Picking fourth, the Atlanta Falcons are key in how the 2021 NFL Draft shapes up

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst 

While the top of the 2021 NFL Draft might appear set, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets expected to take their preferred quarterbacks, the drama right below them is worth exploring.

The San Francisco 49ers have traded up to No. 3, presumably to pick Mac Jones (yikes). So right now, the team that controls the rest of the draft is the Atlanta Falcons, sitting with the fourth pick heading into the draft.

When we talk about the Falcons under new head coach Arthur Smith, the conversation starts with quarterback Matt Ryan, who will be 36 when the season rolls around. Ryan’s contract makes it nearly impossible for the Falcons to get out of it without a significant cap penalty until 2023. But I don’t think the Falcons need to move on from Ryan anyway.

With a new coaching staff and front office, the first inclination is always to find a new quarterback, a guy they’ve drafted and have personally invested in. But the situation in Atlanta is unusual in that most coaching jobs do not come open with an established quarterback like Ryan already on the roster.

The Falcons were bad under Dan Quinn, but that was on the defense. The Falcons’ passing offense actually finished in the top half of the NFL in efficiency in all but Quinn’s first season in Atlanta. The Falcons’ offense as constructed, with their receiving weapons and average-but-young offensive line – not to mention the offensive mind of new head coach Smith, who revived Ryan Tannehill’s career in Tennessee – is a premium situation for Ryan.

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Even knowing all of this, the Falcons could easily take a quarterback at No. 4, let him sit for a season, and just eat the $40-plus-million cap hit the following year.

This is where the discussion about the fourth pick in the draft can begin.

Let’s go through the possible scenarios if the Niners draft Mac Jones at No. 3, as I expect they will.

If the Falcons do intend to keep Ryan, they could easily add Kyle Pitts, the once-in-a-generation tight end out of Florida, at No. 4.

While tight end isn’t a need for them, Pitts is the highest graded non-quarterback on the board. He will be an immediate impact player in Smith’s new offense and a weapon the Falcons would have a tough time passing on.

However, with Justin Fields and Trey Lance still on the board, the Falcons could expect to receive “Godfather offers” from teams eager to move into their spot to draft a future franchise quarterback.

There’s research to show that trading back is always the right move. The Falcons would miss on Pitts in that case, but they’d be able to draft a defensive player and add future draft picks to help the squad. It’s impossible to have enough talent on your team. If I was in this spot, I’d trade back.

Keeping Ryan would make the Falcons’ draft less volatile. But if they do decide to move on, there are different ways they could do so.

If the Niners draft Jones, Atlanta could take either Fields or Lance. Easy enough. But what if the Niners draft Fields? I don’t see Jones as a Falcons guy. If the Falcons feel Lance can spend this season behind Ryan developing into their future franchise quarterback, then he’s their guy at four. But if they don’t, then the Falcons can draft Pitts or trade back.

And consider another possibility: What if the Broncos want to trade up and the Falcons believe Lance will still be available at No. 9? In that case, they might consider trading back and still attempt to get a quarterback.

The tricky part becomes how the Falcons weigh these three options:

– Keep Ryan + draft Pitts
– Keep Ryan + trade down for extra draft picks
– Draft Fields or Lance

Which one of these will bring them closer to their goal?

The Falcons might want to move on from Ryan, but that could change if they receive an offer that’s too good to refuse from a desperate team looking to nab a quarterback. And they believe Ryan can make it work for a year or two while they add extra talent via trade.

It’s all so fascinating.

The Falcons might not be picking first, but their decision with the fourth pick will set up the rest of the draft. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do on draft weekend.

Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz. 

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