This coming season marks the beginning of Arthur Smith’s reign in Atlanta. The former offensive coordinator inherits a team with some elite talent but little depth. Despite boasting several current and former All-Pros, the Falcons haven’t made the playoffs in three years. A quality draft class could turn things around for Smith’s team.
Atlanta possesses the fourth overall pick in 2021, which is a blessing and a curse. With the three teams above them destined to take quarterbacks, the Falcons have their choice of the best players at all other positions. They could also trade back and accumulate more assets. However, Matt Ryan is almost 36 years old and has one campaign with a passer rating over 100 in the past four seasons.
Smith has at least two years to retool Atlanta before his seat starts getting hot, but the Falcons are stuck between a total rebuild and win-now mode. Hopefully, the team reveals its intentions moving forward through its selections.
I used The Draft Network’s mock draft machine and Pro Football Focus’ mock draft simulator to justify each of my selections. At least one website had the chosen players available at their listed picks over several simulations. I didn’t create any trades and included an “ideal pick” after every selection for optimistic fans.
Round 1 (No. 4): Kyle Pitts, TE Florida Gators
Justin Fields made it to fourth overall for TDN, but he went to San Francisco at three in PFF’s simulator. I’d listen to arguments for drafting Fields if I knew he’d make it to four every time, but there’s no consensus on who the 49ers will take. Ryan is still a good quarterback, and his contract is impossible to move on from right now.
Common sense says a quarterback is still more valuable than Pitts here, but I’m unwilling to abandon Ryan for Mac Jones or Trey Lance. I’d rather draft a generational tight end than alienate my star quarterback. Plenty of people probably disagree with that decision, but it all comes down to Smith’s plan for his new team.
By now, you must’ve seen all of the impressive numbers Pitts posted at his pro day. The 20-year-old is 6-6, 245 lbs. with 33.5-inch arms and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. He’s a generational talent as a tight end, but he’d also qualify as an elite prospect if he entered the draft as a wide receiver.
Outside of trading back to get more picks or drafting Fields if the 49ers go elsewhere, I can’t imagine a more productive pick than one that pairs Pitts with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
Ideal pick: Pitts
Round 2 (No. 35): Gregory Rousseau, EDGE Miami
Rousseau only posted one year of elite production at Miami, but Ronnie Perkins and Carlos Basham Jr. were the only other edge rushers available that made sense. Of course, new defensive coordinator Dean Pees could alter this selection based on what scheme he wants to run. In Tennessee, Pees ran a 3-4, but he experimented with other formations as well.
Rousseau is an odd prospect. He amassed 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in 2019, but a lot of that production came against guards. Rousseau didn’t test well at his pro day after opting out of 2020. At 6-7, 266 lbs. with over 34.5-inch arms, he doesn’t possess natural bend and needs to add weight to his lengthy frame.
Rousseau has plenty of upside but needs an excellent coach and patience to reach his full potential.
It’s tempting to take Kentucky’s Jamin Davis here. He and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins could easily reach this spot. However, neither of the standout linebackers fill an immediate need for the Falcons. They already have versatile linebackers that fit Pees’ plans.
Ideal pick: Landon Dickerson, IOL Alabama
Round 3 (No. 68): Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB Syracuse
Pees ran mostly Cover 2 with some Cover 3 during his successful time in Tennessee. He used plenty of creative fronts and blitz packages to confuse and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Those tricks only work if the coverage holds up and Atlanta’s secondary isn’t in great shape.
Melifonwu possesses a 6-2, 205 lb. frame with 32-inch arms. He struggles in off-man coverage and can’t change directions on a dime. However, Melifonwu offers upside in press coverage and should find a home in zone. He’s an asset against the run.
The Falcons don’t have much talent at outside corner apart from A.J. Terrell. Melifonwu could walk in and displace Kendall Sheffield and anyone else that could compete for snaps next to Terrell.
Elijah Molden was available in the PFF simulation at 68, and I had a hard time passing over the Washington product. He projects as a slot corner/safety hybrid in the NFL, and Pees used Logan Ryan in a similar role for Tennessee. Ryan is bigger and a more experienced pass rusher than Molden, but the future Day 2 selection has tempting versatility.
Ideal pick: Melifonwu
Round 4 (No. 108): Ar’Darius Washington, S TCU
The Falcons need an injection of talent at safety. The team recently agreed to a one-year deal with Erik Harris and has Duron Harmon and Jaylinn Hawkins on hand. Harmon and Harris are both over 30 years old and were low-tier starters on bad teams last season. Hawkins is a 2020 fourth-round pick with fewer than 100 defensive snaps to his name.
Atlanta can’t get complacent at safety. Their current options aren’t good enough to justify passing over the position in the mid-rounds. While Washington is a risky acquisition because of his small frame (5-8, 178 lbs.) and lack of high-end speed, he intercepted five passes in 2019. Washington is a fluid playmaker that plays faster and with more burst than his pro day numbers suggest.
Maybe the Falcons are planning a long-term rebuild where they tear the defense down over several years, but I doubt they will try that with Jones and Ryan under contract.
Ideal pick: Jamar Johnson, S Indiana
Round 5 (No. 148): Khalil Herbert, RB Virginia Tech
I wanted to get Atlanta Trey Sermon or Rhamondre Stevenson, but the boards fell in awkward ways when I ran the simulations. Herbert experienced a breakout season in 2020, rushing for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns on only 155 carries. He’s only 5-9 but weighs 210 lbs. and runs a 4.46 40-time.
Herbert is a well-rounded back that has good vision and enough burst to shoot through gaps. However, Smith ran an offense in Tennessee that doesn’t match Herbert’s playing style. The Falcons probably add Sermon in the third-round if they desperately want a new lead rusher. Stevenson might make it to the fifth-round.
Ideal pick: Trill Williams, CB Syracuse
Round 5 (No. 182): Shi Smith, WR South Carolina
Smith reached 182 in the PFF simulator, but the TDN machine had him go earlier in the fifth-round. While Cornell Powell is still on the board, Atlanta needs some depth in the slot. At 5-9, Smith isn’t winning battles on the outside. He ran a 4.43 40-time at South Carolina’s pro day, and that play speed translates to the gridiron.
Russell Gage is in the final year of his rookie deal, meaning the Falcons could groom Smith as his eventual replacement.
Ideal pick: Dazz Newsome, WR North Carolina
Round 5 (No. 183): Deommodore Lenoir, CB Oregon
Over his four years with the Ducks, Lenoir recorded 21 pass breakups and intercepted six throws. He’s only 5-10, which likely pigeonholes him as a slot corner in the NFL. Isaiah Oliver saw plenty of snaps in the slot for Atlanta last year. The former second-round pick is in the final year of his rookie contract.
I’m not suggesting the Falcons replace Oliver this year, but according to Pro Football Reference, the 24-year-old gave up seven touchdowns and a 120.8 passer rating when targeted in 2020.
Lenoir is a plus run defender with good ball skills and aggression. He lacks a second gear, which could hinder him against vertical receivers.
Ideal pick: Ambry Thomas, CB Michigan
Round 6 (No. 187): Tommy Kraemer, IOL Notre Dame
Kraemer didn’t do any of the testing drills at Notre Dame’s pro day, but he weighed in at 6-5, 309 lbs. with 33.5-inch arms and over 10.5-inch hands. He’s not an athletic guard and struggles against defenders with advanced pass rush moves. Luckily, Kraemer has a stout anchor and is active with his hands.
Kraemer doesn’t fit outside of a power or gap offense because of issues with his athleticism, bend, and technique. He could fit in Atlanta depending on what aspects of Smith’s offense the former coordinator imports from Tennessee.
The Falcons are paper-thin at guard beyond Chris Lindstrom.
Ideal pick: Sadarius Hutcherson, IOL South Carolina
Round 6 (No. 219): Josh Ball, OT Marshall
Ball is more talented than your average sixth-round pick, but he transferred from Florida St. following an instance of dating violence. How NFL teams view the incident could drastically alter where he’s selected.
At 6-7, 308 lbs. with 35-inch arms, Ball has all of the desired measurements for an offensive tackle. Despite his height, Ball bends well and gains leverage against opponents. He’s agile in space and terrorizes defenders at the second level. I could see him working as a sixth offensive lineman early in 2021 before challenging Kaleb McGary for starting snaps.
Ideal pick: Zach Davidson, TE Central Missouri