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Did GM Terry Fontenot 1st Falcons Draft Class Make the Grade?

Atlanta Falcons GM Terry Fontenot's first draft class doesn't finish among Pro Football Focus' top classes of 2021.

Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the top NFL Draft Classes of 2021, and the Falcons were nowhere to be found.

PFF 2021 NFL Draft Class Rankings:
1. Kansas City Chiefs
2. Denver Broncos
3. New England Patriots
4. Miami Dolphins
5. Detroit Lions
6. LA Chargers
7. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Cleveland Browns

The Falcons rebooted in 2021 with a new coach and general manager. Long-time New Orleans Saints executive Terry Fontenot took over as general manager for the fired Thomas Dimitroff in January of last year.

Fontenot resisted the urge to draft a quarterback of the future, fill a bigger need, or trade back for more picks when he selected Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick. That selection made Pitts the highest-selected tight end in draft history.

At the time, the pick didn’t make a lot of sense to some.

The Falcons had top receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, were in desperate need of offensive line help, had in Matt Ryan a soon to be 36-year old quarterback coming off a 4-12 season, and had more holes on defense than swiss cheese.

After the draft it was revealed that Jones wanted out of Atlanta, and maybe the Falcons brass had insight into Ridley’s situation that led him to walk away from the team after playing just five games.

In hindsight, Pitts or receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, made perfect sense. 

Chase helped the Bengals get the PFF No. 7 ranked draft class, but even an historic season from Kyle Pitts couldn’t elevate the rest of Fontenot’s class into the top eight.

Pitts was billed as the best player in the draft, a generational talent, a unicorn. 

If anything, he lived up to those lofty expectations despite seeing double- and triple-coverage much of the season with a lack of receiving options around him.

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Pitts set a team rookie record for receiving yards with 1,026 and fell just short of Mike Ditka’s 60-year old NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie tight end (1,076).

Pitts lived up to the hype, but the rest of the Falcons’ draft class didn’t match the production the teams in the top eight got outside of the first round.

Richie Grant was the second safety taken in the draft when the Falcons took him 40th overall in the second round. He didn’t start a game in 2021 and played just 25 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps.

Jalen Mayfield was selected with the fourth pick in the third round. The offensive lineman from Michigan started all 17 games for Atlanta, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Mayfield finished as PFF’s 79th rated guard out of 84 who got enough snaps to qualify.

Mayfield is still just 21, and he’s already started more games in the NFL than he did in his Wolverine career. The Falcons hope the trial by fire he experienced in 2021 will pay dividends as he matures and gains experience.

The Falcons got 16 starts combined from edge rusher Ade Ogundeji and Ta’Quon Graham, taken in the fifth and fourth rounds respectively. Like Mayfied, the Falcons probably hoped they didn’t have to start them.

Injuries and lack of production helped put Ogundeji and Graham on the field, but they combined for just 48 tackles and a single sack.

Cornerback Avery Williams was drafted as a return specialist. He showed promise there, but when he was pressed into duty as a cornerback, it was clear he was drafted as a return specialist.

The Falcons were forced to play a lot of rookies in 2021. Atlanta was able to increase their win total from four in 2020 to seven in 2021 despite getting worse in virtually every important statistical category.

Points scored, points allowed, point differential, turnover differential … all worse in 2021.

The Falcons have the No. 8 overall pick in April. Fontenot’s first draft class was a mixed bag after Year 1. If Atlanta is to improve in Year 2 and beyond, the team is going to need better results throughout the draft class than it got in 2021.