Rome Odunze, who is as big as London, but faster and more athletic. The Falcons would be justified to draft Odunze (or Nabers) if he’s judged to be their BPA.

The same goes for Georgia tight end Brock Bowers. Having Pitts on the roster shouldn’t preclude the Falcons from picking Bowers, who can line up anywhere in the formation. Giving Cousins and new play-caller Zac Robinson another good pass-catcher could unlock another level for the offense.

The Falcons have a good offensive line. It would be better with Notre Dame tackle Joe Alt. Fontenot said he’s not averse to bringing in top prospects to challenge incumbent starters. Alt surely would push right tackle Kaleb McGary. He could be a future replacement for left tackle Jake Matthews, who will play his 11th season.

If the player the Falcons decide is the BPA at No. 8 isn’t at a position of need, then it’s on Fontenot and his staff to stick with the plan.

“Some really good players could be staring at us, and if you’ve got this impact dude that we know is going to make a difference and then we’ve got more of a need (elsewhere), let’s get this dude,” Fontenot said. “Because you know what? You’re getting them for the next five years and then you look back a couple years from now and say, ‘Man, why didn’t we take this guy? He could have really helped us right now.’”

All NFL decision-makers have those kinds of regrets. Fontenot may have some from the 2021 draft.

The Falcons made Pitts the highest-ever drafted right end an No. 4 overall that year. Four players who now have multiple Pro Bowl selections were on the board: wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, offensive tackle Penei Sewell, edge rusher Micah Parsons and cornerback Patrick Surtain. But Pitts is the only miss in three BPA picks for Fontenot (and Pitts still has a chance to be good).

Fontenot had his pick of wide receivers at No. 8 the next year and went with a big, savvy receiver (Drake London) instead of a speedster who gets separation from defenders. I expect London to have a big year now that he has a better QB. The Falcons bucked the league trend last year by taking a running back with the No. 8 pick (Bijan Robinson). I believe Zac Robinson will find better ways to harness Bijan Robinson’s tremendous talent.

Drafting the BPA has worked out well for Fontenot. He’ll get his chance to do it again this year after the frenzy for top quarterbacks pushes top prospects at other positions down the board.