Mark Bradley: Would the Falcons take a tight end at No. 4?

Mark Bradley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Football

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the Falcons could leverage the No. 4 overall pick to move downward, draft-wise. They could indeed. They also could not. I believe that covers it.

Ha ha. That was yours truly making one of my always-hilarious jokes. Now I get serious and say: What the Falcons do at No. 4 will tell us what they expect from the next couple of years. If they retain and exercise it on a quarterback, they’re telling us they believe Matt Ryan needs replacing soon. If they trade the pick and use the accumulated capital to draft defenders, they’re telling us what we’ve known for most of this century. Namely, that this club remains in dire need of anyone capable of stopping someone.

But what if they keep the No. 4 selection and spend it on a tight end, meaning Kyle Pitts of Florida? At his Pro Day, Pitts offered hints that he might be the most gifted player in this class, Trevor Lawrence or no Trevor Lawrence. Add a great tight end to a mix that includes Julio Jones (taken No. 6 overall in 2011) and Calvin Ridley (No. 26 in 2018) and nobody should be stopping you.

Thing is, the Falcons have been better on offense than defense every season since Ryan arrived in 2008 save one, that being in 2010 when they were, going by yardage, 16th in both categories. It’s still an amazement that neither Mike Smith nor Dan Quinn, defensive men by trade, had much of a defense. Is Arthur Smith, who got this job off his fine work with the Titans’ offense and who’ll call plays here, inclined to emphasize his side of the ball, as it were, over the other?

Ryan will turn 36 in May. The most recent Super Bowl was won by a team with a 43-year-old at quarterback. (The previous Super Bowl was won by a 24-year-old.) Since leading the NFL in passer rating in 2016, his MVP season, Ryan has ranked among the top 10 in that category only one time in four. He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl over the past four years. If his numbers haven’t cratered, they’ve slipped from that peak.

Know who led the NFL in passer rating in 2019? Ryan Tannehill of Tennessee did, as tutored by A. Smith. We’ve written this before, but it’s entirely possible that the new coach has said to Terry Fontenot, the new general manager: “Give me two years with Matt Ryan before we worry about his replacement.” If that’s the case, there’s no reason to spend the No. 4 pick – and the millions that go with it – for a player who, assuming Ryan stays healthy, won’t see serious action until 2023, if then.


But would the Falcons dare to invest in a tight end at No. 4? If they stay put, the field should be clear for any non-quarterback on the board, given that the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers, holders of Picks 1-3, have indicated they’re in the QB market. No designated tight end has gone higher than No. 5 overall, unless you count Ron Kramer, taken No. 4 by Green Bay in 1957, though his position was listed simply as “end.” (He also played defensive end at Michigan. Those were the days.)

Having an All-Pro tight end has become a calling card of Super Bowl champs. Your past four champions and their TEs: Eagles, Zach Ertz; Patriots, Rob Gronkowski; Chiefs, Travis Kelce; Buccaneers, Gronk again. Let’s not forget George Kittle, whose 49ers lost to Kelce’s Chiefs. Now here’s Pitts, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper has anointed “my highest-graded tight end EVER.”

We have no idea how the Smith/Fontenot tandem will treat the draft, seeing as how neither has run one before. Would they see two/three defenders as a greater haul than one tight end, even if that tight end could become one of the best in the business? Would they dare to sink even more money into a payroll that skews to offense? (Most payrolls do, FYI.)

Would the arrival of Pitts reinvigorate Ryan, who still fits the definition of Franchise Quarterback? Was that the thought in redoing Ryan’s contract and moving the bigger salary-cap hit to next season? (This year’s is now $26.9 million; next year’s is $48.6 million.) That adjustment was an indication that the Falcons are in no hurry to move beyond Ryan, which leads us to the next question: Do they spend a No. 4 pick to strengthen a strength – Hayden Hurst isn’t awful – or to patch a flaw?

Thomas Dimitroff’s 13 years as GM were devoted to bolstering Ryan. That’s not a criticism: Every team builds around its quarterback. Under Smith/Fontenot, the Falcons might choose the same course, either by taking Oregon tackle Penei Sewell to block or Pitts to lend the Falcons a size/speed dimension not many teams have had. That would again put a defensive upgrade on the back burner, but Pitts just ran a 4.44 40. He’s a burner himself.

©2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.