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Falcons plan for the perfect 2021 NFL Draft: Trading down in the first round would be wise

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The Atlanta Falcons are entering a new era with first-year head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot — who they took away from the rival New Orleans Saints. Unfortunately, the new front office has not done much in free agency to get the fan base excited for the 2021 season, but there’s an opportunity to add young talent coming up later this month in the 2021 NFL Draft.

While this offseason hasn’t been too eventful for the Falcons, it’s the draft where true contenders are built. Atlanta holds three picks in the top 70, and they could turn it into more with a trade. The Falcons are also well suited to mine a couple of gems in this deep class, as they hold a total of five picks in rounds five and six. The front office will of course look to fill the needs on defense, address the offensive line and find value in all seven rounds, but some issues are more important than others at this juncture. 

Below, we will map out three objectives the Falcons must accomplish if they want to pull off the perfect 2021 NFL Draft and get back into the mix in the very competitive NFC South.

Answer the phones, consider a trade down

With the San Francisco 49ers trading up to No. 3 overall, the first three picks of the 2021 NFL Draft are all expected to be quarterbacks. While the Falcons at No. 4 overall could have their chance at the best player in the draft who is not a quarterback, there may be a mad dash inside the top five or top 10 for teams interested in taking the fourth quarterback. Some analysts — including several of our CBS NFL Draft writers — believe that the Falcons will surprise the NFL by taking a quarterback at No. 4 overall. I don’t think the Falcons should move on from Matt Ryan just yet, but I would put it out there that my franchise is indeed interested in taking a quarterback with my No. 4 overall pick. Let me explain.

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As the 49ers have proven, teams that are considering quarterbacks will be aggressive in trading up for their guy. The Falcons are in a prime spot at No. 4 overall, but it would benefit this rebuilding team to trade down. I would be leaking out information saying that I’m considering taking the fourth quarterback, but also that I would consider trading down for the right offer as well. Then, I would answer those trade calls, negotiate the best offer and pull the trigger. 

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Great minds clearly think alike, because in his latest mock draft, my colleague Chris Trapasso has the Falcons sending No. 4 overall and No. 142 (Round 5) to the Denver Broncos for No. 40 overall (Round 2) and No. 192 overall (Round 6) along with pick No. 9 and a 2022 first-round pick. Trapasso then has Atlanta, who is now at No. 9 overall, sending that pick along with No. 68 overall (Round 3) and a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Detroit Lions to move up two spots to No. 7 overall. There, the Falcons select former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who a lesser general manager could have taken at No. 4 overall.

To recap this hypothetical, the Falcons gave up a third-round pick, a fifth-round pick and a future fourth-round pick while gaining a second-round pick and a sixth-round pick along with a future first rounder. The Falcons could work out the details so that they give up future mid-round picks instead of current ones if they want to really hit this draft hard, but acquiring a potential star player while also acquiring a second-round pick and a future first is a decent deal. Again, this was a hypothetical trade. The Falcons could potentially get more in return for trading down. Either way, take a quarterback with a later pick. 

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Address edge rusher early

The Falcons recorded 29 sacks last season, which was tied for No. 23 in the league. Linebacker Deion Jones was Atlanta’s leading “sack artist” with 4.5 sacks, and Dante Fowler Jr. recorded just three sacks after racking up 11.5 with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. The Falcons need a legitimate starting pass-rusher, and need to address it early on. With the Falcons holding that early No. 35 overall pick in the second round, this is where they could take their pass-rusher. CBS Sports’ Cody Benjamin took defensive end Joseph Ossai out of Texas with Atlanta’s second-round pick, but the Falcons could also consider Penn State’s Jayson Oweh or Miami’s Gregory Rousseau. Atlanta’s defense surrendered the fourth-most yards per game last season, and were dead last in pass defense with an average of 293.6 air yards allowed per game. Improving the pass rush will help with that, and we will address the other half of the defense next. 

Beef up the secondary

With Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee now playing for other teams, the Falcons need a safety. It’s not just safety they should be looking at either, as the Falcons need to upgrade at cornerback as well. It’s hard to play cornerback in the NFL, but I like last year’s first-round pick in A.J. Terrell. Still, the overall talent and depth of this position group is not going to scare Tom Brady. Using the draft to upgrade at both positions would be ideal.

As for the incoming safeties, this class isn’t too deep. Our own Trapasso ranked the position group as his third-worst in the draft. There’s Trevon Moehrig, Richie Grant and then Andre Cisco as the best of the best, but how much potential the rest of the class has at the next level may be questionable. Trapasso explains:

“The next few tiers are decent, led by TCU’s Ar’Darius Washington — another slot defender/playmaker type — and Indiana’s Jemar Jefferson, who provides somewhat of the same style as Washington. Oregon’s Jevon Holland is incredibly versatile too, I’m just worried about his overall athletic profile. Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen and Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo are your prototype “big nickel” safeties in this class, and Deablo is more of a big-play generator.

Beyond those safeties, you’re stepping up to the plate, closing your eyes and hoping for the best.”

As for cornerback, this is a much deeper group — ranked fourth-best by Trapasso. We know the elite prospects that will be taken in the first round, but this class does have some intriguing prospects that will go Day 3. Tay Gowan out of UCF is an athletic cornerback with good size who could surprise people at the next level, and then there’s Shaun Wade. The Ohio State defensive back is listed as a cornerback, but might be a safety. He’s a hard-hitter who knows how to rush the quarterback and loves to hit in the open field. Not everyone loves his film, but he could be worth a shot. The Falcons need help on defense and could stand to upgrade at most positions on that side of the ball. The secondary will be young, but hopefully some talent can help contain the passing attacks of the NFC South. 

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Seven-round mock

Here are the prospects CBS NFL Draft writer Josh Edwards has the Falcons taking in his mock draft:

1 (4)

Trey Lance (QB)

North Dakota State

2 (35)

Travis Etienne (RB)

Clemson

3 (68)

Quincy Roche (EDGE)

Miami (Fla.)

4 (108)

Joshua Bledsoe (S)

Missouri

5 (148)

Darius Stills (DT)

West Virginia

5 (182)

Darren Hall (CB)

San Diego State

5 (183)

Kylen Granson (TE)

SMU

6 (187)

Josh Palmer (WR)

Tennessee

6 (219)

Jonathan Cooper (EDGE)

Ohio State


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