‘Prime’ pick in QB-rich draft gives Falcons leverage to build roster

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot address the team's cap situation entering the 2021 NFL season.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

The best thing the Falcons have going for them is the No. 4 overall pick in an NFL draft with several top quarterback prospects and plenty of teams looking for one.

“It’s unique with what’s going on with that position,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said Tuesday. “But, yes, that makes it even more prime.”

Fontenot’s ability to leverage that pick for maximum value will be key. That’s why I say trading down for additional picks is the best long-term play. But whatever happens with the No. 4 pick in April isn’t going to do much to help the Falcons in the fall.

They don’t have many players under contract, yet their payroll is well above the projected salary cap. They created some cap space by releasing two veterans (Ricardo Allen and Allen Bailey), but there’s only one more potential cut that would make much difference (James Carpenter). The Falcons have only six draft picks (they may end up with a late-round compensatory pick). There aren’t a lot of young stars on the roster.

It’s a tough situation for Fontenot. It will take time to see how his first draft as GM turns out. The NFL is set up for bad teams to make quick turnarounds, but that requires cap space, draft capital and several young players outperforming their contracts. The Falcons don’t check any of those boxes.

When Fontenot says it will be a challenge to significantly improve the roster, it’s not a new GM setting artificially low expectations. He’s telling the truth.

“We are going to have to earn our job as scouts,” Fontenot said. “We are scouts, right? We are going to have to go find players because you can’t build your roster with overpaid players in free agency or top draft picks.

“We are going to have to really dig. We have to dig and find value in free agency and that’s working with the coaches and finding out that they need.”

When Arthur Smith was hired as Falcons coach he didn’t have much to say about the roster he inherited. He said he needed time to evaluate it. A month later he said the list of “good pieces” includes kicker Younghoe Koo, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, quarterback Matt Ryan and guard Chris Lindstrom.

“I could go on and on and on,” Smith said Tuesday.

I’m sure he could. But it wouldn’t take long before he’s reaching. There’s Julio Jones (when healthy), Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and ... well, that’s about it.

Said Smith: “You always love to have depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage in a perfect world.”

In Smith’s world, there’s one good player on the defensive line (Grady Jarrett) and one sold veteran on the offensive line (Jake Matthews). Center Alex Mack is set to be a free agent. If the Falcons cut Carpenter, the only interior linemen under contract will be Lindstrom (he’s promising) and Matt Hennessy (he struggled in limited snaps as a rookie).

The Falcons need a safety. The only one they have under contract, Jaylinn Hawkins, played just 74 defensive snaps during his rookie season. If they could, the Falcons probably would replace everyone else in the secondary except cornerback A.J. Terrell. They can’t.

I’m among the (few?) people who believe the Falcons weren’t as bad as their 4-12 record in 2020. It wasn’t often that they got run off the field. Better luck in close games would have produced at least two more victories. The Falcons have holes to fill, but they have enough offensive skill talent to be a decent team in 2021.

The Falcons won’t be on the short list of legitimately good teams that exist in any given year of the NFL’s engineered parity. They can be among the pack hovering around .500 and hoping to get enough good breaks to be better. Having ex-Titans coordinator Smith as head coach should help them be on the leading edge of offensive design. New defensive coordinator Dean Pees might be able to scheme up some pass-rush pressure.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith discuss the state of the team heading into the new league business year, which starts March 17.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

It’s up to Fontenot to give the coaches better player personnel. The Falcons need the most help along both lines and in the secondary. They won’t be able to spend much on free agents to fill those holes. The NFL’s 2021 salary-cap figure isn’t yet known.

“We are hoping for the best in terms of what that number ends up being,” Fontenot said.

Whatever it is won’t be high enough to save the Falcons. Fontenot’s predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff, shrugged off salary-cap concerns as he kept pushing potential hits into the future. I don’t blame him. Team owner Arthur Blank allowed him to do that while going all-in to win. Now Fontenot is stuck with the bill.

Fontenot hired Chris Olsen as the senior executive with primary responsibility to manage the salary cap.

“It’s not just about getting under the cap,” Fontenot said. “We have to make big-picture decisions. It’s a challenge.”

Fontenot said that, ideally, the Falcons will fill needs in free agency “because that gives you more confidence to move forward with the right approach in the draft.” For him that means selecting the best available talent regardless of position. That’s particularly relevant this year because the best prospects appear to be quarterbacks and wide receivers, which are positions of strength for the Falcons.

No team can realistically expect to find instant stars in the draft, which is hit or miss. Even the instant hits won’t significantly change a team’s fortune unless it’s a quarterback joining a team with talent in place. The Falcons pulled that off when they drafted Ryan in 2008 and improved from 4-12 in the Bobby Petrino/Michael Vick year to 11-5.

The situation is different for the Falcons now. They’ve got aging stars, a tight salary cap and a run of three consecutive losing seasons. All that points to a longer-term roster rebuild rather than an instant turnaround (of course, in the NFL that means winning two years later instead of one).

No surprise that Fontenot isn’t framing it that way.

“We have over 50% of the roster to build,” Fontenot said. “We have such a long way to go. We are going to work hard to bring in the right players, regardless of whether we are talking about undrafted free agents or guys who aren’t making a lot of money. I don’t think any of those players are going to say they are not coming here to compete to win every game they can.”

The Falcons will try to win. They’ll have a better chance of doing that if Fontenot can add some undervalued players. Right now, his best asset is that No. 4 overall draft pick.

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