On the Atlanta Falcons and the 2021 NFL Draft, you can argue the merits of mock drafts until, well, until the actual NFL draft takes place. For the Atlanta Falcons, there is certainly a recurring theme around the current mocks being put out by the so-called ‘experts’. That recurring theme is a quarterback. We’ll get back to this in a moment.
In 2020 Atlanta went 4-12, their worst record since 2013. The season included several embarrassing moments. As a result and, unsurprisingly owner, Arthur Blank, cleaned house. In at general manager is former Saints assistant general manager Terry Fontenot. The new head coach is Arthur Smith, formerly the Titans OC.
Although the Falcons hold the fourth overall pick in the draft, the team doesn’t need a full rebuild but certainly has several areas of concern. The offensive line needs some improvement the defense needs a much more drastic one. Although the quickest way to build a team maybe through free agency, it is also the most expensive and the more short term option.
Since the Falcons are currently around $20 million over the expected 2021 cap figure of $180 million, then free agency isn’t going to be much of an option. Add to the equation that the team has 16 of its own free agents to either re-sign or replace and you can see why the draft is so crucial to both the immediate and long term success of the team. In short, most, if not all of those 6 draftees will need to be able to contribute in 2021.
So why don’t the Falcons trade Matt Ryan and draft a QB?
Firstly, Matt Ryan is not the problem on this team. he led the league in completions, was 2nd in passer rating, and 4th in passing yards, all with a terrible play-caller. However, since this question is doing the rounds, here is the simple answer.
Matt Ryan has a $49.9 million dead cap hit in 2021, trading him before June 1st would only save $9 million of that figure. Quite simply, this means that 21% of the Falcons cap space would be spent on a player that would be playing elsewhere. In 2022, the dead cap would be $26.5 million, this drops to $8.5M in 2023.
Oh, and currently Ryan is the only QB on the Falcons roster!
Drafting a quarterback with the fourth overall pick would still cost the team a considerable amount of money that we have already established that they don’t currently have. Take Justin Herbert for example. Herbert was drafted 6th overall in 2020 and had a dead cap figure of $26.5M. In simple terms, this would mean that in 2021 the Falcons would be using over $75M in dead cap space on two quarterbacks when you can only play one at a time. This would be more viable if the team had:
A. The cap space to manage it – they don’t
B. A team that is of championship calibre – they aren’t
Could they trade Julio Jones to create cap space?
Since the Falcons have Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, trading Jones would be a more likely scenario but again the numbers don’t do it justice. Trading Jones pre-June 1st saves $9M of the wide receivers $38.5 M dead cap hit. As with Ryan, the potential out is 2023, where Jones’s dead cap figure is down to $7.75M. A trade of some significance could make this possible but it’s still unlikely in 2021.
So what should the Falcons do in the 2021 NFL draft?
Given the aforementioned salary cap situation, Atlanta needs its first-round selection to contribute significantly straight away. You could even argue that they need this from their first three or even four draft picks depending on how they can navigate free agency.
The best-case scenario for the Falcons would seem be to trading back to gain additional picks, but only if the terms of any such trade would be suitable. They certainly wouldn’t want to fall back further than the 10-12 spot and if they could get another second-round pick in this draft then it would appear to be an ideal scenario.
The build-up to the NFL draft comes with a lot of, ‘smoke and mirrors’ from general managers across the league, especially at the top end of the draft.
General manager, Terry Fontenot has talked about his draft strategy being, ‘taking the best player available’ (BPA). This of course doesn’t necessarily mean that is what he will do. It could just mean taking the best player available on either side of the ball or excluding any positions the team doesn’t need to invest in during this draft.
Would the general manager with the BPA philosophy take Trevor Lawrence if they already had Patrick Mahomes?
The bottom line is this, the Falcons currently have 16 unrestricted free agents and additionally 7 restricted or exclusive rights free agents. The team parted ways with starting safety Ricardo Allen and defensive end Allen Bailey for salary cap reasons. Veteran back-up QB, Matt Schaub retired. That’s another 3 players that need replacing.
Atlanta currently has 6 selections in the 2021 NFL draft, although in what seems like some rare good news, they are expected to receive 4 compensatory picks.
These picks are projected to be 2 fifth-rounders, 1 six-rounder, and 1 seventh-rounder. This has yet to be made official.
I expect the Falcons to draft a quarterback, I just don’t expect it to be in the first round. It just doesn’t make financial sense or much sense from a personnel standpoint given the holes in the roster at this current time.
NFL free agency commences on March 17th although teams can negotiate with unrestricted free agents from March 15th.
The 2021 NFL draft runs from April 29th to May 1st.