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On the Clock: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons had a rough season to say the least -- their worst season record wise since 2013, when they also finished with a 4-12 record. This season also saw the Falcons make a number of personnel moves, and they brought in a new regime, headlined by new head coach Arthur Smith. The Falcons have a lot of work to do, but they still have a great foundation of offensive pieces with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. It’ll be interesting to see what direction Atlanta decides to take, especially with questions surrounding Ryan and a defense that was statistically the worst against the pass in 2020 (293.6 yards per game). Arthur Smith and company certainly have their work cut out for them. We’ll see what they are able to do in year one.

Here is some quick history. The following list includes the Falcons’ first-round selections in the past five drafts:

2020: A.J. Terrell (CB)

2019: Chris Lindstrom (G) & Kaleb McGary (OT)

2018: Calvin Ridley (WR)

2017: Takkarist McKinley (DE)

2016: Keanu Neal (S)

The Atlanta Falcons will be starting the 2021 NFL Draft with the fourth overall pick, their highest pick since the 2014 draft, when they held the sixth overall selection and took OT Jake Matthrews.

Currently, the Falcons are projected to be above the salary cap by about $23.22 million, which means they have a lot of work to do to get out of this territory and upgrade their roster. Currently, Atlanta ranks 29th in the NFL in cap space. Here are some potential players who could get cut or traded this offseason to help them free up more room (age in parentheses):

Ricardo Allen (29)

James Carpenter (31)

Allen Bailey (31)

The Falcons will need to upgrade their defense, particularly their pass rush, in order to get out of the basement in the NFC South. Here are four possible players the Falcons could take with the fourth pick in this year’s draft:

Possibility #1: Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye

2020 stats: 4 games, 16 total tackles, 12 solo tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks

Why: The number one priority for the Falcons this offseason should be upgrading a pass rush that only sacked opposing quarterbacks 29 times in 2020 (23rd in the NFL). Atlanta’s sack leader was middle linebacker Deion Jones with 4.5, while their sack leader on the defensive line was defensive tackle Grady Jarrett with 4.0. With a division that has very good quarterback play in the NFC South, it is of the utmost importance that the Falcons get some players on the defensive line that can get pressure on Tom Brady, Teddy Bridgewater and whoever starts for New Orleans next season. Part of the reason for the Falcons’ pass defense giving up so many yards was due to the inability of the defensive line to get home.

With Kwity Paye, the Falcons would be getting a very versatile player who can be an effective pass rusher on the interior as well as coming off of the edge. This is a guy who is a freak athlete and shows his intelligence on nearly every play he is involved in. He was very smart at the point of attack. At 6-4, 272 pounds, Paye has the size to be able to control the line of scrimmage, potentially making Atlanta much more effective in that aspect on defense.

Possibility #2: Penn State LB Micah Parsons

2019 stats: 13 games, 109 total tackles, 14.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, 5 PDs, 4 FFs

Why: Despite opting out in 2020, Parsons had previously shown a huge amount of growth from his freshman year to his sophomore season at Penn State. He was flying all over the field for the Nittany Lions, particularly in the 2019 Cotton Bowl against Memphis, where won the Defensive MVP award for that game. He is also somebody who is capable of dropping back into coverage and disrupting an offense’s rhythm. Parsons would inject a lot of energy into Atlanta’s defense while being a nice complementary piece to Deion Jones.

Atlanta desperately needs more speed on defense, and Parsons would give them just that. With the Falcons not having any cap space currently to make any big moves at the linebacker position in the offseason, Parsons would be a cheaper option with a lot of upside. Even with the former Nittany Lion not playing any football since the 2019 season, he is still somebody who can step in right away and make a difference on this defense.

Possibility #3: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain

2020 stats: 13 games, 37 total tackles, 22 solo tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 9 PDs, 1 INT, 1 TD

Why: It’s uncertain that Surtain will go this high, but it is certainly possible the Falcons could take him if they decide to trade down and pick up more draft capital to account for their cap space situation. As mentioned earlier, Atlanta’s pass defense was very poor throughout the 2020 season, and it was the main reason for many of their losses. Despite the fact that Atlanta drafted A.J. Terrell in last year’s draft, Surtain would give the Falcons a true number one corner who could step in immediately and be a shutdown corner.

Surtain has great size for a corner as he is currently listed at 6-2, 202 pounds. He really shined in the National Championship against Ohio State, as Chris Olave had one of his worst games of the season lining up against Surtain. He is a very physical corner who is not afraid of anybody on the opposing offense. Surtain is also somebody who can add to the Falcons’ already solid rush defense as he is not afraid to come up and make tackles in that department. He would take a lot of pressure off Terrell who had an up and down season in 2020.

Possibility #4: Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau

2019 stats: 13 games, 54 total tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 15.5 sacks, 1 PD, 2 FFs

Why: Rousseau is another possible target for Atlanta if they decide to trade down from the fourth spot. He had an incredibly strong 2019 season for Miami, compiling 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, making him somebody that people were excited to see paired up with Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips in 2020. Unfortunately for Miami, Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season, but he still has the tools to potentially be a great pick in this draft. He just has a lot of room to grow, but there is definitely a lot of potential there.

There is a clear pattern in these possibilities for Atlanta, and they are all about getting after opposing QBs. In an NFL that is dominated by players like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and other great quarterbacks, it will be essential for the Falcons to address this area to make sure they are not falling far behind. Just look at what the Buccaneers were able to do against Mahomes with a great pass rush in the Super Bowl. This is why Atlanta needs to get better there.

Player to Watch: BYU QB Zach Wilson

2020 stats: 12 games, 73.5% completion rate, 3,692 yards, 33 TDs, 3 INTs, 11.0 Y/A, 70 rushes, 254 yards, 10 TDs

Why: Unless Matt Ryan’s contract is restructured, it will be tough for the Falcons to justify picking a quarterback; however, assuming Justin Fields is off the board at this point, Zach Wilson would be the perfect heir to Ryan. At BYU, Wilson showed great dual-threat abilities along with being able to put passes in the perfect spots for his receiver. He made some throws that some NFL quarterbacks can’t even make.

Ryan has had an up-and-down past few seasons after winning the MVP award in 2016. If he does not improve and the Falcons figure out what to do with his contract, it is a likely possibility that the Falcons target a successor in this draft, especially with speculation being presented that there may only be one first-round QB in next year’s draft.

SEE ALSO: On the Clock archive

Sources: Over The Cap, Pro-Football-Reference, Sports-Reference, Spotrac