It’s an exciting time in Atlanta as the Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot era is ushered with expectations abound following three consecutive non-playoff campaigns. Despite the major change in the Falcons’ brass, the core in uniform hasn’t changed as quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones return for their 11th season together.
Fontenot was relatively inactive in his first free agency calling the shots, but who could blame him. The Falcons had minimal money to spend which ultimately led to the departures of interior anchor Alex Mack and safety Keanu Neal. As much loss as the team suffered, the addition of running back Mike Davis provides a veteran presence in a drastically weak backfield following the failed Todd Gurley experiment.
Atlanta presents an interesting picture to paint as the 2021 NFL Draft nears, with no clear motive on which direction it’ll go at fourth overall. With talent needed in abundance, I took Fontenot’s place using The Draft Network’s Mock Draft Machine in an attempt to add both immediate production and high-quality depth pieces to fill Smith’s desired deep rotation of talent.
Here is my seven-round mock draft including scheme fit on each prospect:
Round 1 (No. 4 overall): Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
A scenario is likely where Fontenot trades down, but Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Kyle Pitts? It’s Ryan’s dream scenario if Atlanta stays at No. 4.
With Smith looking to transfer his heavy 12 personnel (two tight-end) sets to Atlanta, both Pitts and Hayden Hurst would provide unique mismatches across the board from week to week. Pitts is a generational talent at the tight end position and arguably provides the safest floor of all pass-catching talents in the class. There’s only one ball to go around between Jones, Ridley, and the former Gator, but it’s a bad issue to have. Give me Pitts here to return Ryan back to MVP form.
Round 2 (No. 35 overall): Levi Onwuzurike, IDL, Washington
With Dante Fowler Jr. back on the edge, both Fontenot and Smith believe he can return to 2019 form where he totaled 11.5 sacks for the Los Angeles Rams. With Grady Jarrett alongside Levi Onwuzurike in the interior, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has an enticing foundation to build his defense around.
Onwuzurike is one of, if not the most physical, violent interior defensive talent in this year’s class. With Atlanta’s defense in desperate need of fresh legs, he’s the easy pick here in an underwhelming defensive tackle class.
Round 3 (No. 68 overall): Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest
Right back to the defensive line here.
In today’s NFL, teams can never have enough pass rushers, and Carlos Basham Jr. is a nicely polished prospect that will slide in right away at left defensive end opposite Fowler. Within his NFL-ready frame at 281-pounds, Basham flashed on film throughout his time at Wake Forest totaling 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles from 2018-21.
Although there are needs at safety, corner, and linebacker, it starts up front. I envision Fontenot adding to his abysmal 24th-best team sack total from 2020.
Round 4 (No. 108 overall): Aaron Banks, IOL, Notre Dame
Although former Alabama interior offensive lineman Deonte Brown was an intriguing option here, Aaron Banks is the cleaner prospect who I envision thriving along Atlanta’s veteran line anchored by former first-round bookend tackles Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary.
Banks, an ultra-experienced interior athlete, will take his lumps as he adjusts to the speed of the pro game, but he’s an enticing run blocker with room to progress in his pass sets.
Round 5 (No. 148 overall): Talanoa Hufanga, S, USC
Along with the aforementioned departure in Neal, Damontae Kazee is also gone, leaving the Falcons currently set to start Erik Harris and 2020 fourth-round selection Jaylinn Hawkins on the backend. Oof.
Ignore the round, Talanoa Hufanga has the chance to become one of the top safeties in this class looking two to three years down the road. Hufanga is a versatile defender and did it all for USC’s defense working in both zone and man coverage while providing a punch in the run game. Hufanga plays with an above-average football IQ that finds him in the right spot consistently on film, highlighted by his four interceptions in 2020. If not asked to start right away, he’ll shine on special teams as a hungry tackler with the nose for the football. At a minimum, I envision him working rotationally before taking over full first-team reps. His stock continues to rise.
Round 5 (No. 182 overall): Javian Hawkins, RB, Louisville
The unfortunate career drop-off of Gurley is a story in and of itself, but the Falcons lack a WR1 capable of carrying the load in their backfield. Davis played nicely filling in for Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, but it’s far-fetched to see him take on a large bulk of the carries from week to week. The addition of Cordarrelle Patterson offers a bigger-bodied wildcat style of back, but I envision him working in the WR4 role and on special teams more often than in the backfield.
Enter Javian Hawkins, who is a lightning-in-a-bottle type prospect who would offer a unique chess piece into Smith’s offense. During his tenure at Louisville, Hawkins totaled 417 touches from scrimmage for 2,432 yards and 17 touchdowns. As was the case at the onset of Alvin Kamara’s career, Hawkins will thrive on third-downs working as a pass-catcher out of the backfield who’ll grow into a larger role with increased volume. He’s undersized, but what he lacks in vertical prowess he makes up for in big-play potential.
Round 5 (No. 183 overall): Thomas Graham Jr., CB, Oregon
Newly signed Fabian Moreau ideally will work out of the slot, opening up a spot in the rotation for the uber-competitive Graham to find his niche.
At 5-foot-11, Thomas Graham Jr.’s intangibles won’t jump off the table, but in a pass-happy league, cornerbacks are in high demand with points onboard an ever-climbing ladder. A.J. Terrell enjoyed a nice rookie year as the team’s CB1, but with him, Hufanga, and now Graham, Fontenot has a young core on the backend with plenty of room to develop. Graham’s competitiveness hurts at times as he’ll often become over-physical at the top of routes, but I’d rather have the over-competitive type than a corner soft in coverage with weak cover skills. He’s an excellent add with the Falcons’ third fifth-round selection.
Round 6 (No. 187 overall): Garret Wallow, LB, TCU
A former safety turned linebacker, Garret Wallow’s game hinges upon his eyes and speed at the second level. Alongside Deion Jones—one of the NFL’s top sideline-to-sideline defenders—Wallow’s game could thrive. Adding depth alongside Foyesade Oluokun and Mykal Walker would be smart. With his ability, Wallow could compete for snaps from Day 1.
Round 6 (No. 219 overall): Royce Newman, OT, Ole Miss
Royce Newman is built in a similar mold of both Matthews and McGary at 6-foot-5, under 310 pounds, and fits seamlessly as a developmental project in Year 1. For a rather inexperienced athlete, Newman flashed ideal mobility and blocking traits in both the run and pass game during his time in Oxford.
The situation at quarterback is definitely a precarious one, but I don’t see Fontenot spending a pick on one. I envision him and Smith opt to bring in an undrafted free agent as Ryan’s backup in 2021. If all fails in Smith’s first season, I expect Atlanta to have a new face under center in 2022, but they’ll live and die with Ryan this fall.