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2020 NFL Draft Grades – Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta stayed local with its top pick, cornerback A.J. Terrell, but it was the “other” surprises on Day Two and Three that could have the Falcons back soaring soon.
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Given the months and months of build-up to the annual NFL draft, the rush to summarize a team’s rookie draft class in a few sentences and stamp a letter grade on it has never quite made much sense to me.

In the past, I’ve compared this process to patrons at a restaurant complimenting (or complaining to) the chef based on the menu, rather than waiting to actually taste the food.

In much this same way, it obviously takes time to properly evaluate a draft. Given all of the complexities of the 2020 NFL draft, specifically, this is especially true.

So, while we cannot skip years ahead to know for certain which players will ultimately exceed or fail to live up to expectations in the NFL, we can provide a much deeper dive into each team’s rookie class.

Therefore, in a 32-part series, will be providing a detailed breakdown of each of the NFL teams’ rookie hauls, following the original draft order. Each team will be evaluated on the quality, quantity and relative safety of their draft classes (including undrafted free agents), with specific players recognized as Best Player, Best Value and Best Project, culminating in one “final” grade.

Today’s team: Atlanta Falcons

Head Coach: Dan Quinn

General Manager: Thomas Dimitroff

Players selected in 2020:

Round 1, Pick 16 overall: CB A.J. Terrell, Clemson

Round 2, Pick 47 overall: DL Marlon Davidson, Auburn

Round 3, Pick 78 overall: C Matt Hennessy, Temple

Round 4, Pick 119 overall: LB Mykal Walker, Fresno State

Round 4, Pick 134 overall: S Jaylinn Hawkins, Cal

Round 7, Pick 228 overall: P Sterling Hofrichter, Syracuse

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Key Undrafted Free Agents:

TE Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt

OL Austin Capps, Arkansas

OT Hunter Atkinson, Georgia State

OL Scottie Dill, Memphis

LB Bryson Young, Oregon

CB Delrick Abrams, Colorado

Overview of the Falcons’ 2020 draft: Thomas Dimitroff and the Atlanta Falcons seem to approach the NFL draft each year with a different degree of focus than most. While many preach the idea of “Best Player Available,” the Falcons consistently address their most glaring holes in the roster with early picks. This was the case a year ago with the addition of offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round and it happened again this past spring with A.J. Terrell as a walk-in candidate to replace former first round cornerback Desmond Trufant, who, along with running back Devonta Freeman, was one of several notable Falcons to be released after last year’s disappointing 7-9 campaign. Terrell was a bit of a surprise in the top half of the first round, especially after a tough showing against LSU in the national championship game, but in terms of size, speed and experience against elite competition, the 6-1, 195 pounder with proven 4.42-second wheels ranked closer to fellow top 15 picks Jeff Okudah (6-1, 205, 4.48) and C.J. Henderson (6-1, 204, 4.39) than any of the other three cornerbacks (Damon Arnette, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeff Gladney) who were selected in the opening frame, each of who were at least a couple of inches shorter and/or a tenth of a second slower at the 2020 Combine. From a talent, scheme and personality perspective, alike, the Falcons found a fit in second rounder Marlon Davidson, who joins splashy free agent signing Dante Fowler, Jr. as a key upgrade upfront for a defense that was ravaged at times last year and elected to cut bait with Vic Beasley. Replacing key components on the offensive side of the ball was the strategy in the middle rounds with Dimitroff swinging a trade with the Baltimore Ravens to acquire 2018 first round tight end Hayden Hurst as an immediate replacement for Austin Hooper (another free agent defection) and the Falcons adding athleticism and youth to the interior of the offensive line with Temple’s Matt Hennessy. Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins plays with physicality that Dan Quinn requires from his safeties. Hawkins’ path to playing time may start on special teams with safety currently one of the Falcons’ deepest positions. Mycal Walker, similarly, could impress there with a chance at more playing time on defense, as well, for the nationally underrated prospect. Not every team is willing to allocate draft picks on specialists, even late ones, but with incumbent starting punter, Ryan Allen, in the last year of his deal, securing their favorite college punter of the draft in Syracuse’s Sterling Hofrichter made sense (and perhaps cents, as well).

Best Player of the Falcons’ 2020 Draft: CB A.J. Terrell

For the sake of transparency, Terrell ranked sixth among cornerbacks on my personal board and 46 overall. That said, in Quinn’s scheme – which places a higher priority on height, arm length and tackling at the position than some – Terrell should have ranked third in this class with a clear gulf between he and the similarly-built Okudah and Henderson and the rest of the so-called top tier of corners. I loved Terrell’s combination of size, fluidity and willingness to mix it up in the running game, comparing him to a young Xavier Rhodes when the eventual three-time Pro Bowler left Florida State early for his NFL jump back in 2013, landing with Minnesota at No. 25 overall. Terrell has elite potential, himself, which has been obvious since he was named the AAAAAAA Player of Year for the state of Georgia prior to the five-star recruit signing with Clemson and earning a starting role immediately for a team that won the national championship. Frankly, he is more gifted than the similarly-built 6-0, 201 pound Isaiah Oliver, who started all 16 games for the Falcons after being a second round pick in 2018. That kind of youth will certainly be tested by opposing quarterbacks and Falcons fans can expect some growing pains. Terrell’s talent is undeniable, however, and his path to playing time is unimpeded.

Best Value of the Falcons’ 2020 Draft: OL Matt Hennessy

As mentioned previously, former Auburn standout Marlon Davidson was a quality fit in the second round, but in terms of pure value, Hennessy was arguably the Falcons best choice of the 2020 draft. Now that is going to run counter to what some believe as they will point out that, like last year, Atlanta invested heavily on its offensive line already. Hennessy, almost exclusively a center at Temple, is not likely to challenge potential one-day Hall of Famer Alex Mack for a starting role in 2020. Mack, however, is 34 and entering the final phase of a five-year, $45 million contract. Further, what makes Hennessy such an intriguing blocker is his quickness and agility, traits which also lend well to left guard, where the Falcons currently feature physical bulldozers in veterans James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, stylistic opposites of the rookie. While not as strong as his new teammates, Hennessy is smoother in pass protection, showing the lateral agility, balance and awareness that Matt Ryan will certainly appreciate. The selection is in line with the commitment to athletic blockers Atlanta showed last year with the selections of Lindstrom and McGary.

Best Project of the Falcons’ 2020 Draft: LB Mychal Walker

While Falcons’ fans are likely quite familiar with the Georgia-native, Terrell, as well as splashy Senior Bowl standouts Davidson and Hennessy, Walker probably caught many by surprise. The 6-3, 230 pounder did not generate a lot of national buzz despite posting eye-popping numbers (183 tackles, 23 tackles for loss) in his two seasons against Mountain West Conference competition, after initially beginning his career at Division II Azusa-Pacific. He turned heads at the East-West Shrine Game with his range after rushing off the edge a lot for the Bulldogs, showing better-than-anticipated awareness, agility and straight-line speed (4.65 at the Combine) in coverage. Walker was effective, in limited duty, in this role at Fresno State, registering 11 passes defensed over the past two seasons with four interceptions dating back to his time at Azusa-Pacific, two of which he returned for scores. It goes without saying that Deion Jones is Atlanta’s top off-ball linebacker, but depth behind him at the traditional outside linebacker roles is scarce. Walker is facing a steep jump in competition but he handled that before and, like some of the other Falcons’ rookies, faces a relatively clear path towards playing time.

Overall Grade for the Falcons’ 2020 Draft: B-

Previous 2020 NFL Draft Report Cards: Cincinnati Bengals |Washington Redskins | Detroit Lions | New York Giants | Miami Dolphins | Los Angeles Chargers | Carolina Panthers | Arizona Cardinals | Jacksonville Jaguars | Cleveland Browns | New York Jets | Las Vegas Raiders | Indianapolis Colts | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Denver Broncos | Atlanta Falcons | Dallas Cowboys | Pittsburgh Steelers | Chicago Bears | Los Angeles Rams | Philadelphia Eagles | Buffalo Bills | New England Patriots | New Orleans Saints | Houston Texans | Minnesota Vikings | Seattle Seahawks | Baltimore Ravens | Green Bay Packers | Tennessee Titans | San Francisco 49ers | Kansas City Chiefs