An All-2021 NFL Draft Mailbag: Falcons Plans at No. 4, Teams That Could Trade Up and More

Three weeks out from the draft, we know a little more about what should happen. But intrigue remains. Answering your questions about Atlanta’s big question, which QB the 49ers prefer, which non-QB the Dolphins would want, and teams like Washington and the Patriots trading up.
By Albert Breer ,

The draft’s three weeks away, and all of you want to know more about what’s going to happen. Let’s answer some questions …

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

From Cam Marino (@MarinoNFL): Falcons plan at 4. What’re they thinking?

From D’Andre Swift’s Burner (@Swift32Burner): Are the Falcons more likely to draft a QB (Trey Lance), Kyle Pitts or trade back?

It’s important to mention this first: The Falcons sent their GM (Terry Fontenot), coach (Arthur Smith) and offensive coordinator (Dave Ragone) to pro days at Alabama (Mac Jones), BYU (Zach Wilson), Clemson (Trevor Lawrence), North Dakota State (Trey Lance) and Ohio State (Justin Fields). So Atlanta is very much operating like a team planning on taking a quarterback with the fourth pick, particularly when you consider the Falcons sent those guys, and 2021 pro days are limited to three officials per team.

But does that mean they’re locked in on the idea? It most certainly does not.

The Falcons, in fact, are considering three separate and very logical tracks: taking a quarterback, taking the best non-quarterback (Kyle Pitts?) or trading the pick. As such, in addition to all the work on the quarterbacks and studying prospects like Pitts, they’ve had exploratory talks with teams that would have an interest in moving up to No. 4 dating back to when the Niners traded the third pick.

And if we’re being honest about this, in the end, the operative question is simply whether to take a quarterback. I know the Falcons have already debated it. The argument for doing it is that you don’t want to be picking this high often, and 2022 looks barren at the position, so not doing it now could mean waiting (at least) two years for the long-term answer. The argument against is that the Falcons’ cap is messy, and the roster needs to fit cheaper young talent around its aging core—plus, Matt Ryan isn’t that old (35).

I wish I could tell you, Cam (and Swift’s Burner), that the Falcons were leaning one way or another. I don’t think they’re there yet. And to me, being able to properly value the pick by shopping it around seems like a smart way to properly inform what’s going to be an immense decision for Fontenot, Smith and all the new people in the building.

From Zach Fogelman (@FogelmanZach): Is San Francisco really going to draft Mac Jones or Trey Lance?

Zach, I don’t know for sure. I’m not sure many people do. Both guys have traits that I think will intrigue Kyle Shanahan. And since I’ve said that a bunch, but not really expounded too much on it, I figured this would be a good place to do it—having talked to folks about how each of the quarterbacks expected to be available at No. 3 (Jones, Lance and Fields) matches up with that system.

• Jones is the cleanest projection. He’s the most accurate of the three, he throws with anticipation, his pocket movement is polished and twitchy, and the ball is always out on time. Also, Jones’s college OC, Steve Sarkisian, has raved to teams about how much the Bama coaches were able to put on his plate and how he applied the coaching to the field.

• Lance is the stylistic fit with room to grow. He’s the youngest of the top five QBs in the draft class (born May 9, 2000) and he’s played in one real game over the last 15 months. He needs reps, some continued mechanical work (tightening up his release, for one) and also experience in situations where his team is leaning on him to win—he had fewer than 20 attempts in nine of NDSU’s 16 games in 2019 and threw it more than 31 times just once. His accuracy on the move needs work. But if it comes together? NDSU prepared him to handle volume, he played a lot both in the shotgun and under center and Shanahan’s scheme sets up to highlight skills like his. The ceiling would be high.

• The issue with Fields isn’t going through progressions, it’s how fast he’s seeing the field and getting the ball out on time, issues that lead to more freelancing. And issues that actually mirror some of those that Jimmy Garoppolo has had. Could Shanahan coach them out of Fields? If so, there’s more boom potential here than with anyone. But I do wonder if Garoppolo’s not turning the corner in these areas affects the Niners’ thinking.

So, in short, Jones looks like he’s probably the best option for Year 1, with the question being whether what you see is what you get—but he won’t be a whole lot better in Year 4. Conversely, with Lance, the potential is there to have a star in Year 4, if you’re willing to ride out Year 1. And Fields is a wild card in this mix. Whether he’s too much of a wild card remains to be seen.

From Sammy (@SammyWFTFAN): Can you see Washington trading up or no?

Sammy, right now, I’d say a move into the top 10 is unlikely. Why? Well, Washington has a new GM, Martin Mayhew, and personnel chief, Marty Hurney. And though they got their ticket to the playoffs punched simply by winning the worst division in football (history?), the team that was in the playoffs last year has a roster that looks, on paper, like it’s got enough to continue to contend.

So as I see it, Washington has a shot here to continue building up an already promising group with its draft capital, around a suitable-for-now answer at quarterback, in Ryan Fitzpatrick. If they keep building from here, that’ll only make the situation better for whomever winds up being the long-term answer down the line.

And I apologize for using this example a lot, but I think it applies here: Look at how the Chiefs wound up landing on Patrick Mahomes. Andy Reid won with Alex Smith early on, and he and John Dorsey built the roster up while making the playoff three times in their first four years. They kept chipping away at their holes, and, by the time Mahomes showed up, they had not a good but a great situation for a young quarterback.

Now, is it possible one of the top quarterback prospects will slip past 10, and Washington (currently picking 19th) will decide to make a short move up? Sure. But I wouldn’t say it’s likely. A move into the top 10 would surprise me.

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From Val (@oldironthrone): More likely that Jags trade up from 25 or trade back?

Val, I’ll go on what I know about Urban Meyer, which is that he values premium athletic traits. And I think he’s got a few guys with those (C.J. Henderson, Josh Allen, D.J. Chark, K’Lavon Chaisson), but probably knows he needs more. That’s why, in my first mock draft, I gave him Penn State freak Jayson Oweh—a player he recruited (unsuccessfully) to Ohio State out of high school.

My feeling is, at least this year, that’s going to be the type of athlete he’s going to try to stock the Jaguars’ roster with, and, since Jacksonville already has volume in picks, it’ll likely make the most sense for the team to stick and pick where it is. And that’s even with the rep GM Trent Baalke had for moving picks around in San Francisco.

From Johnny (@aces672): Does the addition of Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater give the Lions a top five O-line next year and for years to come?

Johnny, I think they’d be right there. Taylor Decker, when healthy, is a legitimate franchise left tackle, and Frank Ragnow’s a cornerstone center. I think there is most certainly a scenario where both Sewell and Slater will be sitting there for the Lions—if quarterbacks go 1-2-3-4, and Pitts and Ja'Marr Chase go No. 5 and 6 in some order—and I don’t think new GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell would hesitate to build strength on strength there.

Remember, both came from places—Holmes from L.A. and Campbell from New Orleans—where resources were invested consistently in the offensive line.

Would it be Slater or Sewell? That’s going to be a very interesting question for a number of teams in the top 10 to ask. Sewell’s potential is off the charts, and it would surprise nobody if he is the top left tackle in football in three or four years. But there are also some concerns about his maturity and how he’ll transition to being a pro. Those don’t exist with Slater. Most believe the Northwestern star will be a really good NFL lineman, and he is a very “safe” prospect. The question for him is whether he’d be best at tackle or inside at guard.

Again, I think the conversation over those two will be a big one in the coming weeks for a new Lions regime that has a bunch of holes to fill—and it could wind up leading to a trade down, if someone is looking to come up and catch a slipping quarterback on draft day.

From Invisible Man (@KFernelis): Does anyone actually know who the Jets will draft at No. 2? Joe Douglas keeps everything close to the chest.

I believe, Invisible, the expression is keeping things close to the vest, but chest also works, since the location is the same. And yes, Douglas has kept his cards pretty close to both the vest and chest on this one up until this week—with just one little hint from the Jets on where they’re going. Douglas was at pro days at Ohio State, North Dakota State, Clemson and BYU (he didn’t go to Bama), but was accompanied by Robert Saleh to only one of those.

That one would be the trip to Provo, Utah.

The widespread assumption that the Jets are taking Wilson does get some credence based on that. And Douglas didn’t do anything to kill speculation on a Zoom call with the New York media on Tuesday, either. He was asked about BYU legend Steve Young’s saying that the Jets had committed to Wilson, and responded by saying only that “Steve’s plugged into BYU pretty well.”

So maybe, in the end, if you want to keep the analogy going, Douglas is tipping his hand just a little bit.

Gainesville Sun/USA TODAY NETWORK

From Bobby Baccala III (@curtisbaccala55): Would the Dolphins still take one of the Alabama receivers with Kyle Pitts on the board?

Bobby, great question, and one that teams will have to reckon with in the weeks to come. To me, if all things are equal, you should take the tight end in that spot. You can do more with the position, and great ones are harder to find there than at receiver—both in general and in this year’s draft class. No, history hasn’t always been kind to tight ends going in the top 10 (T.J. Hockenson and Eric Ebron are the only two to go that high over the last decade), but by all accounts, Pitts is a different animal altogether.

And for Miami specifically? The idea of pairing Pitts with current tight end Mike Gesicki is a lot of fun, and Brian Flores, of all people, knows the advantage that having two queens on the chessboard at the position could create for an offense.

The Dolphins could then double back at No. 18 if DeVonta Smith falls there, or pluck a burner like Kadarius Toney or Rondale Moore at No. 36 to complement DeVante Parker. Bottom line is the receiver group this year is much deeper than just Chase, Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and the same really can’t be said for the state of the tight end spot.

From Danny (@BetTheOver85): How likely/unlikely is it that Sam Darnold becomes Ryan Tannehill 2.0 and rejuvenates his career?

Danny, I think Carolina’s got a shot to resurrect Darnold’s career. Getting a left tackle to bookend with Taylor Moton, and maybe that’s Sewell at No. 8, would help. But from there, he’s got Robbie Anderson and D.J. Moore to throw to, and Christian McCaffrey alongside him, and that should at least give offensive coordinator Joe Brady a foundation to build off of.

I believe your comp is pretty apt, too. One thing Tannehill needed coming out of Miami was a coach who’d get him playing fast again, and Arthur Smith was that guy—lifting the mental load off the 2012 first-round pick (giving, for example, line calls to the center) in an effort to just let him play. To me, Darnold needs the exact same sort of thing going to Charlotte, and I think Brady’s astute enough to know it and give it to him.

The truth is that Darnold too often over the last couple of years was asked to operate like Peyton Manning once did in Adam Gase’s offense. And that was as a quarterback who arrived in the pros as a raw prospect in need of development, which, to me, explains how his wiring got fouled up. As such, to get him right, I think Brady would do well to let him go out and be more of a bus driver type and build from there.

In this case, I really believe asking less of a player—and that should be even easier to do if McCaffrey’s back at 100% in the fall—will mean getting more out of him.

From Mike Durand (@MikeyD_31) With Carolina out of the QB draft sweepstakes, and Denver being the only team above New England outside of the top three or four that need/want a QB ... does this change the way New England proceeds with their plan at No. 15?

Mike, I’m not sure it will. I still think, if you’re the Patriots, you have to have your radar up for the Lions, Panthers and Broncos taking one, and go on the assumption that one will likely go at No. 4, whether the Falcons are the one taking him or it’s another team trading up into their spot. Which means that sitting and waiting at No. 15 for a guy to fall to you would be a shaky strategy.

Could it happen? Sure. But if the Patriots feel strongly enough about a quarterback to take him in the first round, then they should be comfortable moving up for him. And if they don’t feel that strongly, it’s fair to question whether they should take that guy at No. 15.

I’d keep an eye on the Patriots’ potentially getting aggressive if Justin Fields were to start sliding—and that’s just a hunch, nothing more. If it’s not that, there are guys later on (like Kellen Mond and Davis Mills) who might make sense on Day 2.

From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): Is there a QB in this draft who might be the next Dak Prescott? i.e. a low-round pick who will sign a mega deal in four or five years!

Don! Mills and Jamie Newman are dark horses for me. Mills was a super recruit coming out of high school, but had limited starting experience at Stanford—he didn’t wrest the Cardinal job from K.J. Costello until mid-2019, and Stanford had its season sliced up by COVID-19 this year. So it’s logical that there’d be something to work with there. And while I don’t think Newman was ever seen as a first-rounder (some mocks had him there last year) the Wake Forest alum and Georgia opt-out will be an interesting name to follow.

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